Nearly 1,000 Democrats — at least half of them Jews — went wild when the Ike and Val Woods Band launched into a spirited, jazzy rendition of “I Feel Good.” Indeed, it was impossible to find anyone attending Ron Klein’s victory celebration at the Embassy Suites Hotel late Tuesday night who didn’t feel good.
And they had reason: The Jewish attorney from Boca Raton had just defeated Republican incumbent E. Clay Shaw Jr. for control of Florida’s 22nd Congressional District in a bitter, down-to-the-wire election that had Democrats and Republicans on the edge of their seats until Election Day.
The final tally gave Klein 51.1 percent of the total, compared to 46.9 percent for Shaw and 2 percent for Neil Evangelista, the Libertarian candidate.
The victory makes Klein the Sunshine State’s third Jewish member of Congress, in addition to Democratic incumbents Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Robert Wexler — both of whom represent heavily Jewish districts in South Florida.
Klein’s victory was part of a rout that saw Democrats pick up at least 27 seats nationwide Tuesday night, winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since 1994.
“Tonight, for the first time in a very long time, we can say that we have taken our country back,” Wexler told the cheering crowd. “Tonight, Ron Klein has done the impossible: He has beaten Clay Shaw in Broward County.”
Local demographer Ira Sheskin, commenting on the election results, told JTA that “the fact that Klein is identifiably Jewish in a county like Broward, where Jews make up 20 percent to 25 percent of the population, definitely helped him.”
That’s also the case in Palm Beach County, parts of which also belong to the 22nd District.
Alex Schultz, a West Palm Beach lawyer who supported Shaw in 2000, was among those rooting for Klein last night.
“I’ve known Clay Shaw for 26 years. Some of my friends were fund-raisers for him,” he told JTA. “But I felt it was time for a change, and Ron Klein has always impressed me because he represents the average person. Clay Shaw always seems to go with the wind.”
Eight satellite TV trucks were parked outside the Embassy Suites, a testament to the national importance of this race, one of the nastiest and most expensive in the nation. The two candidates spent close to $9 million in a campaign marked largely by negative advertising and voter dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq.
“None of us should underestimate the task that Ron Klein was up against,” Wexler said. “Ron ran the most credible, genuine campaign for Congress that I have ever seen. Ron will have a lot to teach those of us who have watched the Democrats lose election after election.”
Joyce Wernick Jacobs, a Boca Raton resident who’s on the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee and chairwoman of its Darfur Relief campaign, said so many issues were important this time around.
“Energy, immigration, church-state relations, terrorism — all are crucial,” she said. “From a Jewish perspective, Ron Klein will be very supportive of stem-cell research and pro-choice, and will enable immigrants to have the opportunities our ancestors had.”
One of those cheering loudest for Klein on Tuesday night was Danny Halpert of Pompano Beach.
“I think the country needs a huge change of direction,” said Halpert, 66, a retired Jewish schoolteacher from New York who volunteered for the Klein campaign.
“I think it’s important to send a message to the president to get his act together, and to understand that he’s in deep trouble,” Halpert said. “Otherwise, if he doesn’t cooperate with Congress, the last two years of his presidency will be as disgraceful as the first six.”
Another New York transplant, Bruce Levy of Delray Beach, booed Shaw loudly and cheered when Klein’s name flashed across the TV monitor.
“I think the main thing here is stem-cell research,” said Levy, sporting a large “Proud To Be Democrat” pin on his shirt. “My father died from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and my mother-in-law died of Alzheimer’s. And I think it’s important that we have stem-cell research. Ron Klein will support that.”
Not all local Jewish candidates were as successful.
In Tampa, Jewish Democrat Phyllis Busansky, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, lost her bid to represent Florida’s 9th Congressional District. That race was won by Gus Bilirakis, son of the retiring Republican incumbent, Mike Bilirakis.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party, admitted that most Jews still vote Democratic, but said it’s self-destructive in the long run.
“Unfortunately, the main issues driving Jewish voters are non-Jewish issues. They say they don’t just care about Israel, which is their rationalization for voting for all the people whose policies are anti-Israel,” he said. “I speak to these people all the time, and they’re in denial. They don’t care how many Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons, Jimmy Carters and Hillary Clintons are in their party. They were born Democrats and they don’t know anything else.”
Dinerstein lamented Klein’s victory.
“Ron Klein’s entire campaign was ‘I Hate Bush.’ So when your entire campaign is based on making sure everybody knows you hate the best friend Israel ever had, then you’re probably not going to stand up as a friend of Israel,” he said. “You’ll be much more likely to vote the way Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton vote.”
In the weeks leading up to the elections, the Republican Jewish Coalition had placed full-page advertisements in local Jewish newspapers urging voters to look out for Israeli security first. Wasserman Schultz called the ads “disgusting.”
“What’s sad about the RJC is that the only thing they have is fear. They attempted to scare the Jewish community, and fortunately the Jewish community is very knowledgeable about the issues, so those attacks were wasted money,” said Wasserman, who was automatically re-elected to Florida’s 20th Congressional District when no one opposed her.
“Not just Jews but everyone is concerned. People are very frustrated that we’re mired in this conflict that’s degenerated into a civil war, and we don’t appear poised to get out of it anytime soon.”
Now that Democrats have retaken the House and appear to be within striking distance of controlling the Senate, Wasserman Schultz said things will be different in Washington.
“We can hold the administration accountable, and start with insisting on the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld,” she said, referring to the U.S. defense secretary. “We have a rudderless leadership at the helm when it comes to Iraq, and the only one who doesn’t see that is the president.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.