Abner Mikva, judge and congressman who mentored a president, dies at 90

Abner Mikva, a federal judge and congressman who served as a mentor to a range of Democratic politicians from the Chicago area, died at age 90.

Mikva died Monday in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune. His political career, spanning five decades, saw him serve in state and national office as well as all three branches of government.Among those he mentored were President Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan and Rep. Jan Schakowski (D-Ill.).

In 2014, Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to Mikva.

“When I was graduating law school, Ab encouraged me to pursue public service,” Obama said in a statement, according to the Tribune. “He saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself, but I know why he did it — Ab represented the best of public service himself and he believed in empowering the next generation of young people to shape our country.”

Mikva was born in 1926 in Milwaukee to Jewish immigrants from present-day Ukraine. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, and in a famous anecdote, was rebuffed by Chicago’s political machine in his first attempt to get involved in politics. When he visited a local campaign office, uninvited, to volunteer for Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection bid, an operative sent him away, saying, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

He was first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1956, and became a member of Congress in 1969. He served five terms in the House of Representatives until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter appointed him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He served there for 15 years, including five years as chief judge. In 1994, President Bill Clinton made him White House counsel.

He is survived by three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Congressmen tell Obama to increase pressure on Iran over nukes

In the wake of Iran’s recent election, a bipartisan group of congressmen are calling on President Obama to increase pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was perceived to be the most moderate of the candidates and “while this was not a free and fair election, judged by international standards, its outcome reflected considerable dissatisfaction by the Iranian people with an autocratic and repressive government that has internationally isolated Iran,” the letter from the congressmen to Obama noted.

The June 28 letter was signed by Reps. Ed Royce, (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and 43 other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The letter pointed out that “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity.” It also noted that Rouhani previously served as his country’s nuclear negotiator and had indicated his support for the program in a post-election news conference.

“Our diplomatic goal must be to reach a negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. For this outcome to be realized, Iran must face intensifying pressure,” the congressmen wrote.

Barney Frank to wed same-sex partner in Mass.

Barney Frank, a 16-term U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, plans to marry his partner, his office said on Thursday.

Frank, 71, who announced his decision to retirement from the House of Representatives late last year, will marry partner Jim Ready in a ceremony in Massachusetts, spokesman Harry Gural said. Frank is a Democrat.

Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004.

No other details on the date or location were being released at this time.

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1980, Frank was one of the first openly gay politicians to serve in office at a national level in the United States.

Reporting By Lauren Keiper; Editing by Paul Thomsach and Will Dunham

Woman who sent anti-Semitic package to congressman killed

An Atlanta-area woman who sent a threatening package with an anti-Semitic note to a U.S. congressman was killed after attacking a police officer.

Jameela Barnette, 53, attacked a police officer with a knife and a gun when he knocked on the door of her apartment after responding to a call about an alarm. The officer shot her with his service weapon, The Marietta Daily Journal reported.

Barnette, who was Muslim, in April mailed a bloody pig’s foot and an anti-Semitic note to U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, in the wake of hearings that King held in March to investigate what the congressman characterized as the “radicalization” of the American Muslim community.

The letter, which reportedly was full of anti-Semitic sentiment, also reportedly referred to King as Jew. King, who has served in Congress since 1993, is not Jewish.

She was also accused of sending a stuffed Curious George doll to New York State Sen. Greg Ball, who chaired a separate state legislative hearing on terrorism at which King spoke. The doll had two Stars of David taped to it with a note saying “Final Destination: Auschwitz,” Politico reported.

“I knew the Jews were behind the hearings. A monkey is a representation of who the Jews are,” she was quoted as saying, according to The Marietta Daily Journal.

Giffords ekes out victory, Altschuler in play

Two Jewish congressional hopefuls—a Democratic incumbent and a Republican seeking his first term—may have won seats by narrow margins.

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was declared the winner last Friday night over Republican Jesse Kelly in a Tucson-area district. The victory means a third term for Giffords, who was first elected in the GOP-leaning district in the Democratic sweep of 2006.

