Democrats Reaching Out To The Orthodox?
Winning party seen trying to broaden its coalition with Jewish bloc
By James D. Besser – Washington Correspondent, New York Jewish Week
It was a wild week in Washington. In the wake of last Tuesday’s midterm elections, Democrats were scrambling to put their leadership together for the 110th Congress, Republicans were scrambling for answers about what went wrong — and interest groups were scrambling to reinforce ties to the new powers that be on Capitol Hill.
For liberal Jewish groups, the return to Democratic control promises enhanced access to the levers of power and a chance some of their top priorities, such as the first increase in the federal minimum wage in a decade, will actually get passed. The minimum-wage hike is at the top of the Democratic leadership’s to-do list.
The change to Democratic control also means the religious right has almost no chance of seeing its legislative priorities enacted.
The changeover is trickier for groups that have benefited from 12 years of Republican control. That includes major Orthodox groups, which have supported key items on the conservative domestic agenda.
But as the Democrats move to broaden their coalition in advance of the 2008 presidential race, few observers expect retaliation against the groups seen as friendly to the Republicans. In fact, the Democrats see big opportunities for working with an Orthodox community that is far less uniformly Republican than the conventional wisdom suggests.
Democratic sources say that while issues such as school vouchers and government money for religious charities won’t see the light of day in the new Congress, there is enough common ground between Orthodox groups and the Democrats to ensure a productive working relationship.
Leading Orthodox activists in Washington agree that political pragmatism, not revenge, will rule.
“The Orthodox community, more than any other segment of the Jewish community, represents a real swing vote,” said Nathan Diament, Washington director for the Orthodox Union. “One would think that with the general interest the Democratic Party has in reaching out to voters, they will want to reach out to us and find places where we can work together, rather than pick a fight.”
Diament said his group has worked with the Democrats on many key issues, including stem cell research.
“That has gotten us a lot of grief from the Republicans,” he said. “People who see us as aligned with one side or the other don’t understand what it means to represent a constituency where the interest and values of that constituency are our marching orders.”
Diament added that some of the most visible new Democratic members of Congress, such as congressman-elect Heath Schuler (D-N.C.) are those who have taken more conservative positions on many hot-button issues — and who have “explicitly reached out to religious voters. The Democrats will have to do something concrete, on a policy level, to show that this was not just talk.”
Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, cited his group’s work on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind act. “We worked very hard with leaders on both sides to craft the positions we felt were important for our schools,” he said. “We’ve also worked on a bipartisan basis on issues such as housing and health resource issues.”
Rabbi Cohen said that he does not expect to be shut out of Democratic offices.
“We are seen as allied with conservatives more by the rest of the Jewish community and by the media than by the Democrats and Republicans themselves,” he said. “They are all accustomed to working with us.”
And he alluded to the political dimension of expanded outreach to religious Jews.
“If the Democrats are smart, they will see this as a big opportunity. This election proved that the Orthodox community is not woodenly beholden to one party; we determine things on an issue-by-issue basis, working with all kinds of different coalitions.”
Rabbi Cohen said there may be especially large opportunities for the Democrats to work with Orthodox activists on the state and local levels, and to find common ground on religious liberties issues such as the stalled Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA).
A leading Democrat agreed.
“The fact is, most Orthodox Jews in this country are represented in Congress by Democrats, and have very good working relations with them,” this source said, pointing to the New York congressional delegation. “That will provide the basis for a good working relationship as we move into control of Congress.”