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Aiming to succeed Elissa Slotkin, Curtis Hertel mirrors her pragmatic sensibilities

‘My career has been about working with anyone to get good things done for people,’ the former Michigan state senator and House candidate said

Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, a perennial battleground district centered around the state capital of Lansing, is shaping up to again be one of the most closely watched races in the nation. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), who currently holds the seat, is running for the Senate, but former state Sen. Curtis Hertel, the leading Democratic candidate to replace her, is following closely in her footsteps, casting himself in an interview with Jewish Insider as a pragmatic, moderate, pro-Israel Democrat.

Hertel is playing up his credentials as a bipartisan dealmaker, explaining to JI during a visit to Washington, D.C. last fall, that he is running for Congress because he’s “still optimistic” about getting things done through the political system in a time of increasing partisanship and division.

“My career has been about working with anyone to get good things done for people,” Hertel said during an in-person interview with JI at a coffee shop near the Capitol, emphasizing that he had a record of working with Republicans, Democrats and Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Average voters tell him, he continued, that they “want somebody normal. They want somebody that’s willing to listen and someone that is willing to work across the aisle and get things done.”

As of the end of September, Hertel led his expected Republican opponent, former state Sen. Tom Barrett, $744,000 to $485,000 in fundraising. His campaign said that he raised $550,000 in the fourth quarter of 2023 and entered the new year with $1 million on hand. Barrett ran against Slotkin in 2022, losing by five percentage points in one of the most expensive races in the country.

Despite Michingan’s emerging position as a hotspot for left-wing anti-Israel activism, Hertel told JI last week that he continues to stand behind Israel.

“Israel was attacked, they were attacked in a horrific way,” Hertel said. “We have a responsibility to stand with our allies when those kinds of things happen.”

He added that “I don’t think anybody wants war or the horrors that come with it” and thinks the U.S. should continue to engage with negotiations among the parties. But he said “calling for unilateral cease-fire does not make sense,” especially while Hamas continues to hold Israeli hostages and fire missiles toward Israel. 

Hertel also opposes placing additional conditions or restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel.

Hertel said he doesn’t have the information or expertise to evaluate whether he agrees with Slotkin’s view, expressed in a recent letter with fellow Democrats from national security backgrounds, that Israel’s military campaign has not been carefully targeted enough.

“The people of Gaza have a right to safety,” he said. “But in many ways, Hamas is the reason why they’re unsafe.”

The former state senator told JI that he’s not worried about potential political blowback from his pro-Israel stance, emphasizing, “You have to do what you think is right, and I think the politics figure themselves out.” Hertel’s district doesn’t contain a sizable Arab or Muslim population, which is concentrated elsewhere in the state, but students at Michigan State University in East Lansing have been a key constituency for Slotkin in the past.

Hertel also emphasized that he would continue to seek and have conversations with those who disagree with him.

“The conversations are the only things that ever solve anything in this world,” he said. “And so we have a responsibility to keep listening and keep having those conversations.”

Following the public diplomatic clash over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau’s comments rejecting a two-state solution, Hertel said he didn’t think he had enough information to evaluate Netanyahu’s comments, but said he’s an “optimist” who continues to support a two-state solution.

“If we’re going to police the other side, we have to police our side as well,” Hertel told JI in September. “One of the things that we’ve seen among Republicans is a lack of willingness to call out their own members when that happens. And so I think Dem[ocrat]s and Republicans — if you’re going to call out one side, you should call out both.”

“I think we all want a better world for Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “And I think the two-state solution and self determination is what gives that. So I’m going to continue to support that moving forward. And I’m going to believe in a world where it’s possible.”

Prior to Oct. 7, Hertel pledged that he’d stand up to fellow Democrats when they make antisemitic comments; Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who would be a fellow member of the Michigan delegation, has been repeatedly accused of antisemitism by her own Democratic colleagues.

“If we’re going to police the other side, we have to police our side as well,” Hertel told JI in September. “One of the things that we’ve seen among Republicans is a lack of willingness to call out their own members when that happens. And so I think Dem[ocrat]s and Republicans — if you’re going to call out one side, you should call out both.”

After Oct. 7, Hertel said that the “river to the sea” slogan Tlaib endorsed “has no place in our discourse.” But he told JI he would not have voted with 22 House Democrats in favor of censuring her.

“Everyone when they go to a college campus, or frankly anywhere in America has a right to be safe,” said Hertel. “It should be very simple that every human can say that that is wrong. And if you can’t say that’s wrong, if you can’t say calling for the extermination of people is wrong, then I think you’ve lost your way.”

“I don’t believe that censure should be used when we disagree with somebody,” Hertel explained. “I think she was wrong and I said it publicly, and I think that every Democrat has a responsibility to do that… I don’t think the censure was the right measure.”

Hertel expressed concern about spiking antisemitism, as well as increasing incidents of Islamophobia, since the Oct. 7 attack.

“Everyone when they go to a college campus, or frankly anywhere in America has a right to be safe,” said Hertel. “It should be very simple that every human can say that that is wrong. And if you can’t say that’s wrong, if you can’t say calling for the extermination of people is wrong, then I think you’ve lost your way.”

He described himself as “disturbed” by congressional testimony by college presidents, during which they said that calls for the genocide of Jewish people may not violate their campuses’ policies.

“The idea that only certain groups have protections from hate speech is wrong,” he continued. “The exact same rules should apply across the board.”

Hertel said that he shares Slotkin’s concerns about growing right-wing extremist activity in his district, emphasizing that extremism must be called out whether it comes from the right or the left.

Hertel told JI during his visit to Washington that this subject is “a place where my opponent and I are very, very different” — pointing to remarks by Barrett in 2022 deemphasizing the threat posed by extremists and arguing that Democrats are overstating the issue by painting all Republicans as extremists.

“To me, these are real crimes,” Hertel said. “Every person in America should have the ability to live with safety, they won’t be hated for who they are, they won’t be murdered or assaulted for who they are. That should be the basic level of what America is.”

Hertel said that right-wing extremists need to be called out and that there needs to be a “baseline of protections” against discrimination for all citizens, which involves “real consequences.”

The former state lawmaker told JI he supports the administration’s bombing campaign targeting the Houthis in Yemen, arguing that the U.S. has a responsibility to ensure that the shipping lanes in the Red Sea remain open and safe.

Prior to Oct. 7, Hertel told JI that he “worr[ied] a lot about a nuclear Iran,” and that preventing such an outcome “should be probably our top priority.”

He said he’s open to “whatever ends up preventing them from having a nuclear weapon.”

“Diplomacy is always good, and I think that should be our first goal in those situations, but if that doesn’t work, I think we have to consider all options,” he said.

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