She embraced tough immigration policies as part of her campaign this year, distancing herself from national Democrats.

Meanwhile, in New York’s 1st Congressional District, a recanvassing of the voting machines erased Randy Altschuler’s 3,400 deficit, propelling him to a lead of 392 votes over Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), who represents eastern Long Island.

Neither party was set to declare victory, as counting had yet to begin on 9,000 absentee ballots, but Bishop said Monday that he would demand a hand recount.

Altschuler, who owns a recycling company, would become the second Jewish GOP congressman, joining the Republican whip, Rep. Eric Cantor (D-Va.)

McCain campaign checks out sole Jewish Republican Congressman as possible VP

WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor bridges two unlikely constituencies, say those hoping to see the Virginia Republican on John McCain’s presidential ticket: Jews and hard-core, red state conservatives.

Pressed, however, these Cantor devotees admit there’s not much between those two constituencies that the Jewish deputy minority whip in the House of Representatives would bring to the race to keep the White House Republican.

“There’s a positive and negative to not being a household name,” said William Daroff, the top Jewish lobbyist here focused on domestic issues and himself a former Republican operative.

“The positive is that it gives him the opportunity to frame anew who he is and what he’s all about, a vision for the future. The negative is that other than helping him in Virginia and in some battleground states because of his Jewishness, he doesn’t have a proven national brand,” said Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the federations’ umbrella, the United Jewish Communities.

The campaign for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has asked Cantor, 45, to present papers for vice-presidential vetting. Political insiders say Cantor is still a longshot, however. Most bets are on McCain’s rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Cantor and his staff declined to be interviewed for this article. But even as recently as May, the only Jewish Republican in the House discounted suggestions that he would place on the ticket, giggling as he told JTA that such speculation was “ridiculous.”

Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, Cantor’s biggest booster, seemed skeptical that Cantor would be the VP pick, issuing a statement that sounded a lot like the “we were happy to just be considered” speeches delivered by also-rans.

“Regardless of what McCain decides, Cantor has a very bright future ahead of him,” said Suzanne Kurtz, the RJC spokeswoman. “He is an appealing and articulate leader for Jewish Republicans and all Republicans. As the GOP continues to make inroads in the Jewish community, it is a wonderful moment to introduce this rising star to a wider audience.”

Don’t count out Cantor or underestimate the impact he could make in the presidential election, said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who as minority whip functions as Cantor’s congressional boss.

Blunt said Cantor could tip the balance among Jews who are concerned about the pro-Israel credentials of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

“At a time when many Jewish voters who voted Democratic in the past are going to look carefully between John McCain and Barack Obama on Middle East and economic issues, Eric Cantor can add a real boost to what I already believe will be a significant hard look by Jewish voters at John McCain,” Blunt told JTA.

The McCain campaign has worked hard to draw distinctions between the two candidates on Iran particularly. Obama favors increased diplomacy, while McCain leans toward confrontation and isolation.

Polls already show McCain reducing the 75 percent to 25 percent edge Democrats have had in past presidential races among Jews to a 60-40 split favoring Democrats. That, Blunt said, could bring swing states with significant Jewish populations into play, including Florida and New Jersey.

Cantor already has served as an attack dog on Jewish issues for the McCain campaign.

He told JTA in May that he was confident that McCain, with his reputation as a foreign policy hawk and a moderate on social issues, would take a bite out of the Jewish vote.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the American Jewish community is going to register an unprecedented number of votes for the Republicans and Mr. McCain,” Cantor said, suggesting specifically that Jewish voters will balk at Obama’s pledge of direct talks with Iran.

In a statement sent to reporters, Cantor misquoted Obama as telling the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel was a “constant sore” in the Middle East. In fact, Obama was referring to the conflict, enunciating a view echoed by Bush administration officials, including the president himself.

Goldberg asked Cantor to retract the statement; Cantor has not.

That’s not atypical for the deputy whip, often the chief strategist in formulating political attacks. In 2006, Cantor launched a broadside against U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the minority leader, for her efforts to include consideration of Lebanese civilians in a pro-Israel resolution on the Israel-Hezbollah war that summer.

