Virginia’s Jews eye state candidates and issues



This November, Virginians will go to the polls and vote for candidates to become governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, the three highest state executive branch positions. The Republican and Democratic candidates have already begun campaigning and their stances on the issues of the economy, health care and other pressing concerns for the state are being articulated in ads and debates despite the months remaining until the election.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, facing off as gubernatorial candidates have stressed their disparate views on improving the economy, women’s health and a host of other social and economic views, echoed by lieutenant governor candidates E.W. Jackson (R) and Ralph Northam (D) and attorney general candidates Mark Obenshain (R) and Mark Herring (D).

Although Jews make up just a little over 1 percent of Virginia’s population, the organizational influence of the Jewish community assures that candidates still consider them and issues important to them as necessary to address. Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said his own organization will likely host several open forums for the candidates in conjunction with local synagogues and other groups. Issues like nonprofit funding by the government are especially vital, he said, but for the most part the issues that concern Jews in Virginia mirror those of residents of the state as a whole.

“There’s no distinct difference between Jewish voters and other voters,” Halber said.

Jewish voters have already been keeping an eye on the races, not just in Virginia but nationally as well, as they are in some ways seen as a microcosm of national politics despite the historical trends that mostly lean toward Republican candidates.

“People are looking for intelligent conversation about serious issues,” said Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. “It’s not too early. People have been talking about it.”

As to whom they will support, Halber said that although there is a tendency for the Jewish community to vote for progressive candidates, there are times, especially at state and local levels, that they vote for the more conservative, almost always Republican, candidate.

“We have plenty of people who are on the entire spectrum,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.

Social issues like the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, abortion rights and marriage equality are always at the forefront of elections and the candidates are nowhere near each other in their views.

McAuliffe has not been shy in proclaiming his progressive views on those issues, and has discussed wanting to implement the ACA and encourage environmentalism as part of his campaign. He does not have an unimpeded road to the Jewish vote, however. His strong ties to the national Democratic Party and past role as DNC chair as well as his ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton do not necessarily endear him to Virginians.

“I think people are struggling with McAuliffe as well,” Schwartzman said.

McAuliffe’s previous unsuccessful bid for state office also puts a cloud over him among Democrats in his congregation, Moline said. They wonder whether he is the strongest candidate who could have run. His record as DNC chairman and his work with national candidates tend to give him the image of someone who toes the party line, which may not serve him well in the election.

His running mates have for the most part expressed similar views and are “pretty solid figures in state politics,” Moline said.

Conversely, Cuccinelli has been linked to some of the more extreme political views of his own party. He has categorically stated his desire to limit abortion rights, repeatedly rejected the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and even touted his efforts to bring back Virginia’s anti-sodomy law.

“Even for Republicans in my congregation, who are numerous if not the majority, I’m not hearing a lot of support [for Cuccinelli],” Moline said, adding, of the Republican ticket as a whole, “Their positions are not historically supported by the Jewish community.”

Schwartzman said people in her own congregation who might typically vote Republican “find him [Cuccinelli] to be extremist.”

Of special concern to Jewish organizations is his belief that no state funding should go to nonprofits, a hindrance to the social programs such groups would like to pursue in partnership with the state, Halber said.

Meanwhile, Cuccinelli’s running mate, E.W. Jackson, has garnered far more attention than might be expected when running for the lieutenant governorship. His controversial comments such as calling government programs worse than slavery for African-Americans and saying that homosexuality destroys society are so extreme that even voters who go for Cuccinelli may decide to vote for Northam over Jackson.

There’s lots of “head shaking” over “how the Republicans could have picked such a ticket,” Moline said.

It’s still early in the election cycle, but as advertisements spread and money pours into the campaigns, things will likely heat up fast. Whatever happens in November, Jews in Virginia will continue to lobby for the issues that matter to them, Halber said, though how they do so and with what success may depend on the outcome.

“The Jewish community is able to work with whoever might win,” he said.

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