Alex Lasry’s full-court press for the U. S. Senate
By all accounts, Alex Lasry was instrumental in convincing the Democratic National Convention to pick Milwaukee as its host city in 2020. But as he embarks on his first bid for the U.S. Senate, Lasry, senior vice president of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, is now assuming the more challenging task of selling himself to voters across Wisconsin — a pivotal swing state that went for Trump in 2016 but helped President Joe Biden claim the presidency in November.
Lasry, who announced his candidacy in mid-February, is hoping he can ride that momentum into 2022. He is planning to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who has not yet indicated whether he will seek a third term. Though he is launching his first campaign for public office, Lasry, 33, enters the field with deep ties in Democratic politics. The New York native recently served as finance chair of the DNC’s host committee and previously worked in the Obama White House as an aide to senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. It doesn’t hurt that his father, Marc Lasry, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Bucks co-owner, is a prominent Democratic bundler.
In an interview with Jewish Insider late last week, Lasry downplayed his family’s wealth and connections, claiming that his candidacy would be built from the bottom up. “I’m not going to self-fund, but I will invest,” he claimed. “The most important thing that we’re trying to do is we’re going to build a grassroots campaign.”
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Insider: Why are you running for Senate now?
Alex Lasry: I think what we need is a change. For the last 10 years, we’ve had a senator who’s had no interest in representing the people of Wisconsin, but has rather been peddling in conspiracy theories and lies. So what I think we need is someone who’s going to think differently, bring a fresh perspective and who also has a record of getting things done. You know, we’re not just talking about a $15 minimum wage; we’re paying it in our arena. We’re not just talking about creating union jobs; we’ve created thousands of them. And we’re not just talking about racial and social justice; we’ve actually been on the front lines doing things like the Equity League that helps give access to capital for minority-owned venture funds.
JI: What’s your campaign strategy?
Lasry: The way we’re going to differentiate ourselves — and I think the way we have — is by giving a fresh perspective, coming up with some new ideas, and a record of results across the state. You’ve seen it already, our early support that we’ve got across the state of Wisconsin with people that I’ve worked with on getting things done — they know that I can go to Washington and make sure that I’m representing and being a voice for the people of Wisconsin.
JI: You moved to Milwaukee from New York about seven years ago. Do you feel like you’ve spent enough time in Wisconsin to understand the most pressing issues in the state and, moreover, garner widespread support there?
Lasry: Look, Wisconsin’s a place that I’ve made my home. I’ve chosen to make this my home. It’s where my wife and I are starting our family. Our daughter is going to be born and raised here. There’s no one denying my love for Milwaukee and Wisconsin. What we’ve been able to do with the Bucks and then also with the DNC convention was really travel the state. One of our biggest things was making sure that the Bucks was a statewide brand and that as we were passing the arena deal that we talked to the entire state about how that was going to work. And then, especially with the convention, traveling around the state to ensure that people knew and talked about how great this was going to be for not just Milwaukee, but all of Wisconsin.
But I think the most important thing we’re going to be doing in this campaign is making sure that we’re going to places that have been neglected not just by Democrats, but Republicans as well. Our first two virtual campaign stops were in [rural] Rusk County and Barron County, where we were talking to people about real issues, like how are we going to create access to broadband across the state, how are we going to make sure that we’re bringing more healthcare facilities across the state, how are we going to raise wages and bring jobs and investment back to Wisconsin? Those are the issues that voters are talking about.
JI: Have you developed a good rapport with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) during your time living in Milwaukee?
Lasry: Tammy and I get along great. What’s made her so special, I think, is her ability to actually effect change and be a voice for people who feel like government’s not working for them.
JI: Are there any senators, Democrats or Republicans, you regard as potential allies?
Lasry: Obviously, Tammy Baldwin is someone that I think is one of our best senators. People like Sherrod Brown [D-OH], Tammy Duckworth [D-IL]. There are a number of senators, and that’s just to name a few. I’m willing to work with anyone who wants to work on issues that are going to benefit Wisconsin.
JI: Do you take any inspiration from Jon Ossoff’s recent Senate campaign? Like you, he was a young, Jewish Senate candidate running in a swing state.
Lasry: I haven’t spoken to Senator Ossoff. But I very much admired his campaign and thought that he ran a campaign that, I think, appealed to and was inspiring not only a lot of young people but to a broad, diverse coalition. He ran a great race, and hopefully, that’s one that we can emulate.
JI: Can you talk about some of your previous experience beyond the Bucks that will help inform your approach to this campaign and, if you’re elected, to governing?
Lasry: I worked in the Obama White House as an aide to [senior advisor] Valerie Jarrett for the first two years of the administration. It gave me a sense of how Washington works but also, I think, a sense of what we can do differently. When I look at my experience there and couple it with my experience with the Bucks and bringing the convention here, I think there’s a broad experience of knowing how the system works but also knowing how to bring people together to achieve results.
JI: What’s your fundraising strategy? Your father is a well-known bundler for the Democratic Party. Will he be helping you out at all? And are you planning to self-fund?
Lasry: I’m not going to self-fund, but I will invest. But the most important thing that we’re trying to do is we’re going to build a grassroots campaign. The best campaigns that I’ve seen, and the ones that have been the most successful, are ones that are built from the bottom up. When you’re able to bring a broad coalition of people together, whether they’re giving $1, $5 or their time, that’s how you build the strongest campaign. That being said, we’re going to make sure we have the resources to compete. Republicans are going to throw everything they can at this race. This is one of the most, if not the most, important races in the country in 2022.
JI: In late January you were on the receiving end of some negative press for being vaccinated even before the governor of Wisconsin was able to get the shot. What did you make of that blowback?
Lasry: As I said, my wife got a call, and there were extra doses, and we made a decision in the moment to follow state guidelines and what medical ethicists and doctors have all said, which is we can’t let any doses go to waste — and made a call in the moment to protect my daughter and my family and make sure, most importantly, that no doses go to waste. But I think the most important thing that we need to think about, again, is, with Ron Johnson, that’s a vote against money to expand production and ensure that we’re able to get past this pandemic. And I think that’s one of the most dangerous things.
JI: You were involved in some of the protests against the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha over the summer, when the Bucks sat out a playoff game in protest. Can you talk about that period and describe any lessons you drew from it?
Lasry: The fight for racial and social justice and equality is one of the central tenets of this campaign. It was in our launch video, and it’s something we need to make sure that we’re solving. What we saw this summer was, this was a really difficult time in our history, and it bubbled up, I think, a lot of things that we’ve known to be at stake, and that now we’re hopefully finally able to start working towards solving. This is one of the things that I’ve been most proud about in my work with the Bucks, our work on racial justice. And not just this summer, but over the last six, seven years, our work on racial and social justice has been a central tenet of our Bucks community efforts, and it’s also now going to be a central tenet of my campaign. What gave me hope, though, was when we saw the protests and all the people in the streets and all the people who are working on this issue — it’s Black, white, people of all colors, ages, races coming together to talk about and protest and demand change. That’s something that I’m going to make sure that that I’m not just fighting for but actually getting results on.
