With just over one week remaining until the closely watched special election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, prominent Democratic lawmakers are descending on the Cleveland area as the race that has come to represent a high-stakes showdown between moderates and progressives enters the final stretch.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) visited the district on Saturday, drumming up support for Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and staunch progressive who had been leading the Democratic primary field in recent months. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for whom Turner worked as a 2020 presidential campaign surrogate, is expected to make an appearance next weekend.
So, too, is Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the powerful House majority whip who will be campaigning for Shontel Brown, a Democratic Party establishment favorite and a Cuyahoga County party chair, before voters head to the polls on August 3. The South Carolina congressman, 81, endorsed Brown in late June, upping the ante of an election that is largely split along generational as well as ideological lines.
Brown had been trailing Turner before Clyburn backed her. “When I first got the frantic call, they told me she was polling at about 15, 20%,” the South Carolina congressman said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday. “If it means anything,” he recalled concluding, “it means I need to up my involvement, and so I think that’s why I did.”
Since then, Brown has been gaining momentum, with additional support from outside independent expenditures as well new endorsements from pro-Israel Democrats in Congress. Earlier this month, the influential political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus threw its support behind Brown, who, like Turner, is Black.
“I was pleased that they did,” Clyburn, who is a member of the CBC, remarked, while adding that he had no involvement in the endorsement process because he does not sit on the PAC’s board. “I didn’t play a role in it.”
Either way, Clyburn’s high-profile endorsement seems to have opened up a plausible path to victory for his preferred candidate in the final weeks of the race. A mid-July survey commissioned by Democratic Majority for Israel, which is backing Brown, put the Democratic congressional hopeful at 36% among likely voters, just five points behind Turner. An independent poll from early July, conducted by TargetPoint Consulting, had both candidates tied at 33%.
Clyburn, who is credited with clinching the nomination for President Joe Biden in last year’s presidential primaries, expressed optimism that his endorsement of Brown would have a similar impact. “I hope so,” he told JI. “I also hope that people know that she is a good person who would make a great congressperson.”
“I’ve always found her very pleasant to work with,” said Clyburn, adding that he had campaigned with Brown in previous races. “I’ve been involved with her for some time now,” he noted. “This is not my first involvement.”
The 15-term representative, who has locked horns with the far left over issues like defunding the police and Medicare for All, rejected calls that he stay out of the open-seat race to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), now secretary of housing and urban development in the Biden administration.
“I saw something the other day from one of Ms. Turner’s supporters saying I need to stay out of their district,” Clyburn told JI, referring to comments made by Juanita Brent, an Ohio state representative who is supporting Turner. “But the same person welcomed Bernie Sanders into the district. I want her to explain to me why — what’s the difference — why I cannot be — this Black guy who’s been coming in and out of that district for 25 or 30 years — since Arnold Pinkney ran Carl Stokes’s campaign?”
“She says to me I should stay out of the district and then she welcomes Bernie Sanders into the district,” Clyburn repeated. “Somebody’s got to explain that to me.”
Brent and the Turner campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
While Clyburn has emphasized that he simply favors Brown over Turner, other dynamics also appear to be at play as the race has taken something of a nasty turn in recent weeks. Last month, Turner appeared at a town hall at which the rapper Killer Mike described Clyburn as “stupid” for endorsing Biden last cycle.
“I think it’s incredibly stupid to not cut a deal before you get someone elected president and the only thing you get is a federal holiday and nothing tangible out of it,” the rapper said, referring to the newly adopted Juneteenth holiday.“You can talk about it,” Turner said, nodding in agreement.
Clyburn stepped into the race shortly after the event. “They called me dumb,” he said, taking the insult in stride. “I smiled and said, well, I was called dumb or stupid.”
Still, he couldn’t help offering his own sharply worded retort in the interview with JI. “I understand that Nina said, when I endorsed Joe Biden, she said I was going to be made to pay for that,” Clyburn said. “I’d like to know how I’m going to get paid.”
“I don’t know why it’s necessary for all this acrimony to exist,” Clyburn said. “Just be who you are and let other people do what they want to do. I just think it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make these kinds of inflammatory statements. I don’t do it.”
