Learning Not to Underestimate Howard Metzenbaum

I vividly recall the last time I underestimated Howard Metzenbaum. It was the beginning of 1976, and I predicted Metzenbaum would lose his third consecutive attempt to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio.

At the time I was in my early 20s, but already I’d been working in and around Ohio politics for seven years. I considered myself something of a young hot shot, an expert on politics in the state.

Metzenbaum in 1970 had narrowly lost a Senate race to Republican Robert Taft Jr. Four years later, after being appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat, he lost in the Democratic primary to John Glenn after defeating the former astronaut six years earlier.

So I was confident in predicting that he would lose again to Taft. After all, Taft was the “best” name in Ohio politics, Metzenbaum was Jewish and too liberal to be elected to a statewide office in the state.

In November 1976, however, Metzenbaum defeated Taft by a surprising 117,000 votes. So ended my career in political prophecy, and so began Howard Metzenbaum’s highly successful three terms in the U.S. Senate. Metzenbaum died last week at the age of 90.

His was an extraordinary political career. Metzenbaum was not an obvious good fit for a successful Ohio politician. He was a millionaire, liberal, labor-loving, Jewish businessman in a state that did not have a huge Jewish community and usually only elected moderate Democrats. He was not a beloved personality, but he earned a reputation as shrewd and intelligent, and as a fighter for the little guy.

Moreover, he was a prodigious fund-raiser. The proof of his political skills is that in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, he defeated three of the most popular Ohio politicians of the last half century — Glenn (1970), Taft (1976) and George Voinovich (1988).

Metzenbaum sometimes was accused of being a publicity hound, but sometimes he worked more effectively behind the scenes. A good example of this quiet leadership was in his support for Israel. He didn’t step into the U.S. Senate and immediately become an outspoken advocate. Over time, however, he became a very effective backroom advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Surprisingly, some of his most important pro-Israel work came with his Republican colleagues. He might have been the most liberal vote in the U.S. Senate, but he was respected — and even feared — by some of his more conservative Republican colleagues.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when Republican White Houses exerted pressure on Israel in Congress, often it was Howard Metzenbaum who would quietly stroll over to the offices of GOP leaders to explain the political downside of the administration’s position. Republican leaders listened to him because they knew he was among the more astute minds in the Senate.

Like other Jewish elected officials, Metzenbaum did not emphasize his religious affiliation in the day-to-day business of politics. However, it isn’t hard to imagine that the Hebrew prophetic tradition played a role in how he saw the world.

If the prophets used their voice to argue for justice toward the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, Metzenbaum used his deep knowledge of the rules of the U.S. Senate to fight for the little guy. He blocked big oil companies, the insurance companies, the National Rifle Association and the savings and loans when they tried to slip their special-interest amendments into Senate legislation.

He boldly championed the rights of consumers, voters and workers rights, as well as universal health insurance. Moreover, Metzenbaum accepted that like the prophets, his tactics often would make him less than popular with colleagues. Once he observed that “sometimes to be effective, you have to be an SOB.”

Metzenbaum was of a generation in which religious affiliation could severely limit one’s political options. When he broke into politics in the 1940s, young Jewish politicians had to wait for a “Jewish slot” to open before they could be slated for the legislative ticket by the Cleveland Democratic organization.

After he reached the Ohio state Senate, some believed religious intolerance blocked Metzenbaum’s bid to become the Senate Democratic leader. Even decades later in the U.S. Senate, he had to put up with one of his colleagues nicknaming him “the senator from B’nai B’rith.”

Despite these obstacles, Howard Metzenbaum was one of the most successful Jewish elected officials in American history. In an era of conservative dominance of American politics, Metzenbaum was an outspoken and effective liberal.

Through sheer determination and hard work, he fought for and held onto a Senate seat from a relatively conservative Midwestern state. Without holding a formal leadership position, he used the same attributes to become one of the most influential members of the U.S. Senate.

Senator Metzenbaum was never a politician to be underestimated.

Ira Forman is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

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