Lasry: When you look at the video, it’s pretty clear what happened. This was a shooting of an unarmed African American, something that’s been happening all too often in this country. So I was disappointed. I was very disappointed in that ruling. But what we’re going to continue to do is fight to make sure that this type of stuff doesn’t happen again, and if there is another unfortunate incident, that consequences are going to take place.
JI: Let’s pivot to foreign policy. Have you been to Israel?
Lasry: A number of times. Most recently, I did a Basketball Without Borders [trip] with the NBA, where they sent a delegation to Israel to tour the country, meet with government officials and businesses. Every time I go to Israel, it’s a powerful and very emotional time. Israel is a place that is dear to my heart, especially growing up fairly religious. It’s going to the Wailing Wall and everything, especially being in Jerusalem and visiting Yad Vashem. It’s just a really incredible place — and a great place to feel that history and really feel my Judaism.
JI: Do you hope to play any active role in the peace process over there if you’re elected?
Lasry: I would definitely hope to make sure that we are encouraging the Biden administration to figure out a two-state solution — and make sure that everyone is recognizing Israel’s right to exist and that Israel is protected and able to defend itself. We have to be one of Israel’s strongest allies. So I will definitely be a strong supporter and proponent of Israel in encouraging and pushing to ensure that we’re able to create a peace process.
JI: What’s your stance on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? Do you believe it is antisemitic, as some critics have alleged?
Lasry: I definitely think that movement is based on, and has a lot of ties to, antisemitism. It’s not something that I’m for. When I hear that, it does worry me. Israel is one of our strongest allies. We need to be able to talk to them and tell them when they’re doing stuff wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we’re punishing Israel or that we’re pulling funding or anything like that. What we need to make sure we’re doing is using our leadership to, hopefully, move Israel in a better direction if we think they are going off course, but also understanding that they’re a strong ally, and we can never desert them.
JI: What are your thoughts on the Abraham Accords? Do you think the normalization agreements between Israel and Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco represented a significant foreign policy achievement for the Trump administration?
Lasry: I do think that some of these normalization deals, like the one with Morocco, are ones that we need to continue to pursue. We need to make sure that we’re encouraging all of Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist and be part of the international community, because that is, I think, our best way to a safer and more prosperous Middle East. And so that is something that I think the Biden administration is going to continue to pursue.
JI: You mentioned Morocco. Do you have any special connection with the country because your father was born there?
Lasry: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been back a few times. We visited my dad’s home there and I’ve been able to walk around the Jewish quarter and see the country. So I thought it was really great to see Israel and Morocco be able to form that kind of deal. There was definitely a nice little personal link with my Judaism and my Jewish heritage and my father’s home country.
JI: One aspect of that deal was that the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in defiance of the U.N. line. What is your take on that?
Lasry: I’m against that. I think that that kind of side deal is not something that — it goes against what the U.N. said, and I think that’s not something that we should have been recognizing.
Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris in the Senate
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla will serve out the final two years of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Senate term, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday.
Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a brief career in aerospace, he entered politics, winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1999 at age 26. Two years later, he became the body’s first Latino leader and youngest president. He subsequently served in the California State Senate from 2006 to 2014, and was elected secretary of state in 2014.
“I think it’s an excellent choice,” Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, told Jewish Insider. “He’s very smart. He’s an adult, in a world of political figures that are increasingly falling short of adulthood. He’s a progressive who believes in paying his bills. He’s a center left person.”
“I think he will become an instant player in the Senate and increasingly on the national scene,” Yaroslavsky added.
Padilla has a “very close relationship” with California’s Jewish community, Yaroslavsky noted. He has visited Israel at least twice, Richard Hirschhaut, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, told JI.
“I know just in speaking with friends and colleagues that he has had a particular affinity and fondness for the State of Israel,” Hirschhaut said, recounting that Padilla visited the Israeli consulate in 2016 to pay his respects after the death of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. “I think it spoke volumes of his genuine affection for the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”
California Assembly Majority Whip Jesse Gabriel, the newly elected chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, described Padilla as a “good friend and ally to our community” and said that Jewish and pro-Israel leaders became excited when it became public that Padilla was under consideration to replace Harris.
“There’s a lot of warmth and affection for him in our community,” Gabriel said. “Alex Padilla is a huge mensch. I think that as more and more folks in the national Jewish community get to meet him and interact with him and work with him on issues important to our community, I think more people are going to share that assessment.”
Padilla, who will be the first Latino senator to represent the Golden State in the Senate, has long been seen as a top candidate for the seat. Gabriel said the announcement did not surprise him.
According to Sam Lauter, a California political consultant and longtime Newsom associate, the governor’s choice was likely influenced by his strong relationship with Padilla, as well as a desire to recognize the state’s Latino community — which makes up 40% of the state population — and Padilla’s track record in office.
The pick also gave Newsom the opportunity to select a secretary of state to replace Padilla, Lauter added. Newsom announced Tuesday night that he chose Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the first Black woman to ever hold the position.
Some California Democrats have expressed concerns about Newsom’s decision to replace the only Black woman in the Senate with a non-Black man. A significant lobbying campaign had emerged in the weeks prior to the announcement for Newsom to appoint either Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) or Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), both Black women, to the seat.
Yaroslavsky argued that, given the large Latino population in the state, it would have been “unthinkable not to select a member of that community to represent the state of California.”
Lauter noted that, given the wide field of potential candidates, many of whom had strong qualifications, “no matter what, he was going to pick someone that disappointed an important community.” He said that there were concerted lobbying campaigns not only from the Black community, but also the Latino and Asian-American communities.
“The governor was in a tough situation because there are a lot of different perspectives, obviously, in a state with 40 million people in a lot of different communities. Different folks from different ethnic [groups] and communities who wanted to see themselves represented in the Senate,” Gabriel concurred. “But there’s broad consensus that Secretary Padilla was the leading candidate and very well qualified.”
“For a lot of people this is a really strong choice,” Gabriel added. “Even though there are folks who are disappointed, I think there’s a lot more folks who are excited by the pick.”
Padilla will face California voters in 2022 to secure a full six-year term in the Senate, though he is likely to encounter some resistance from warring factions within the Democratic Party.
But observers say he has a strong shot at maintaining the seat, particularly given his previous statewide electoral victories.
Gabriel said he expects Padilla to “cruise” to reelection in two years.
Lauter was less sanguine, emphasizing that Padilla will certainly face challengers, some of whom have a “significant head start” in terms of fundraising and organizing for a potential Senate run.
He acknowledged however, that it is “longshot” that Padilla would lose, even if he does face a difficult race.