Cantor painted Pelosi as insufficiently concerned about Israeli civilians, even though the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had approved her language.

Cantor has a personal story that could prove attractive to Jews and conservatives. He’s always been close to his family, and apart from college years spent in New York — where he met his wife, Diana — has spent his life in Richmond working in the family real estate business.

He made his first run for Congress in 2000 after serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. His family has deep ties in the local Jewish community; his mother and wife are active in the local Hadassah chapter.

Cantor’s rise in Congress was meteoric. In 2003, during his sophomore term, he was named to the powerful deputy whip position.

One blip along the way: He benefited from the largesse of the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, taking more than $30,000 in campaign contributions from an operation eventually exposed for defrauding American Indians.

In 2006, after Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud and corruption charges, Cantor gave $10,000 of the money to charity. In 2003, Cantor was briefly caught up in “picklegate,” when his campaign neglected to pay Abramoff’s kosher deli, Stacks, for a fund-raiser.

Cantor apologized, paid the $1,700 and was not sanctioned.

Those close to him credit his prodigious fund-raising skills for his rapid rise in Congress.

“Congressman Cantor has an excellent relationship with Jews who are engaged in campaign finance activities whether as Republican Jewish Coalition leaders, AIPAC leaders or as Jewish federation stalwarts,” Daroff said.

That would help McCain, who is not a natural fund-raiser.

Cantor’s deeply held conservative convictions also would help a presidential candidate who has made conservatives nervous because of his maverick tendencies.

Democrats say that those same views — Cantor’s tough advocacy of right-to-life positions, of Bush administration secrecy policies and of pro-gun laws — could ultimately harm him among Jews when those views come to light.

“Eric Cantor is out of step with the values and views of the vast majority of the American Jewish community,” said Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Whether the issue is separation of church and state, women’s reproductive rights, stem cell research, health care or the environment, Eric Cantor votes wrong.”

Forman said the novelty of a Jewish Republican on the ticket would soon wear off.

“Hardly anyone outside the political elites in the Jewish community knows who Eric Cantor is,” he said. “The more people know about him the less they’ll like him.”

That’s true only if one expects a Republican to leave his convictions behind, said Brad Wine, a lawyer who is a fund-raiser for Cantor and heads the RJC’s Washington-area chapter. Wine said Cantor’s views on abortion stem from his Jewish observance.

“It’s true we’re not proportionately divided on the issue,” Wine said, referring to the Jewish tendency to favor pro-choice positions, “but it’s something we can disagree about based on Jewish learning.”

Cantor also gently presses fellow Republicans on issues where they diverge from the Jewish community, said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Council.

Halber said Cantor’s backing was critical to advancing Iran divestment legislation among his former Republican colleagues in the Virginian House. The state’s Republicans, still smarting from losing a fight over divestment from South Africa in the 1980s, believe that legislative mandates to divest state pensions amount to unwarranted political interference.

“Eric was involved quietly trying to persuade people,” Halber said. “His quiet diplomacy helped move it forward.”

Daroff said Cantor has been an effective representative of Jewish concerns to the Republican caucus. Cantor, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, helped resist efforts to limit tax exemptions for nonprofits, Daroff said, citing an issue of importance to the Jewish community.

Blunt affirmed that Cantor was the go-to man for the Republican leadership when it came to Jewish issues.

“The fact that Eric’s the only Jewish Republican member of the House creates an entry for the community,” he said.

Core Values Too Often Ignored

This piece is excerpted from remarks Rep. Henry Waxman gave at Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture delivered at USC April 23.

What drew me to politics was the esteem I had always felt for public service and the commitment of our religious values to justice, human and civil rights, peace and the importance of helping all people be able to realize their full potential. And, of course, the essential task for our nation to be engaged in the world as a force for good.

As a Jewish congressman, I have been mindful that even in America, there have only been 157 Jews who have ever served in the House of Representatives; that I was the first Jew ever to have been elected from Southern California and the first in California in 40 years when I was elected in 1974. Today, we have 24 Jewish members, many from districts with very few Jewish constituents and seven from Southern California.

