When Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) announced her retirement from the House in 2019, it was hardly surprising that most of the candidates who ran to replace her were Jewish. That none of them won, however, was a surprising development in New York’s 17th Congressional District, where voters had long elected Jewish lawmakers such as Lowey, a pro-Israel stalwart who served in the House for more than three decades.
The district itself, which spans the Lower Hudson Valley, has one of the highest Jewish populations in the country. But since 2020, no Jewish candidates have stepped up to run for the recently redrawn swing seat now held by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-NY), a freshman Republican whose narrow victory last November was attributed in large part to strong support from Orthodox Jewish voters in Rockland County, home to the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the U.S.
As Lawler prepares to seek a second term in 2024, the emerging Democratic primary field now looks unlikely to draw any Jewish challengers. Yet while the recent dearth of Jewish candidates from both parties is a setback for Jewish representation, Jewish leaders in the Hudson Valley insist they are largely unfazed by the change.
“My sense is, for many Jewish voters, all else being equal, people would probably prefer a Jewish candidate,” Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, a Jewish Democrat and former state senator in Rockland County who lost a reelection bid last cycle, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “But for most voters, including in the Orthodox community, it isn’t enough.”
Rivkie Feiner, who sits on the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, echoed that sentiment. During Lawler’s initial months in Congress, Feiner said, he has proactively engaged with local Jewish leaders while embracing a bipartisan approach to Middle East policy as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He’s pro-Israel” and has “learned more about the Orthodox community than a Jewish politician may have,” Feiner said approvingly. “I value that more than somebody who says they’re Jewish.”
Nate Soule, a spokesperson for Lawler, touted the congressman’s efforts to advance legislation that would establish a special envoy for the Abraham Accords and said he has held “mobile office hours” for Jewish constituents in Ramapo while speaking at several events hosted by Jewish and pro-Israel groups. “He will continue to work to engage with the Jewish communities and all communities across the district in order to best serve all of his constituents,” Soule said in a statement to JI.
In the coming election cycle, Lawler, a former state assemblyman, will be depending on continued support from the traditionally conservative Orthodox community, which can typically deliver thousands of votes. The district, which leans Democratic, is among the top targets now being eyed by Democrats in their effort to retake the House.
So far, Democrats have drawn only one challenger, Liz Gereghty, a small-business consultant in Katonah and the younger sister of Gretchen Whitmer, the popular Democratic governor of Michigan. Gereghty, an elected Board of Education trustee in a local school district, launched her campaign last week, just a day before President Joe Biden arrived in Westchester as part of an effort to court moderate Republican voters amid stalled negotiations over the debt limit.
While Gereghty remains something of an unknown in the district, she indicated in a statement to JI that she is eager to cast herself as a mainstream Democrat on support for Israel. “Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East and we must remain committed to its security,” she said in the statement, which was shared by a spokesperson on Wednesday. “In Congress, I will work with my fellow members to support a continued commitment and strong relationship with Israel.”
The Democratic field is expected to grow in the coming weeks as former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), a progressive Democrat from Rockland County who succeeded Lowey in 2021, mulls a comeback campaign. Last cycle, Jones chose to seek reelection in New York City after his district had been redrawn, forcing a potentially bruising primary battle against a powerful incumbent, former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), who was defeated by Lawler in the general election.
Jones, for his part, lost to a Jewish Democrat, freshman Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY), in the crowded race for an open House seat covering Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. Jones is likely to enter the 17th District primary by early summer, a Democratic strategist who is close to the former congressman told JI. In a text exchange with JI on Wednesday, Jones said he had “not yet finalized” his “decision with respect to 2024.”
If he decides to run, however, the former congressman would be a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, several observers said. Not only has he proven to be a prolific fundraiser, but the redrawn district still covers approximately three-quarters of his old House boundaries, meaning he is a familiar face to most voters.
Suzanne Berger, the Westchester County Democratic party chair, all but endorsed Jones for reelection if he runs again. “The Democrats that I interact with regularly are very excited or eagerly awaiting Mondaire Jones’ announcement and uniformly are looking forward to helping him get reelected,” said Berger. “I know that Liz Gereghty is in the race and that will play out over time.”
In a recent interview, Berger said that Jones is “taking all the steps one would expect someone to take if they’re planning to announce a campaign,” citing his outreach to “opinion leaders” as well as labor activists, donors and elected officials within the district. “I do understand that an announcement would be made either this month or next.”
“To me, he’s an important voice within the progressive movement for moderate Jews,” said Berger, who has met with Gereghty but was unaware of her positions on Israel. “He was part of the progressive community in Congress, but he was cognizant of the views of his Jewish constituents too.”
Even as he identified with progressives on a range of issues, Jones was seen as a supporter of Israel during his time in Congress, opposing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, voting in favor of supplement funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system and co-sponsoring the Israel Relations Normalization Act to advance the Abraham Accords. He was also outspoken against antisemitism and rising hate crimes.
“I have so appreciated being recognized by my Jewish constituents as a leader in Congress on such matters as combating antisemitism, supporting our ally Israel and advancing social justice,” Jones told JI. “When I won my primary in 2020, I did so with overwhelming and broad-based support from our diverse and dynamic Jewish communities here in the 17th District. Now, having been a leader in Congress, I’ve got an even stronger record to run on.”
Lawler, however, is preparing for a competitive election. Even if he is among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents seeking reelection, Lawler is already amassing a sizable war chest as he runs unopposed in the GOP primary, raising nearly $850,000 in the first quarter of 2023 alone.
“Lawler has worked that district assiduously,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist in New York. He predicted that Lawler will benefit from Democrats’ handling of “spikes in crime downstate,” as he did last cycle, in addition to highlighting concerns over the recent influx of migrants into suburban communities outside the city. “Right now,” Sheinkopf told JI, “there’s nothing to indicate in New York that that dynamic will change.”
The congressman has also done a “very good job shoring up support within the Orthodox Jewish community,” Sheinkopf said, which means he can likely depend on a “built-in” base as he seeks to appeal more broadly to moderate swing voters in a district that Biden claimed by 10 percentage points in 2020.
“Lawler has to persuade voters who are voting for Joe Biden to vote for him,” Reichlin-Melnick, the former state senator from Rockland County, told JI, speculating that strong turnout among Orthodox voters may not be enough to help tip the scales in a presidential election year. He noted that Biden handily won the district even as the Orthodox community favored former President Donald Trump.
Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said the organization’s “primary concern is that whoever runs for” the seat “understands the unique needs and complexities of the Jewish community, condemns antisemitism, supports the U.S.-Israel relationship and is in favor of initiatives against hate.” He said the council “will be submitting questionnaires to candidates, asking them their stance on issues important to the Jewish community.”
Among other potential candidates rumored to be weighing bids is Maloney, the former chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, who was recently nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Another possible contender is Catherine Borgia, who resigned last month from her position as chair of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, according to a Democratic strategist informed of her thinking. Borgia did not respond to a request for comment from JI.
That no Jewish candidates have emerged in the race may be indicative of a broader trend, said Herb Weisberg, a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University who specializes in Jewish American politics.
The total number of Jews elected to the House peaked in 1990, at 34 members, according to Weisberg, and is now down to 27, including just two Jewish representatives from New York, where antisemitic incidents have risen sharply in recent years. “I wonder if the nasty polarization of politics has made service in Congress less attractive to Jews with political aspirations,” Weisberg speculated.
“Politics has gotten to a point where people are turned off and don’t want to run for office,” added former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), a Jewish Democrat whose district once included Rockland County. Still, he told JI in a recent interview, “I don’t really read too much into it.”