There has also been speculation that Newsom could end up naming a replacement to succeed California’s other senator, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — who is 87 years old and is facing questions about her health and memory — should she choose to step down before her term ends in 2024. Should that position open up, Newsom will once again have a wide field to choose from.
Can Dan Sullivan hang on in the tightening Alaska Senate race?
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spent a good portion of the five-week August Senate recess driving through Alaska and meeting with voters in an effort to boost his profile ahead of his November reelection battle. “I’ve been getting out with my wife,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider as he drove north from Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley on a recent September afternoon.
“We’ve covered well over 1,000 miles in my truck,” added Sullivan, estimating that he had interacted with approximately 2,000 voters at outdoor campaign events and rallies during his peregrinations through Alaska. “We were all over the state.”
The Republican senator is well aware that he needs to work hard to defend his seat this cycle. In 2014, the first-time candidate narrowly defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Begich, by just three points.
Now, the roles have been reversed as Sullivan prepares to go up against a formidable challenger, Al Gross, an independent allied with Democratic Party leaders who has picked up traction in the state.
Though polls from June and July suggested that Sullivan, 55, was comfortably ahead of Gross, recent numbers have indicated that the race may be tightening. A Public Policy Polling survey, conducted in late August, found that Sullivan and Gross — both of whom have raked in millions of dollars in campaign donations — were tied with 43% of the vote.
The race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks as the two candidates have traded barbs in an ongoing series of attack ads. A possible Supreme Court nomination and an in-state mining scandal have added to the high stakes in a contest that is drawing national media attention as well as significant outside spending.
Gross has run a strong campaign, experts say, casting himself as a political outsider in a state that favors them. The 57-year-old Jewish doctor has sought to play up his background as a commercial fisherman and gold prospector. Gross, who was born and raised in Alaska, is also an outsider of another sort: He was the first to have a bar mitzvah in the state’s southeastern portion. (His parents flew in a rabbi for the ceremony.)
But despite his status as an independent, the playing field is still unfavorable to Gross in historically red Alaska, whose top elected officials are currently all Republicans.
Gross’s odds further decreased last week when the Alaska Supreme Court rejected an appeal to reprint ballots to include candidates’ party affiliations and not only list how they got elected — meaning Gross, who ran in the Democratic primary, will likely be identified as a Democratic nominee rather than as an independent, which could diminish his prospects at the polls.
“Gross is fighting well and will likely capture a portion of the vote, but I have yet to see a key indicator that he is likely to win,” Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told JI. “Sullivan just hasn’t had any large missteps that would turn his base against him or cause new folks to vote for him rather than his competition.”
Sullivan remains confident that he can win over voters, accusing his opponent of hoodwinking Alaskans by not adhering to any party affiliation as he campaigns for office.
“He’s telling people he’s an independent, but then he’s caught on a national fundraiser telling people that he’s going to caucus with the Democrats,” Sullivan scoffed, implying that Gross was only running as an independent because it was politically expedient. “His values are to the left.”
In the interview with JI, Sullivan took aim at his opponent’s healthcare proposals — Gross supports a public option for Medicare — but reserved his harshest criticism for Gross’s foreign policy views, particularly on Iran.
Gross opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement and believes the United States should be brought back into compliance with the deal.
“I saw my opponent said he thought it was bad that we pulled out,” Sullivan said, alluding to a June interview with JI in which Gross expressed his disapproval of Trump’s abandonment of the deal. “I couldn’t disagree more.”
Sullivan declared that one of the primary reasons he decided to run for Senate in 2014 was because he so strongly disapproved of former President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran.
“The appeasement that was going on with regard to Iran was shocking, it was dangerous, and it was something that I thought was not only bad for America but very bad for our most important ally in the Middle East — and that’s Israel,” Sullivan told JI.
Sullivan, who has not travelled to Israel during his time as a senator, touts his record when it comes to the Jewish state. He is, along with the majority of Senate members, a co-sponsor of a proposed bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would give states permission to require that companies pledge not to boycott Israel. Sullivan said he signed on to the bill because he regards the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as part of a rising tide of antisemitism in the U.S.
“Part of the reason I was one of the original cosponsors of that was to show that, at least from the Congress’s perspective, we don’t find that acceptable,” he said, adding his disagreement that the act would infringe on free-speech rights. “I think it’s important to send a signal from the Congress of the United States that those movements on boycotting Israel are completely unacceptable.”
The first-term senator previously worked as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and as Alaska’s attorney general. Before that, the Ohio-born Republican served as an assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Sullivan, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, is now a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.
“When I got to the Senate, I didn’t need to be educated on the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” Sullivan said. “I also certainly didn’t need to be educated on the threat that the terrorist regime in Tehran posed to Israel and posed to the United States.”
His experience in the State Department, where he worked from 2006 to 2009, molded his view of international relations and diplomacy.
During that time, he told JI, he helped push for Israel’s inclusion in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and traveled the globe as part of an effort to convince America’s allies, including France, Germany, Norway and Japan, to divest from the Iranian oil and gas sector.
Sullivan commended Trump’s actions with regard to Iran, singling out his decision to assassinate Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom the senator regarded as a grave threat to the security of American troops in the Middle East.
“As soon as I got to the Senate, I started giving speeches about this guy Soleimani,” Sullivan said. “I’ve talked to the president numerous times about him. I’ve talked to the senior military. What the United States did with regard to the strike against Soleimani is that we reestablished deterrence,” Sullivan added. “This is really hard.”
Sullivan believes Trump’s tough posture toward Iran has helped the United States in brokering recent agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
“Most of this, of course, is driven by the recognition that the biggest threat in the region, whether it’s to Israel, or to Saudi Arabia, or to the UAE, is Iran,” Sullivan said. “The Trump administration has been very steady and focused on this in a way that has dramatically shifted the narrative,” he told JI, “in a way that, I think, takes advantage of the changing circumstances on the ground in a really important way.”
Sullivan added his concern that Trump’s diplomatic achievements would be in jeopardy if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — who has said he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal — is elected in November. “He would be undermining this progress,” Sullivan said.
“This is what is at stake with regard to this election,” the senator concluded.
Sullivan can at least remain hopeful that he will hold onto his seat even if Trump isn’t reelected, though he told JI that he is operating on the assumption that he needs to run an aggressive campaign nonetheless.
“Alaska, from my perspective, is a lot more purple than red,” Sullivan said.
Ivan Moore, a veteran pollster who runs Alaska Survey Research in Anchorage, agreed with Sullivan’s appraisal of the state’s political makeup.
“I think he’s still the favorite, but there is the potential for an upset,” said Moore, adding that the state has been trending purple in recent years as young transplants who aren’t interested in working in the energy sector move to the state.
While Sullivan appears somewhat vulnerable this cycle, Moore predicted that he would hold onto his seat. But whether that will be the case six years from now remains to be seen.
