MANCHESTER, N.H. (JTA) – Paul Hodes spent most of Monday talking about Barack Obama. It’s a subject the freshman New Hampshire congressman, and the state’s first Jewish congressional representative, has been addressing a lot lately.
In July, Hodes became an early supporter of Obama’s presidential candidacy at a time when the Illinois senator was still considered a longshot to upend the powerful Clinton machine in the Democratic primaries. New Hampshire’s other congressional representative, Carol Shea-Porter, stayed on the sidelines until last month before endorsing Obama.
With Obama fresh off a solid victory in the Iowa caucuses and, according to the latest polls, on track for a resounding defeat of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Tuesday’s primary, Hodes is looking like the oracle of Concord.
“I think there’s a sense of optimism and confidence that is appropriate, not overstated,” Hodes said Monday on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. “And you know in politics, 24 hours is a lifetime.”
Hodes is sitting in the lobby of the downtown Radisson Hotel as the madness of the impending primary swirls around him. As co-chair of Obama’s New Hampshire campaign, he has been in the eye of this storm, stumping for Obama throughout the state. On Monday, at the Obama campaign’s request, Hodes had a packed schedule of media appearances.
In praising the Democratic presidential hopeful, Hodes sounds more like one of the cheering voters at Obama’s rallies yearning for an uplifting agent of change than he does a wonkish legislator weighing the policy positions of the candidates.
“The story of his life is that somebody who’s had lots of challenges,” Hodes told JTA between radio interviews. “Brought up in a broken family, white mother and African father at a time in this country when that was unusual, coming back to work on the streets of Chicago when he could have worked for Wall Street, constitutional law professor, state legislator, now United States senator, taking on the machine in Chicago. This is a story that could only be written in the United States of America.”
Though Hodes hasn’t encountered the same set of challenges as Obama, his life story also is uniquely American.
His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Ukraine who arrived in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the early part of the 20th century. On his mother’s side, Hodes is related to the novelist Bernard Malamud. The grocery store that figures prominently in much of “Cousin Bernie’s” work was modeled on the one operated by Hodes’ grandmother.
“My father and mother were secular Jews,” Hodes said, “and we were brought up celebrating Passover with my grandparents and then being in a secular household with my parents. So personally I have a strong identification as a Jew in terms of my heritage and my culture, and it didn’t necessarily come from my parents. I think it came in spite of my parents.”
After studying theater at Dartmouth College and earning a law degree at Boston College, Hodes took a job with then-New Hampshire Attorney General David Souter, who now sits on the Supreme Court. In 2004, Hodes launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat six-term incumbent Charlie Bass, the Republican congressman from New Hampshire’s 2nd District.
Two years later Hodes tried again, this time winning with 52 percent of the vote.
Gary Hirshberg, a longtime friend and supporter, says Hodes elected to run because of his outrage over the Iraq war.
“He took on a very formidable, highly entrenched guy, and many very good people, very good candidates had gone into battle with Charlie Bass,” said Hirshberg, the president and CEO of the organic yogurt producer Stonybrook Farm. “I was encouraging enormous caution, but more to the point I was arguing, and as it turned out correctly, that he was not going to be able to run once. If he was going to do this he was going to have to run twice.”
Hirshberg first met Hodes more than 20 years ago at a performance by Peggosus, the children’s band Hodes founded with his wife, Peggo, a classically trained vocalist. Their children attended the same schools and the families partnered in a car pool.
“What I admire most about him is his spirit,” Hirshberg said. “The only way I can describe it is he’s just a good soul with a big heart.”
Like Hirshberg, Hodes comes from a strongly identified Jewish family but does not affiliate with the state’s modest-sized Jewish community of about 14,000 clustered in the state’s southern half around Manchester.
The congressman isn’t a member of a synagogue and doesn’t donate to the federation, though he does advertise in its monthly newsletter.
“I always call New Hampshire the land of hidden ‘yidden,’ ” said Adam Solender, the recently departed executive director of the state’s Jewish federation. “It is amazing how people become rugged individualists when they come to New Hampshire. I was there for 14 years and I wouldn’t have known that Paul Hodes was Jewish, and I was the chief Jewish professional in the state.”
On a congressional trip to Israel this summer – Hodes’ first visit to the Jewish state – he was overcome during a tour of the national Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem when he saw a photo of Nazis operating in his grandfather’s hometown.
“The connection for me was unbelievably emotional,” Hodes recalled. “I stood there and wept, thinking about my grandfather who had fled as a boy essentially to come to this country because of what he faced there and thinking of those who didn’t, couldn’t leave.”
Hodes says his support in Congress for Israel was never in doubt. “It’s in my DNA,” he said. But the trip solidified that support in ways he struggles to articulate.
“It’s very interesting in midlife to come to a place where something is as moving as my trip was in terms of seeing the home for the Jewish people and understanding how fragile life is there, and how important the relationship between America and Israel is,” Hodes said. “It was a stunner.”
Hodes is insistent that Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate with Iran and its president, a move that some prominent leaders of American Jewish organizations oppose, should not be construed as insensitivity to Israel’s security concerns or its justified fears of Iranian nuclear weapons.
“I understand how fervently Israel feels about the intentions of the Iranian regime and what a danger Iran poses to Israel and to the world,” Hodes said. “Barack Obama understands the depth and magnitude of those threats. It would be a mistake to think that because Barrack places a high value on diplomacy that he doesn’t understand the importance of strength and the threats posed to Israel.”
But beyond the issues, on which virtually all observers agree Obama and Clinton are largely in agreement, Hodes believes this election will turn on the question of leadership and which candidate is best positioned to correct the “devastating damage” inflicted by the Bush years.
“We’re at a watershed moment in American history,” Hodes said. “A new kind of leadership is necessary. This campaign in my view is essentially about what kind of leadership we are going to have.”