Shifting Sands

I had only to hear Nettie Becker’s voice this past Tuesday to know how bad things look for Matt Fong.

For Jewish Republicans such as Becker, who had traveled in June with Fong to Israel on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), her party’s U.S. senatorial candidate had been a dream come true. He was defined as a moderate — pro-choice, pro-business. In his dark banker’s suits and flat, low-key voice, he is stylistically non-offensive, if not dull. Dullness was good, not only in comparison to fringe Republican right-wing candidate Darryl Issa, whom Fong defeated in the June primary, but also in contrast to Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, who rubs so many the wrong way.

Fong was good on Jewish issues; he was praised for standing up to the Swiss by pulling California money out of Swiss banks until they settled claims by Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

Only weeks before the Nov. 3 election, Becker’s faith in Fong seemed to be rewarded, as some polls showed a seven-point lead in the state treasurer’s favor.

But on Tuesday came despair. The Boxer-Fong race was turned on its head with published reports that Fong had given a $50,000 donation to the Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Pasadena-based Traditional Values Coalition, one of the nation’s most outspoken Christian rights action groups. Sheldon, a self-styled “lobbyist for God,” fights to end abortion and gay rights. The astounding news that Matt Fong had given money to Lou Sheldon (candidates, after all, usually receive embarrassing contributions) was immediately followed by the lame explanation from Fong’s staff that his contribution was designated for that part of the reverend’s program dealing with traditional (non-gay) marriages.

But the harm was done. Just days after the fatal shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., of an obstetrician who performs abortions, and just weeks after the murder of a young gay male in Laramie, Wyo., the political sands are shifting leftward. By Tuesday morning, you could feel support for Fong dry up. Polls showed Boxer with a narrow lead and Republican moderates moving toward Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis. Republicans such as Becker couldn’t hide their grief.

“This is not the Matt Fong I know,” said Becker, trying hard to resurrect the candidate. “I have to tell you, he takes brave stands. When he talks to non-Jewish groups, he talks about Israel. He doesn’t have to do that.”

But others were aghast.

“Ronald Reagan never looked like he was being controlled by the right wing,” one Republican observer told me. “He always looked like he controlled them.”

Before I tell you why I sympathize with Becker, I should say that I’m a big supporter of Barbara Boxer. I could no more vote against her than against my own mother. I can quibble about her style, her too-narrow agenda and her biggest offense — her inability to let people know how much she’s grown in her job (especially on Israel, for which she doesn’t get nearly enough credit) — but it doesn’t matter. I cringed with embarrassment when she bowed to demands by anti-feminists that she publicly criticize President Clinton, her relative through marriage, about Monica Lewinsky. As if Boxer should have played Cotton Mather!

But here’s the truth: She’s a pioneer, a figure of history, a woman breaking down the doors of a man’s club. It’s uncharted territory, and near impossible work. Gail Collins, writing in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, listed five reasons for women fading away from public office. These five — child-rearing, keeping bad male company, problems fund-raising, being too nice and too liberal — all amount to one thing: Women have yet to redefine the political game. I, for one, have to support those who are still in there, pitching.

My Republican friends tell me I’m nuts. They say, maybe rightly, that I can’t see the limitations in candidates I support. But there it is. In a time when politics has more waffles than Roscoe’s, and self-described liberals couldn’t raise a minyan, I’m in Boxer’s camp, for the old-fashioned reasons, because she believes as I do. Boxer is a liberal — pro-public schools, pro-patient rights against HMOs, and pro-choice without equivocation. The fact is she’s one of a kind, and one of my kind. And uncertain of herself as she sometimes acts, she’d never give her money to the Traditional Values Coalition. That counts for something.

Having said that, and recognizing that Fong can still bring off a victory next week, I still feel pain for my moderate Republican friends, who know that the battle is more than who gets the seat in the White House.

Over the past decade, Jews have resisted every effort to bring them into Republican ranks. Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican pollster, tells me that Jewish Republicans still comprise no more than 15 percent of the Jewish voting population, and those are mostly male and religiously Orthodox. The rest of us remain liberal, becoming Reagan Democrats, Reardon Democrats or Rudolph Giuliani Democrats for a time, but then returning home.

In one way, that’s too bad. Jewish activists during the New Deal shaped Democratic liberalism, leavening it with empathy and the universal principle of social justice. Jews now likewise have an equally compelling ideal to bring the Republican Party: the universal principle of tolerance. The greatest threat posed by the Christian right is their misguided notion that only they know about God, only they speak the language of spirit.

As moderate Jewish Republicans struggle to stabilize their party, I wish them well.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is