“The days when a Republican could run a weak campaign, not really pay much attention to it and still win by 10 or 15 points,” Moore told JI, “are kind of a thing of the past.”
David Perdue and Jon Ossoff address antisemitism ahead of close election
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) has strong words against antisemitism.
“Antisemitism has no place in society, period,” he told Jewish Insider in a candidate questionnaire. “It’s horrifying any time you see hate perpetrated against Jewish people in the United States or anywhere around the world.”
Despite his emphatic beliefs, Perdue’s opponent in Georgia’s upcoming Senate election, former journalist Jon Ossoff — who is Jewish — has argued that Perdue himself has recently perpetrated antisemitic hatred.
In late July, Perdue’s campaign tactics came under scrutiny when the first-term Republican senator published a Facebook ad that enlarged Ossoff’s nose — a classic antisemitic stereotype. A spokesman for Perdue told TheForward, which first reported on the image, that the edit was “accidental” and the ad would be removed from the site.
But Ossoff wasn’t buying it. “This is the oldest, most obvious, least original antisemitic trope in history,” the 33-year-old Democratic candidate wrote in a Twitter statement when the ad was publicized by national media outlets. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses.”
Perdue did not mention the ad in his responses to the JI questionnaire, which includes a question asking candidates whether they believe there is a concerning rise of antisemitism, including in their own party.
“I’ve been a friend of Israel and the Jewish community since I was very young,” the senator averred. “Since I got to the U.S. Senate, I’ve made fighting antisemitism and all forms of bigotry a top priority. Unfortunately, we saw this issue at the forefront in 2017 after a string of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers across the country. That was unacceptable, and I worked with national security officials in the Trump administration to make sure there would be a long-term strategy to protect these JCCs and other places of worship.”
For his part, Ossoff also chose to not directly address Perdue’s controversial ad in responding to JI’s questionnaire, despite his previous caustic statement directed at the incumbent.
“Sectarianism and racism often increase at moments of great social, economic, and political stress — especially when dangerous political demagogues like Donald Trump deliberately inflame mistrust, resentment, and hatred to gain power,” Ossoff told JI. “Racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia have increased in America as President Trump has deliberately pitted Americans against Americans, stirring up conflict within our society rather than uniting us to move forward together as one people.”
But Ossoff’s answer could also have been regarded as an implicit critique of Perdue’s reelection tactics. “I learned about public and political leadership from my mentor, Congressman John Lewis, who taught me to focus on our shared humanity above our racial, religious and cultural differences,” Ossoff continued, referring to the Georgia representative and civil rights leader who endorsed Ossoff before his death on July 17.
“My state, our country and all humanity will only achieve our full potential and build the Beloved Community [a term coined by Lewis] by recognizing that we are all in this together, that our interests are aligned and that hatred, prejudice and discrimination only hold us back.”
Despite the tension between the two candidates, both emphasized their support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Any peace deal should protect the political freedom and human rights of all people in the region and ensure Israel’s security as a homeland for the Jewish people without threat of terrorism or invasion,” Ossoff declared. “The aim of the peace process should be secure and peaceful coexistence, political freedom and prosperity for people of all faiths and nationalities in the Middle East.”
“Obviously there is no simple fix but a two-state solution would be the best outcome for both sides,” Perdue told JI. “However, that won’t happen unless the Palestinians are willing to come to the table, negotiate in good faith and cut ties with terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestinian Authority has to end their practice of providing stipends for known terrorists. It’s ridiculous and the reason I support the Taylor Force Act. We’ve got to make sure the United States isn’t sending foreign aid until these payments end. Israel has made it clear that they are open to living in peace with the Palestinians. You’ve seen a willingness by Israel to begin negotiations. The Palestinians must do the same in order to solve this issue.”
Perdue and Ossoff also both expressed their commitment to ensuring that Israel maintains its security edge in the Middle East.
“The special relationship between the U.S. and Israel is deeply rooted and strategically important to both countries, but it cannot be taken for granted,” Ossoff told JI. “Security cooperation, trade and cultural ties enrich and strengthen both countries. The U.S. Congress, with strong bipartisan support, should play an essential role in maintaining and strengthening healthy and open relations between the U.S. and Israel.”
“The U.S.-Israel relationship is both special and strategic,” Perdue said, while noting that his first foreign trip as a senator was to Israel. “It is special because we share the common values of freedom and democracy, and it’s strategic because Israel is America’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”
“President Trump has shown that Israel is and will continue to be a priority,” Perdue added. “By moving our U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the president recognized the historic and modern reality that Jerusalem is the center for the Jewish people and all parts of Israeli government. Jerusalem is unquestionably Israel’s capital.”
Still, Perdue and Ossoff differ when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Perdue supports Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement. “President Obama’s Iran deal was an unmitigated disaster,” he told JI. “It’s very clear that the Obama-Biden Administration’s weak foreign policy only emboldened Iran and made the world less safe. Trusting Iran to change was not only naive, but it also created a national security risk for our ally Israel.”
Ossoff disagrees, with qualifications. “Nuclear weapons proliferation is one of the gravest threats to U.S. and world security,” he said. “I support robust efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons anywhere. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would pose an existential threat to Israel and other U.S. allies and would pose a critical threat to U.S. national security.”
“I opposed the Trump administration’s unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA,” he added. “In the Senate, I will support U.S. participation in an agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, whether based on the JCPOA, another multilateral agreement or a desperately needed new global nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation treaty.”
Ossoff, who narrowly lost a 2017 congressional bid, is hoping he can best Perdue in November’s election as the Democrats are strategizing to flip the Senate. The Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up.”
Barry Shrage dishes on two key Massachusetts Democratic primaries
The Senate primary matchup in Massachusetts between Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) has made for some curious dynamics. While progressive Democrats are throwing their support behind the 74-year-old Markey, a co-author of the Green New Deal who has held elected office for nearly 50 years, the local pro-Israel community has largely rallied behind Kennedy, the 39-year-old political scion who gave up his seat in the state’s 4th congressional district to run against a member of his own party.
In a recent letter, more than 75 Jewish community leaders in Massachusetts endorsed the young congressman over Markey, though the two elected officials seem to share similar views. “At a time when some work overtime to delegitimize Israel, Joe has been unyielding in making Israel’s case to those who may be reluctant to listen to it,” read the letter, which was published earlier this month. “He has never ducked and run when it comes to support for Israel.”
Barry Shrage, a professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and the former president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, was one of those who signed onto the letter, and in a recent interview with Jewish Insider, he explained his reasons for backing Kennedy.
“I support him because I think that, at the end of this particular era of politics, after the next election, we’re going to be trying to figure out who’s going to lead the Democratic Party into the future,” Shrage said. “I’m 73 myself. I’m not against older people. They’re all great. We’re all great. Baby boomers are my favorite. But on the other hand, the future of the Democratic Party, as everyone knows, is not Joe Biden, it’s not [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. These are all fine people, but they’re not going to be in a position to actually lead the party. So the question is going to be, ‘Who is going to lead the party?’”