Clyburn demurred, however, when asked whether he envisioned collaborating with Turner if she wins the election. “That would be up to her,” he said. “I work very well with Bernie Sanders. I endorsed Joe Biden, and it didn’t stop me from working with Bernie Sanders. I do.”
The majority-Black 11th district is home to a sizable Jewish community, support from which has been building for Brown. The first-time congressional candidate is actively engaged in Jewish outreach, and has earned support from groups like the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Pro-Israel America and DMFI.
Brown’s views on Israel align with the mainstream Democratic wing of the party, while Turner argues in favor of conditioning aid to the Jewish state.
Clyburn said the candidates’ contrasting foreign policy approaches also factored into his endorsement. “I think Shontel would be a moderating voice,” the congressman said, in House disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have become increasingly contentious following May’s violent conflict in Gaza.
“My view when it comes to foreign aid is that no two requests are the same,” he said, “and I think that all requests ought to be based upon existing relationships as well as future consideration for whatever the relationship might be.”
“I think that this country and its allies have got to really be very, very careful in its national and international relationships,” Clyburn said. “This so-called rightward movement that seemed to be taking hold in this country is not limited to this country. We see this stuff popping up all around the world, and so the interest that we have in maintaining the forward movement in this country toward a more perfect union and in Israel to a peaceful and secure existence in the Middle East — these are interests that ought to be complementing each other and ought not to be competing against each other.”
“It’s important for us to make sure that we maintain those relationships politically and personally,” he added.
Clyburn characterized himself as a Truman Democrat. “It was Truman that recognized Israel, and he did so against some pretty forceful advice, just like he integrated the armed services against some pretty forceful advice,” he said.
“I grew up in a Christian parsonage, and my father was a fundamentalist minister,” Clyburn said. “I tell people all the time, my dad preached as much, let’s say as often, from the Old Testament as he did from the New Testament, and I grew up with a healthy respect for the Jewish faith.”
The congressman had yet to see a finalized campaign schedule when he spoke with JI. But he said his plans for the upcoming weekend in Cleveland include meeting with faith leaders as well as Black fraternities and sororities in the district. He was also tailoring his schedule, he said, to accommodate Jewish community members and Seventh-day Adventists who observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.
“I’m very sensitive about that,” he noted.
Josh Mandel fundraiser next week to feature high-profile roster
Josh Mandel, a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, is holding a high-profile virtual fundraising event on Monday alongside several pro-Israel heavyweights including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, billed as a “special guest” on the invitation for the May 10 event.
Elan Carr, the Trump administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, who is one of 15 hosts, shared the invite in a Wednesday morning tweet. “Amb. Friedman and I, with leaders from across the country, are proud to support front-running US Senate candidate Josh Mandel,” Carr wrote. “48th Treasurer of Ohio, US Marine, Iraq War veteran, and my good friend, Josh is a true patriot and great leader for our country.”
Other hosts include Sandy Perl, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Chicago; Jon Diamond, president of Safe Auto Insurance in Columbus; former AIPAC President Howard Friedman; Michael Tuchin, a partner at KTBS Law LLP in Los Angeles; author and businessman Seth “Yossi” Siegel; and Phil Rosen, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York.
The fundraiser suggests that Mandel is likely to receive some significant support from prominent members of the pro-Israel community as he struggles to gain traction in the crowded field of candidates vying to succeed outgoing moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH). Former GOP state party chair Jane Timken, tech executive Bernie Moreno and businessman Mike Gibbons have entered the race in recent months, and more are expected to join as election season heats up.
“Josh is a proud American, Marine, Jew and Zionist,” Scott Guthrie, a spokesman for Mandel, told Jewish Insider on Wednesday when asked about the upcoming benefit. “He is grateful to have the support of so many American patriots who have fought for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. He also feels blessed to have evangelical Christian Zionists across Ohio supporting his campaign for U.S. Senate.”
Still, Mandel appears to have had some trouble courting contributors, despite early favorable polling from the conservative Club for Growth, which endorsed him. Recent filings from the Federal Election Commission revealed that Mandel’s campaign lost money in the first quarter of the year. In April, sources told Axios, Mandel crashed a Palm Beach donor retreat hosted by the Republican National Committee, but was escorted from the event because his name was not on the invitation list.