I am proud to have played a role as a congressman in events that impacted the Jewish people. My wife, Janet and I were in Egypt and Israel when, after meeting with both President [Anwar] Sadat and Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin, Sadat came to Jerusalem. We sat is amazement as we heard his speech in the Knesset. We fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews, visited Refuseniks, pressured Soviet leaders, and saw the doors open to allow them to leave. Janet was an instrumental player in the efforts to help Syrian Jews leave. We were in Israel as the airlift of Ethiopians arrived in Israel. I was able to attend the White House ceremonies for the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the signings of the ill-fated Oslo agreement between Arafat and Rabin; the dinner in honor of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan. Last August, we were in Israel as it undertook the difficult disengagement from the Gaza.

While I have always had a strong Jewish identity, only as an adult have I explored more deeply the Jewish religion. The Jewish way is to have us elevate ourselves and refine our character through the observance of mitzvot. Judaism is much more about acting and doing the right thing, rather than believing the right things. Ethics is at Judaism’s core. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.

Actions and how we live our lives and treat others is at the heart of the matter. To aid us along these lines, we have specific obligations. Tzedakah, which means righteousness, not charity, helps bring justice to others and sanctity to ourselves. The discipline of kashrut raises the most mundane of routine acts into a religious reminder that we are distinctive and the mere physical satisfaction of our appetite can be a spiritual act. Shabbat gives sanctity to time to refresh our body and our soul. It has great meaning for me primarily to remind me, no matter how important I may or am supposed to be, the world can get along without me quite well for one day. It puts a lot of things into perspective.

Jewish observance is a check on our arrogance, self-importance, rationalizations to do what we want. We are required to fulfill the ethical commands and to choose to overcome our natural inclinations that are not worthy.

I have looked at the issue of governmental power in a similar way. Our U.S. Constitution tries to put in place a mechanism for checks and balances because our founders did not trust the concentration of power and the arrogance and corruption that can come with it. By the way, Jewish sources also resist an absolute power structure. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik referred to a well-known axiom that power tends to corrupt the one who wields it. The noblest, best-intentioned ruler is affected by the glory, tribute, and power of his office. This may cause him to step over the boundary of legitimate authority. The human ego is likely to be distorted and intoxicated by a status, which has no external limits.

For the last six years, we’ve essentially had one-party rule in Washington. And for the last decade, the Republican congressional leadership has governed with the idea that the most important job for them was to keep the Republicans together instead of trying to seek bipartisanship.

Next week, the Republicans will put forth a bill in the House for lobbying reform, in response to the convictions of Duke Cunningham, and the indictments and convictions of a number of staff people around Tom Delay, who also has been indicted. The problem runs far deeper than can be cured by superficial reform. The problem starts not with lobbyists, but with Congress itself.

Look at the Medicare prescription drug bill. Negotiations were behind closed doors; Democrats excluded. Key estimates about the bill’s costs were withheld by a government official who was told he would be fired if he disclosed the information. Two key negotiators ended up working for the drug companies after the bill passed. And when the bill was short of votes on the House floor, the 15-minute roll call was extended to three hours. A Republican member was offered a bribe to vote for it. Now, seniors are trying to make sense of the law and how it affects them, while the drug and insurance companies are coming out the big winners, as the legislation is projected to cost billions more than originally thought.

What about our checks and balances? What about self restraint and ethical guidelines? It is as if recklessness is invited because some leaders do not think they will be held accountable.

Oversight is important, and if done right it can find the truth and bring real change.

At the same time the Congress is refusing to do oversight, the Bush administration acted, even before Sept. 11, 200l, with greater secrecy than any other in history, exceeding even Richard Nixon’s.

Last year, Congressional Quarterly, the nonpartisan magazine reported that:

“Administration secrecy has become the rule rather than the exception, a phenomenon that lawmakers, journalists, public interest groups and even ordinary Americans say has interfered with their ability to participate in government and to hold it accountable for its actions.”