Shrage is worried that the answer to that question could be such left-wing Democrats as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), a rising star who has endorsed Markey and whose political views are inhospitable to Israel. “It troubles me,” Shrage said, pointing out that Markey has also been endorsed by a local nonprofit organization, Massachusetts Peace Action, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Not that Shrage is implying Markey necessarily holds the same views of those who have backed him. “I’m not saying that’s Ed Markey. I’m not,” said Shrage, who added that Markey has a solid record when it comes to Israel. “But I’m saying that all that support from those places makes me concerned.”
“Whether Markey will feel beholden to them or not, I do not know,” Shrage added. “I assume that he will continue to be a supporter of Israel as he has been in the past. But I still worry about the future of the party and maintaining a bipartisan sense of support for Israel.”
“It’s a big deal for me as a Jewish person,” Shrage concluded.
Though Shrage publicly supports Kennedy, he declined to reveal who he would be voting for in the district Kennedy is leaving behind to run for Senate. (He has donated $350 to local legislator Becky Grossman, according to the Federal Election Commission.) The crowded Democratic primary contest includes nine candidates who are vying to represent a portion of southeastern Massachusetts in Congress.
Shrage believes that most of the candidates would do a fine job representing the 4th district, reserving criticism for Ihssane Leckey, a young progressive who has been endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now Boston. Leckey, Shrage said, “really doesn’t understand the nature of Israel, its political systems, its strengths.”
A recent poll released by Leckey’s campaign put her in third with 11% of the vote, behind Newton City Councilor Jake Auchincloss at 16% and Grossman at 19%. The numbers suggest that some of the contenders could split the vote, giving Leckey the edge in a packed race.
“There’s no way to know how the vote is going to split,” Shrage said. “The best thing we can do is to make sure that people do come out for the candidate of their choice.”
With that in mind, Shrage said he has been doing his part to educate Jewish voters in the district about their options. He has helped distribute letters to synagogues and Jewish organizations exhorting Jewish community members to participate in online forums so they can decide for themselves who they like.
The hope, he explained, is that even if the vote splits, Leckey will fail to garner enough support to advance to the primary.
“What I want the Jewish community to know is that this is an extremely important race that deserves their time, attention and their engagement in order to make the best possible choice and avoid a situation where a district that’s always been balanced, liberal, progressive and also pro-Israel goes in a totally different direction,” Shrage averred. “It would be, what we used to say in Yiddish, a shanda.”
Sens. Booker, Portman cosponsor legislation addressing Arab anti-normalization policies
In a bipartisan effort to ease decades of tensions between Israel and Arab states, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced legislation on Thursday that would require the State Department to provide an accounting of countries that punish individuals for engaging with Israel.
The bill, “Strengthening Reporting of Actions Taken Against the Normalization of Relations with Israel Act of 2020” would require the State Department to include a status report on anti-normalization laws in countries covered by the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in its annual Report on Human Rights Practices. The requirement would run from 2021 to 2026.
The legislation includes a provision stating that the Arab League “has maintained an official boycott of Israeli companies and Israeli-made goods since the founding of Israel in 1948.”
A number of Arab countries have laws punishing citizens for interacting with Israeli citizens and businesses. The Arab League first issued a formal boycott of Jewish businesses in 1945, three years prior to the formation of Israel. Afterwards, the League modified the ban to include secondary businesses affiliated or trading with Israel.
In a statement to Jewish Insider, Portman said, “I am proud to join Senator Booker on this bipartisan legislation which supports our ally Israel and the longstanding US policy that encourages Arab League states to normalize their relations with Israel.”
“Anti-normalization laws in the region continue to be a barrier toward communities, people, NGOs and business coming together. In my visits to the region, I’ve seen the deep and abiding friendships that exist, and they are essential to building a long term peace,” Portman continued. “This bill will discourage those Arab League states that continue to enforce anti-normalization laws and support efforts like those proposed by the Arab Council that encourage and defend community engagement amongst Arabs and Israelis.”
“Since my time in the Senate, I have consistently supported Arab-Israeli engagement,” Booker said in a statement. “The need for people-to-people engagement between these communities is not only a critical tool for diplomacy but also important for peace and economic prosperity in the region. Our bill will strengthen America’s commitment to pursuing peace by supporting and encouraging dialogue between Arab and Israeli citizens.”
The bill cites a number of organizations and groups working in support of normalizing relations.
The Arab Council for Regional Integration, one group praised in the bill, applauded Sens. Booker and Portman for sponsoring the legislation. “We are gratified that at a time of turmoil around the world, two prominent U.S. Senators have decided to stand with advocates of people-to-people engagement between Arabs and Israelis,” Arab Council co-founder Mostafa El-Dessouki told JI. “Civil society has always been the ‘missing piece’ in efforts to forge a just and lasting peace in our region. This bill will empower the many bridge-builders among us to move forward toward a ‘peace between peoples.’”
On Sunday, the leadership for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization released a statement praising Portman and Booker. “This bipartisan measure takes action against [anti-normalization] policies and promotes the process of further regional normalization with Israel, which is critical to achieving a genuine and lasting peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.”
Despite acrimony, Loeffler and Collins walk in virtual lockstep on Israel
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) are locked in an acrimonious battle ahead of the U.S. Senate special election in Georgia on November 3. Collins, who represents a portion of northeastern Georgia, entered the race to compete against Loeffler shortly after she assumed office in early January, having been appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp against the objections of President Donald Trump, who favored Collins for the seat.
But when it comes to Israel, the two Republican candidates hold virtually indistinguishable views, according to questionnaires solicited by Jewish Insider and filled out by the candidates.
Loeffler and Collins both support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, endorse Trump’s Middle East peace plan, back continued foreign aid to the Jewish state and believe that the administration was right to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered by former President Barack Obama.
“We knew from the beginning that any deal negotiated by the Obama Administration would not go far enough to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon or to protect Israel from a nuclear Iran,” Collins wrote in response to questions from JI, echoing Loeffler, who said that Iran had “only become more emboldened in its efforts to attack U.S. interests and U.S. allies like Israel” during the time that the deal was in place.
(Read the Collins and Loeffler questionnaires, and many others, on Jewish Insider’s interactive election map.)
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Loeffler and Collins — both of whom have positioned themselves as Trump loyalists — hold harmonious views.
“I agree with President Trump that, especially given Israel’s agreement to terms for a potential Palestinian state, a two-state solution is a pragmatic approach that respects the validity of Israel and its people while giving Palestinians the opportunity to self-govern and remain in their communities,” Collins wrote. “Within a two-state solution, it is imperative that Israel remain the ultimate guardian of holy sites and Jerusalem to ensure all who want to worship in these sacred places will continue to have the opportunity to do so. It is also imperative that, in any agreement, Israel has defensible borders to continue to protect themselves from any future attacks.”
