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Upcoming Gubernatorial Races Could Place Jews in State House

May 15, 2002
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Could this be the year of the Jewish governor?

A surprising number of Jewish candidates are seeking governorships across the country, making plays for an office that has eluded a significant Jewish political presence.

With 36 gubernatorial races this fall, seven Jewish candidates are in the running. It’s not a staggering number, but only 17 Jews have ever served as governors since 1801 — though data for the early years is not precise.

With the U.S. Senate now able to hold a minyan, the Jewish candidates, all but one of whom are Democrats, are trying make inroads into a new political arena.

Two races on May 21 will help determine how good the chances are to see a Jewish governor, as two Jewish candidates face challengers in their respective primaries and stake out their positions for November elections. In Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, faces Pat Casey. Rendell is thought to have a good chance for the open seat, and is likely to be favored by Jewish voters.

And in Oregon, polls show Jewish Democrat Bev Stein running strongly against four other Democrats. Stein has the backing of Emily’s List, the Sierra Club and other large organizations.

If either candidate goes on to win the November elections it could mark a change for Jewish political aspirations in America.

Jews have played an impressive role in American politics, serving as presidential appointees, members of presidents’ Cabinets and congressional legislators.

But there have been few Jewish gubernatorial candidates, and even fewer Jewish governors. Oddly, almost all of the Jewish governors have served in states with few Jews such as Alaska, Idaho and Utah.

The phenomenon of Jews winning political success — but not the state house — might be explained by several factors.

Many of today’s Jewish politicians followed a well-worn political path by running for a congressional seat and getting the support of their communities. Jews from heavily Jewish areas received help from their Jewish constituencies, and it became commonplace to see Jews in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But it’s not surprising that federal office offered the best odds for Jewish candidates.

State and local offices years ago tended to be controlled by the power of political machines, so national offices allowed outsiders a better chance of winning, said Stephen Whitfield, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University.

Unlike the Irish in major Northeastern and Midwestern cities, Jews simply did not have the numbers to take over existing political machines or construct their own.

Big-city machines were not “the obvious place for Jews,” Whitfield said.

“The decline of the machines makes it possible for Jews and other groups to seek office without being beholden to tribal politics,” he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a surge of Jewish success in politics. A number of Jews wanted to serve in positions where they could help Israel, experts believe, and Congress seemed to be the best place.

“It’s the avenue for influence in foreign policy-making,” said David Dalin, an American Jewish historian who has written about Jews and American politics.

A number of legislators have moved from the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate.

If a representative gains expertise and develops an interest in foreign policy, that makes it more likely that he or she could move on to the Senate and continue that influence. But foreign policy expertise may not be the first thing on local voters’ minds when they choose a governor for their state, Dalin said.

It remains to be seen if the number of Jewish candidates for governor this year heralds a shift, or whether this is just an unusual year.

Republican Linda Lingle could make political history on a number of fronts if she defeats six other candidates in Hawaii. The state has not had a Republican governor in 40 years, but Lingle, the head of the state’s Republican Party, is polling well and has the highest favorable name recognition in the field of candidates.

Lingle would become only the second Jewish woman to serve as governor, after Madeleine Kunin was Vermont’s governor from 1985 to 1991.

One Jew is certain to lose this September as both former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman are fighting for the Democratic nomination in Massachusetts.

They may be splitting the liberal Jewish vote, but both are doing well. If they make it through the June party convention, either could be a player in the toss-up race.

There are longer shots as well. Lois Frankel is running against former Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida, and the Democratic primary winner ultimately will have to contend with Gov. Jeb Bush.

In Nevada, Democrat Matthew Dushoff is running in the primary, but Gov. Kenny Guinn’s seat is considered safe.

But pundits predict that Republicans will lose governorships, and Democratic candidates in general stand a good chance since the economic problems many states face will be blamed on the Republicans who control many of the statehouses.

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