Mandel has emerged as a polarizing figure as he seeks to channel former President Donald Trump, who remains popular among Republican voters in Ohio and has yet to make an endorsement in the race. In March, Mandel’s Twitter account was briefly suspended after he posted an inflammatory poll asking whether “Muslim Terrorists” or “Mexican Gangbangers” would be “more likely to commit crimes.”
The tweet drew widespread condemnation, including from a Jewish community member in Columbus who, in a Cleveland.com guest column, castigated Mandel’s “reprehensible rhetoric” as “no different than the way people used to talk about Jews.”
Recently, Mandel has somewhat softened his rhetoric, presenting himself as a more traditionally conservative man of faith in his first TV ad, released at the end of March during Passover.
“This time of year we celebrate that God is always in control,” Mandel said in the 30-second spot over soft piano accompaniment. “I’m Josh Mandel, and I personally know that’s true. You see, my grandma was saved from the Nazis by a network of courageous Christians who risked their lives to save hers. Without their faith, I’m not here today.”
“I’m Josh Mandel and I approve this message, because in dark times like this past year, faith is our brightest light,” he concluded.
Mandel ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2012. He mounted a second challenge in 2018 but withdrew from the race. From 2011 to 2019, he served as Ohio’s state treasurer, overseeing record investments in Israeli bonds.
In a February interview with JI, shortly after he announced his candidacy, Mandel emphasized a deep personal connection with the Jewish state.
“I’m raising my three kids to be proud Americans, proud Jews and proud Zionists,” he said, adding: “I’m also proud to have many cousins who live throughout Judea and Samaria, and I believe that Jews have the biblical right to live, build and prosper in every corner of Judea, Samaria and the entirety of Israel.”
Nita Lowey looks back on more than 30 years in Congress
In November 1988, a 51-year-old upstart Democratic candidate named Nita Lowey overcame the odds to defeat two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Joseph J. DioGuardi in a nail-biter of a congressional election. Lowey’s upset, all those years ago, feels reminiscent of the current political moment, as establishment players face stiff competition from progressives.
Last August, Lowey got a taste of that dynamic when Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old attorney, announced he would challenge Lowey in the Democratic primary. Two months later, Lowey declared that she would not seek re-election. The congresswoman has said she made her decision independent of Jones, who is now poised to succeed her. But the timing may have been significant: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who serves in a neighboring district and entered Congress in Lowey’s class, appears to have fallen to a left-leaning challenger in the June 23 primary.
Lowey, for her part, is sanguine about the recent primary election in her own district, the results of which have not yet been officially called. “Whoever wins, I wish them well,” she told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “I just would hope that they would continue a legacy that, to me, is very important: helping people.”
As she prepares to retire at the end of her term, Lowey, 83, reflected on her decades-long run serving the northern suburbs of New York City.
“It’s been an extraordinary opportunity for me,” said the congresswoman, who represents the 17th congressional district, which includes portions of Westchester and all of Rockland County.
That is, of course, an understatement. Throughout her 32 years in office, Lowey has established herself as a formidable presence in Washington, having ascended to the upper ranks of the House Appropriations Committee, which she now chairs along with its subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
“She was a powerhouse,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist who worked for Lowey in the early 1990s as her chief of staff and press secretary and in the early 2000s when she served as the first chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I learned an enormous amount from her — about how she operated, how she built coalitions, how she was able to work with people from both sides of the aisle, how she used her charisma and her energy and enthusiasm.”
“She wanted to make a difference,” Wolfson added. “She was there to legislate.”
In her conversation with JI, Lowey rattled off a number of achievements, such as her advocacy on behalf of public television, abortion rights, food allergy labeling, gender equity in preclinical research and environmental protections for the Long Island Sound.
Her work advocating for pro-Israel causes, she said, is a part of her legacy she views as particularly important. “The work that I’ve done regarding the Israel-United States relationship almost makes me feel as [though] I’m carrying on l’dor v’dor, the tradition,” said the Bronx-born Lowey, who is Jewish and has long felt a kinship with Israel.