The senator’s response was similar. “It has become increasingly clear that a two-state solution is the best path to peace in the Middle East, and I support President Trump’s historic efforts to deliver Israel the security and autonomy it needs to prosper,” she said. “Like President Trump, I believe that any path to peace must recognize undivided Jerusalem as the capital and territory of Israel.”
Loeffler added that “any Palestinian nation must be strictly policed to ensure that the violence perpetuated by Palestinians (especially through Hamas) comes to an end so that both the Palestinians and the Israeli people can fully prosper.”
Both candidates cited their records on the Hill supporting aid to Israel. Collins, for his part, pointed to legislation he introduced in 2013 to bolster Israel’s defense interests, while Loeffler noted that she was a co-sponsor of the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act, “which will send additional funds to Israel in order to upgrade its military equipment, improve its ground force, strengthen its missile defense system, and expand the U.S. weapons stockpile in Israel.”
The candidates also agree that there is a concerning rise of antisemitism in the U.S., but reserve judgement only for the Democratic Party. “Sadly, we have witnessed this rising tide of antisemitism in Congress over the last several years,” Collins said, “with a growing number of members in the Democratic Caucus voicing their support for the BDS movement, which attacks Israel’s very right to exist.”
Loeffler went a step further in her questionnaire, calling out Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) who, according to the senator, “has repeatedly called Israel evil and openly called for the dissolution of the nation state of Israel.” She was also critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, which, she wrote, “continually endorses the BDS movement and has called Israel an ‘apartheid state.’”
Loeffler and Collins are running in a competitive special election that includes two formidable Democratic opponents: Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Matt Lieberman, son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
Should no candidate clear 50% of the vote on November 3, then the top two candidates will advance to a runoff to be held in January.
Senate GOP primary comes down to the wire in Kansas
Kris Kobach, the former Secretary of State of Kansas, has accepted donations from white nationalists, paid an individual who posted racist comments on a white nationalist website and allegedly employed three other white nationalists during his failed gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
He is also a leading contender in today’s crowded Senate primary in Kansas, featuring no fewer than 11 Republican candidates jockeying to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). Kobach’s presence in the race has put extremism experts on alert.
“It’s just a very consistent record that he takes these far-right, nativist, anti-immigration views,” said David Neiwert, the author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, who kept a close eye on Kobach’s trajectory when he worked as a correspondent for the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center. “This is Kris Kobach’s identity.”
The Anti-Defamation League is similarly wary of Kobach, a 54-year-old immigration hardliner with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford who currently writes a column for Breitbart.
“Kris Kobach is an anti-immigrant bigot who spoke in 2015 at an event organized by a publisher that routinely elevates the writings of white supremacists,” an ADL spokesperson told Jewish Insider, referring to Kobach’s appearance at an event hosted by the Social Contract Press, founded by white nationalist John Tanton. “He has also championed the baseless conspiracy theory about rampant voter fraud in the 2016 election, and has been credibly accused of promoting legislation that engages in racial profiling, including Arizona’s controversial ‘Show Me Your Papers’ law.”
Kobach’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.
Heading into Tuesday’s primary, political scientists told JI that with little polling data available, it’s unclear who currently leads the Republican field, though Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) has emerged alongside Kobach as one of the stronger candidates in the race.
“The best guess is that it’s some kind of coin flip, probably between Kobach and Marshall,” said Patrick R. Miller, a professor in the department of political science at the University of Kansas.
Though Kobach has been gaining momentum, one of his weak spots is his “poor fundraising,” according to Miller. Kobach, who in 2004 unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Kansas’s 3rd congressional district, has raked in approximately $940,000, according to the Federal Election commission — far less than Marshall, who has raised $2.7 million.
Kobach has also garnered unexpected support from a separate, Democratic-linked super PAC, which is spending millions of dollars to run ads that characterize Kobach as a more committed conservative than Marshall — the subtext being that Democrats view Kobach as the weaker Republican candidate in the general election.
Some establishment Republicans seem to agree, experts say. “They’re definitely afraid Kobach will win the nomination,” Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, told JI. “If Kobach wins, the seat immediately turns into a tossup.”
Marshall, for his part, has also benefited from some outside spending, though the GOP was initially skeptical of his candidacy: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly advocated for former senator and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run for the seat, despite repeated rejections from Pompeo. Now, a McConnell-aligned super PAC is spending $1.2 million to boost Marshall.
“He might be the rickety tank they’re reluctantly riding into battle, but it’s the only tank they have,” Miller said of Marshall, 59, who has represented Kansas’s 1st congressional district since 2017.
Gavriela Geller, director of JCRB/AJC Kansas City, an organization that merged the regional office of the American Jewish Committee and the local Jewish Community Relations Bureau, said that Marshall has been receptive to meeting members of the Jewish community in Kansas and hearing their concerns.
“We would hope that whoever wins the Senate seat will be similarly receptive to working with us and addressing the multiple sources of rising antisemitism in this country, including a troubling increase in white nationalist rhetoric and violence, which is of particular concern in our region,” Geller told JI, noting that she could not endorse any candidate in the race because her organization is nonpartisan.
Despite pressure from some party leaders to endorse Marshall, President Donald Trump also appears set on staying out of the primary. Kobach, a Trump ally, had previously been considered for positions as Trump’s “immigration czar” as well as secretary of homeland security.
Another Republican candidate, Bob Hamilton, a former plumbing company owner well-known in the state for ads that featured his name, has shifted the dynamics of the race in recent weeks by spending more than $2 million of his own money on advertising. Experts say that won’t put him in the lead, but Hamilton’s efforts to boost his profile could pull support away from the other candidates and give one of them an edge.
The competing ads have made for a confusing situation for Republican voters. “People aren’t talking much about policy,” said Loomis.
On the other side of the aisle, State Senator Barbara Bollier is running essentially uncontested for the Democratic nomination. She became known in the state for switching her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat at the end of 2018, and has built a reputation as a centrist candidate.
“She’s proving to be a more credible candidate and a stronger candidate than people thought she would be,” said Miller, “and I think Republicans would be foolish to discount that.”
A June 2 poll found Bollier in a statistical dead heat with Marshall, Kobach and Hamilton in hypothetical general election matchups.
A May 28 poll, however, found Marshall 11 points ahead of Bollier, and Bollier and Kobach tied. Bollier has stunned observers in the state, Miller said, by far outraising each of her Republican opponents in the race: She’s already raised $7.8 million, with more than $4 million still on hand.
But more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Kobach has emerged as an ostensible frontrunner in Kansas’s packed Republican primary field. “It’s a Republican state, but historically it has not been a far-right Republican state,” Loomis said.