Congressional Quarterly went on to note that some of the documents the administration has withheld seem to have little to do with the war on terrorism and a lot to do with keeping embarrassing information from the public.

There’s no doubt that some things must be kept secret. Our national security demands some information must be kept secret for the good of all. But what we have here is an obsession for secrecy.

Think about the secrets that we now know about: the wiretapping of Americans; a network of foreign prisons; information about detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Sept. 11 documents proving that the White House had been warned abut the use of hijacked airplanes as weapons

I do not intend to be partisan. But I do believe that the leadership of our government in both Congress and the Executive Branch has turned away from core values we have as Americans and as Jews.

Rep. Henry Waxman is a Democrat representing the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles.


JDate a Capitol Idea

A second U.S. congressman has been found using JDate. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) began using the Jewish online dating service in May under the screen name “jim2005ofDC,” The Hill newspaper reported.

A spokesman for the California congressman confirmed that he used the service.

Sherman chose not to offer much information on his profile, telling one prospective female that he did not want the entry to become a news item, which happened to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) when he used JDate last year.

Sherman, 51, is a lifelong bachelor.


JDL Trial Set for October

The trial of Jewish Defense League (JDL) leaders Irv Rubin and Earl Krugel on criminal conspiracy charges in the alleged plot to detonate bombs at a mosque and a congressman’s office is scheduled to begin in October. As Rubin and Krugel await their trial in a shared cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center, information has slowly come out about the informant who helped the government build its case since the arrests in December.

At the heart of the case against Rubin and Krugel are hours of tapes recorded by an informant working for the FBI. The tapes have been turned over to defense lawyers but are still being transcribed.

However, Rubin’s attorney, Brian Altman, believes that there is more to the case than the version of events on the tapes. "The government has an agenda," he says, "so they’ve investigated along that agenda. Then they dump it on you and — bam!"

Altman believes the tapes, once they are fully transcribed, will help prove that his client — who was present at only two of the 11 recorded meetings — was convinced to go along with the alleged bomb plot by the informant. Listening to the tapes, says Altman, "there’s a strong suggestion that the government’s informant was critical to this plan: he’s the one who’s very animated."

The informant, Danny Gillis, 23, is a former Navy petty officer who, while in high school, was reportedly a member of a Jewish pride gang in the Porter Ranch area of the San Fernando Valley. A source close to Gillis says that while he often fought with white supremacist youths while in high school, he has no arrest record.

While serving in the Navy, the source says, Gillis was the JDL’s "No. 1 kid in L.A.," who often threatened or fought with people identified by the JDL as anti-Semites. But Gillis ended his contact with the JDL in early 2001, after his honorable discharge from the Navy. Months before he was allegedly recruited by Rubin and Krugel for the bombings, Gillis had begun taking classes at a community college and working as a bank teller.

According to the source, Gillis turned to the FBI because of the targets chosen, not the violence he was asked to commit. Gillis’ interest in the JDL reportedly stemmed from his hatred of skinheads, especially a racist gang known as the Peckerwoods. The source says that Gillis has Muslim and Arab American friends and believed the JDL went too far in targeting a mosque,"where there could be innocent children." When Gillis learned the JDL wanted him to attack Muslim and Arab American targets, Gillis turned to the FBI and agreed to record their meetings, according to the source.

The FBI paid Gillis "lost salary," an amount equal to what the informant had been making at his bank teller job before becoming an informant. Krugel defense attorney Mark Werksman says he has requested an interview with Gillis, but "I’ve been told that he wouldn’t speak with us." Altman has also been unable to speak with the prosecution’s star witness.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner, who is prosecuting the case, says that Gillis is neither required nor forbidden to speak with Rubin’s or Krugel’s attorneys. "Informants are always protected," Jessner says. "If the informant wishes to speak to the defense, the informant may. Our job is to protect the informant, not to keep the informant from speaking to defense counsel."

Gillis is currently living outside of Los Angeles and plans to "disappear" after the trial, scheduled to begin Oct. 1.