“I think it’s very important to continue that relationship,” said Lowey, adding her concern that partisan politics have, more recently, interfered with bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
Lowey recalled the time in 2015 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who she refers to using his nickname, Bibi — appeared before Congress to deliver a controversial speech that was highly critical of former President Barack Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal.
“I called Bibi on the phone and I said, ‘Your coming here without a bipartisan invitation is a mistake,’” she said. “‘I will make sure that you get another invitation, but please, you’ve got to keep Israel a bipartisan issue.’ He came anyway. He didn’t listen to me.”
The congresswoman is also worried about possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, which Netanyahu has said could happen as soon as this month. “I have many concerns about the annexation,” she said. “This expansion would put an end to a two-state solution, in my judgement.”
Still, Lowey spoke affectionately of Netanyahu, whom she has known for decades. Earlier this year, she traveled to Israel as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“It was a very emotional — a very emotional time — for me,” said Lowey, who remembers chatting with the prime minister about her first trip to Israel as a member of Congress, during which they rode a helicopter together around the country. “It was just the two of us,” she remembered, “flying over and understanding what this issue was all about.”
Constituents in Lowey’s district, which includes a sizable Jewish population, are more than grateful for her commitment to their needs.
“She’s always available, which is always so special,” said Elliot Forchheimer, CEO of the Westchester Jewish Council. “People appreciated being able to hear from her and being able to have a quick conversation with her, which she would take back to her office and down to Washington as needed.”
Debra Weiner, who is active in the Westchester Jewish community, said Lowey’s voice will be “sorely missed” after she steps down. “A big hole will be left both in our Westchester community here and certainly representing us in the United States Congress.”
“Many of us felt that she was very much one of us,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, recalling that Lowey would wear a Lion of Judah pin indicating her annual support for the United Jewish Appeal.
Lowey’s decision to work on the foreign operations subcommittee, Miller added, made her their “go-to person.” Miller also noted that Lowey had helped procure federal security funding for nonprofit religious organizations as the country saw an uptick in incidents of antisemitic violence.
“We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Miller said.
Jackie Shaw, executive director of the Interfaith Council For Action in Ossining, was equally appreciative of Lowey’s service.
“Through Nita Lowey’s hard work and dedication to underserved communities, IFCA was able to receive funding to address critical housing needs,” Shaw said in an email. “With these funds, IFCA was able to continue its mission of providing safe, quality affordable housing. Nita’s leadership will be sorely missed.”
In a statement, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), echoed that sentiment. Lowey’s “career is marked by her fierce advocacy for working families and steadfast desire to give underrepresented communities a seat at the table,” she said, adding, “I will miss seeing her in the halls of Congress.”
Lowey looks back on her tenure in Congress with a strong sense of accomplishment, but pointed out that nothing came without a fight.
“I was one of a small group of women when I got to Congress,” the 16-term congresswoman said. The number of female representatives who now serve in the House, Lowey told JI, gives her faith that the country will be well-served as she prepares to retire. “They come to me and want to learn from me, but I’m continuing to learn from them as I try to help them adjust to this important responsibility.”
More broadly, Lowey emphasized the work she has done since 1989 for constituents in need. “I’m very proud of all the casework we’ve done just helping people,” she told JI. “There are so many thousands of people who have benefited because of the great casework we do in my district office.”
Not that she has any plans of becoming complacent in her final six months in office.
Rabbi Steven Kane, who works at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, said he spoke with Lowey just last week about a $100,000 grant his synagogue had received for security upgrades. Though Lowey is in her final term, Kane marveled at the fact that she had made the decision to personally inform him of the grant.
“We were very fortunate to have her,” he said.
Lowey has also been working to pass the bipartisan Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which, she said, creates joint economic ventures between Israelis and Palestinians as well as “people-to-people” programs — all with the intention of encouraging a “strong foundation,” as Lowey put it, for a two-state solution.
The act, she seemed to suggest, would be one of the crowning achievements of her legacy. “I want to get all these things done before I leave,” she said. “So I’m working very hard.”