When the votes are counted, Kansans will find out whether that formulation holds up.
Norm Eisen was in the room where it happened
Norm Eisen describes himself as an optimist. It’s that positive thinking, he believes, that kept him from deep disappointment after President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate in early February on two articles of impeachment resulting from issues of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Eisen, the White House special counsel for ethics and government reform under President Barack Obama, wasn’t surprised by the decision to acquit the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But he does take comfort in the idea that the vote — which presented a unified Democratic front, and a bipartisan effort on the charge to remove Trump from office — presented a strong case for voters to consider when they head to the polls in November.
In a new book out today, A Case for the American People: The United States v. Donald J. Trump, Eisen offers an exclusive look at the behind-the-scenes discussions and deliberations — as well as his conversations with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), the only Republican to side with the Democrats on one of the charges — he had as the majority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial.
“One of the few things that everyone agreed on in the impeachment trial was that whether to convict or to acquit the president was up to the American people,” Eisen said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “The House managers and we, the lawyers, felt that the Senate should have taken that responsibility. But since they didn’t, it was now a case for the American people. And that is why I wrote the book, so that the job that I helped begin can be completed when all Americans vote on the president’s behavior in November.”
Eisen, a lifelong Democrat, goes to great lengths to illustrate that he was originally hoping he could be an asset. Eisen details the help he provided to Chris Christie in the summer of 2016, when the former New Jersey governor served as head of the Trump transition team, as well as to the senior team at Trump Tower after the November election. “I was doing my part to help Donald Trump prepare to take the reins of our government, and side by side with my sadness, I felt some measure of hope that he might do a good job,” he writes.
“I was not a ‘Never Trumper,’” Eisen told JI, using the term to describe Republicans who refused to support Trump’s candidacy, even after he was declared the party’s nominee. “I tried to help. I have had dinner with the president. I found him to be personable and engaging at the time. I am acquainted with his daughter [Ivanka] and his son-in-law [Jared Kushner]. Once he was elected, he was going to be the president of all of us, and I was prepared as a patriotic American to do what I could to help.”
The gesture blew up in Eisen’s face as he watched the first post-election press conference, in which Trump declared he would not divest from his businesses. “That press conference was the moment when my hope for the Trump presidency was lost,” he writes. From then on, Eisen was a vocal critic of the president and his family over ethical transparency and conflict of interest matters. “That was the breaking point for me,” he said.
Over the course of the Trump presidency, Eisen has seen a spike in Twitter followers — now at 271,000 — attributable to his frequent media appearances and outspokenness on rule of law. “But I would gladly go back to 5,000 Twitter followers to get rid of [Trump],” Eisen told JI.
In February 2019, Eisen, who was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, was hired as the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel building the case for the impeachment of Trump. Eisen questioned witnesses in committee hearings, helped to draft the articles of impeachment, and assisted Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) and other House managers during the Senate trial.
Eisen reveals in the book that, working with Nadler and co-counsel Barry Berke, the team had prepared 10 articles of impeachment against Trump, but in the end settled on just two in order to get the requisite support from legislators. “I believe that gave the country a structure to understand Trump’s bad actions,” Eisen told JI. “Often I get asked, wasn’t it a mistake to do impeachment since he was acquitted? Absolutely not, because you wouldn’t have the third stage of the rocket most fundamentally, you wouldn’t have the American people fully understanding what’s happening now.”
The decision to move toward impeachment following the 2019 Ukraine scandal, Eisen told JI, wasn’t a rushed one. While he was disappointed with the outcome of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Eisen believes the Mueller findings helped the House committees demonstrate a pattern of presidential misconduct. According to Eisen, 135 Democrats supported impeachment by the end of the August recess, up from 95 following Mueller’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee in July.
“Think of the impeachment as a rocket that has three stages. There was the booster rocket — the Mueller report. Ukraine was the second stage that pushes you further along, and this book and the national debate that the nation is having now about the president’s response to coronavirus is the third stage,” he explained. “But all three stages are the same. Instead of working for American interests, to save American lives and help our country, it’s all about what’s good for the president’s personal and political interests.”
Eisen, who served as ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, said that he was very careful to avoid contact with foreign officials and with some of his colleagues in the diplomatic corps during the trial. But now that the trial is over, “many people around the world have said to me, ‘America is so strong because you can still hold your president accountable.’ A president cannot do this kind of thing and just get away with it like in other countries,” he said. “Foreign leaders were very impressed with the effort.”
“So even though the work is not done yet, it will be finished,” Eisen said, with hope in his voice. “It won’t be a success unless it has the right outcome of impeaching him, the people impeaching him in November.”
In the book, Eisen describes Nadler as a ‘mensch’ and details the close friendship the pair developed in recent years, including a shiva call in the fall of 2018 when Eisen mourned the death of his brother. “For all his haimish (down-home) ways, from our earliest conversations it struck me that Jerry was exactly the man to take down Trump for his constitutional violations, if anyone could,” Eisen writes.
“This book has the most Yiddish in it of any impeachment book ever written; maybe the most Yiddish book ever written about the inner workings of the American government,” Eisen quipped, “because Jerry Nadler and I are shtemming from similar roots.”
In the interview, Eisen used a unique Yiddish term to describe Nadler’s overall approach: yo yo, nisht nisht — which translates to “you either do it or you don’t.”
“He’s not ‘waffly,’” Eisen told JI of the longtime New York congressman. “He makes up his mind, what is the right thing. If it’s right, yes. if it’s wrong, no — and he drives forward. I felt comfortable with that kind of a strong moral compass. He’s a straight shooter. I felt at home.”
Among the details of the impeachment process, the book is also a reflection of Eisen’s personality. Throughout the book, Eisen details his own thinking and offers a personal look into his work. “The book is full of my own mistakes,” he said. “I think you should not write a book that talks about other people unless you write about yourself. You should be toughest on yourself [out] of everybody.”
Eisen said that as a public figure taking on Trump, he felt targeted for being Jewish. He pointed to comments made by Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) during an inquiry hearing last December, referring to Berke as a “New York lawyer,” which was perceived at the time as an antisemitic dog whistle. Eisen said the remark had “a demeaning effect that caused me to stiffen. That can be a common code word, as in ‘New York Jewish lawyer.’ I shrugged it off the first time, but when he did it again my temper flared up,” he writes.
Eisen, who along with Nadler and some of the House managers are Jewish, suggested that “the mere presence of any single Jew, no matter how large the crowd is, the antisemites are always going to seek him or her out, and that happened.” Eisen said.
“That being said, in this beautiful mosaic of America, there is a role for the Jewish people,” he said. “Baruch Hashem we have a very active [role] to play in America and that is, we make a big contribution. I’m very proud of that. I am proud of my Jewish identity.”
Looking back, Eisen believes Romney’s vote for one of the articles of impeachment made the Senate vote on Trump’s impeachment a truly historic moment for the county. “I did not feel sad,” Eisen said of the president’s acquittal. ”I don’t think people would be awake the way they are to what’s happening without all of the warnings.” But he added that it took Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic for public opinion to turn dramatically against the president. Eisen compared the situation to a person waking up only after the third alarm rings in the morning.
Commenting on the 2020 presidential race, Eisen said Jewish voters shouldn’t judge Trump just by his pro-Israel record, particularly given Biden’s longstanding support of Israel. “I feel that the president’s pathological selfishness also represents a danger to the State of Israel, because this is somebody who’s fundamentally interested in only himself,” he explained. “So for the moment, Israel suits his interests and serves his interests, but he could turn in a moment. Look how he’s turned off some of the people around him. If he felt it turns against his interest, I believe he would sacrifice Israel in a heartbeat.”
An Air Force vet and a state senator face off in a Texas primary runoff for the Senate
In the Texas primary runoff scheduled for July 14, two Democrats — M.J. Hegar, a white, female veteran of the United States Air Force, and Royce West, an African-American state politician — are competing for the chance to go up against Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the powerful Republican incumbent who has held onto his seat for nearly two decades.
If that sort of matchup sounds familiar, it’s likely because it is reminiscent of Kentucky’s recent Democratic primary battle in which Amy McGrath, a white former Marine fighter pilot, narrowly defeated Charles Booker, a Black state representative who benefitted from a late-stage surge in popularity thanks in part to mass protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The same dynamic has altered the political landscape in Texas, as the demonstrations “have turned what would have otherwise been a pretty easy victory for Hegar into a competitive contest,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the department of political science at Rice University in Houston.
Still, heading into the runoff, West has struggled to harness the national mood to his benefit. The most recent polling on the race, released on Sunday and conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, found that Hegar, at 32%, leads her opponent by a comfortable margin of 12 points among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.
Those numbers may reflect the fact that West, the longtime 67-year-old state senator, isn’t exactly an up-and-coming progressive, despite a legislative record that includes efforts to reform the criminal justice system. “Royce West is an institutionalist,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He’s an insider and longtime member of the Texas Senate, so he is more of a moderate than a progressive among Black politicians and among Democrats.”
West seemed intent on maintaining that impression in a recent conversation with Jewish Insider. Though he supports the ongoing protests, advocating for a national standard around the use of deadly force, he also made sure to note that he has had positive interactions with the police. Shortly after he got his driver’s license, he said, an officer pulled him over for speeding and gave him a stern lesson on vehicular safety. “I never have forgotten it,” the longtime state senator recalled.
Asked to name a political role model, West mentioned Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Texas-born president and senator. He cited Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, Master of the Senate, noting that he hadn’t read the whole book, which is more than 1,000 pages. “I’ve read a few pages of it, though.”
You don’t hear a lot about LBJ these days, but Jillson said that West’s comment makes some sense. “Royce, I think, is saying there that he’s a deal-maker,” Jillson told JI, “that he’s an insider and that he’s tried to understand what the person on the other side of the table needs in order to deliver a product, in order to deliver a compromise, a bargain.”
For her part, Hegar, 44, has sought to avoid any sort of conflict with West, even as the race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks. Throughout her campaign, she has focused largely on Cornyn, with the implicit assumption being that she will be the one to face him in November.
Hegar is the candidate with the most out-of-state institutional support. She is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as Emily’s List, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and J Street.
Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient who completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan, ran for Congress in Texas’s 31st congressional district two years ago, attracting national attention with a viral ad. Hegar lost by less than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter (R-TX), but she believes she will fare better this time around.
Though the pandemic has disrupted campaigning, Hegar — who has raised more than $6.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission — maintains that she has “planted the seeds for a grassroots movement,” having spent the first year of her Senate bid driving tens of thousands of miles around the state.
In an interview with JI last week, Hegar expressed concerns about “racial injustice,” but seemed more at ease discussing foreign policy.
“So much is falling by the wayside as far as not grabbing headlines that I think is very concerning,” she said, noting that the U.S. was losing its influence abroad. “We’re losing a lot of that position with this America-first kind of isolationist platform, with gutting our State Department,” she said. “Those kinds of things are really damaging our ability to operate globally.”
Hegar is also critical of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. “I’m going to advocate for policies that come from national security experts and advance the long-term goal of peace without sacrificing safety,” said Hegar, who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t believe his plan does that. I don’t think anyone’s surprised because the way he develops his plans seem to be through nepotism and what’s best for his party or speaking to his base instead of what’s best for the country and what’s best for our allies.”
Hegar added that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal was a mistake. “It wasn’t perfect,” she said. “I do think it was a practical step in the right direction. The president acting unilaterally to abandon it and escalate confrontation with Iran — which he’s shown a willingness to continue to do — has really put troops and our allies at risk and has led us down a path toward what would be a very costly and destabilizing war.”
“I think that we should be partnering with the international community,” Hegar told JI. “I know some people like to shoot from the hip and be a cowboy. And I don’t believe that we should be losing any of our autonomy — I do believe we’re the leaders of the free world — but I think that that mantle is delicate and fragile, and we will lose it if we don’t act as such. And we are not acting that way now.”
West, who has brought in nearly $1.8 million in donations, was more comfortable discussing police reform than foreign policy in his interview with JI. He supports a two-state solution as it was “outlined in the Clinton Paramaters [sic],” according to a position paper, and expressed a desire to visit Israel if he is elected to the Senate. “Israel is our strongest Democratic ally in the Middle East, and so America should be supportive of Israel,” he said.
But he hesitated when asked for his opinion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS. “Remind me of what the acronym stands for?” he asked. After he was reminded, he said he did not support the movement.
West also appeared to support rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, but seemed somewhat hazy on what that would involve. “The fact is, I don’t know all the details of the plan, but any type of plan that we have can always be reviewed to improve upon,” he said. “So I would not be opposed to reviewing it to see whether we can improve upon it.”
Fluency on foreign policy matters, however, is unlikely to swing the runoff in either direction. But because West has struggled to leverage the national mood in his favor, experts predict that Hegar will likely advance to the general election in the fall.
Whether she can beat Cornyn remains to be seen.
The senator will be tough to unseat, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “He’s got pole position — more money, better name identification and a veteran Texas campaign operation — he can define [Hegar] early and she might not have the money to respond unless she can raise Beto money,” Rottinghaus told JI, referring to former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who raised more than $80 million in his ultimately failed bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Still, Hegar maintained that she is ready for the fight.
“The primary and the runoff feel a little bit like I’m in an aircraft flying to go pick up a wounded soldier or civilian,” Hegar told JI, “and we’re talking about the difference between having a disagreement with someone in the cockpit about tactics and how we’re going to roll in versus the guy on the ground pointing an RPG at me.”
Cornyn, she made clear, is the guy with the rocket launcher.