Edwards Garners Jewish Praise

U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) doesn’t need to represent a state with a lot of Jews to understand the needs of the Jewish community, supporters say.

"In a lot of ways, John Edwards transcends North Carolina," said Lonnie Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who backed Edwards when he sought the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who defeated Edwards to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president earlier this year, named the trial lawyer-turned-legislator as his running mate Tuesday.

Speaking to supporters in Pittsburgh, Kerry described Edwards as "man whose life has prepared him for leadership, and whose character brings him to exercise it."

The much-anticipated announcement didn’t trigger the same elation among Jews that Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s selection did four years ago when the Connecticut Democrat became the first Jewish name on a national ticket.

But there is seemingly solid support among Jewish Democrats hoping that Edwards’ selection will help bolster Kerry’s bid to unseat President Bush.

The National Jewish Democratic Council called Edwards "an outstanding friend of the American Jewish community and a powerful supporter [of the positions] held by the vast majority of American Jews."

As the number of candidates dwindled in the Democratic primary last winter, several significant Jewish contributors became enamored with Edwards. Activists like Kaplan, who initially backed Lieberman, found in Edwards a solid supporter of Israel and someone able to connect with Jewish voters on issues of importance.

"His basic instincts are in line with the community," said Ryan Karben, a Jewish state assemblyman in New York who represents an area with several Chasidic communities. "That’s reassuring because it doesn’t come across as contrived or gleaned from years of meetings."

Karben brought Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, to a meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis when she was campaigning for her husband for the state’s primary. At the time, Elizabeth spoke of her belief in a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, participants said.

The Jewish community has had a lot less contact with Edwards than with Lieberman or other candidates who came to national campaigns with decades of Washington experience.

But supporters and Jewish analysts say Edwards has warm ties with Jews in his state.

Edwards was a highly successful trial lawyer in North Carolina seven years ago when he sought a seat in the U.S. Senate, largely financing his own campaign. That meant Edwards didn’t spend as much time as other aspiring lawmakers courting support and dollars in the Jewish community, both in and out of his state, North Carolina Jewish activists said.

"He didn’t seek out the Jewish community," unlike others who "go from candidate event to candidate event begging for money," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Democratic political consultant from North Carolina who made a failed bid for Congress in 1994. "Because he was self-financed, he could avoid a lot of that."

Edwards nonetheless has earned Jews’ respect. He has a solid voting record on Israel, pro-Israel lobbyists say, and he emphasizes issues that resonate with many Jewish voters: health, education and poverty.

Edwards visited Israel with colleagues from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001 and was there when a suicide bomber attacked a Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.

"I think the trip left on him an understanding," said Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro businessman who is a board member for AIPAC. "He really gets the strategic issues, the existential issues."

In a statement during his presidential bid, Edwards said he would, as president, increase U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the appointment of a senior envoy to the region.

He said he supports a two-state solution, with the Jewish State of Israel and "a legitimate, democratic and territorially viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace."

And he signaled support for Israel’s anti-terrorism tactics, including the security barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank.

"As long as the Palestinian leadership fails to end terror, Israel has a right to take measures to defend itself," Edwards said. "Such defensive measures are not the cause of terrorism — they are the response to terrorism."

As part of the rollout of Edwards as a candidate for vice president, Kerry’s campaign took note of his foreign policy experience, including meetings he has had with Middle East leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; former Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Ephraim Halevy, who heads the Mossad intelligence service; Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Jordanian King Abdullah II.

On the domestic front, Edwards said that he supports faith-based charities delivering social services "in a manner consistent with the First Amendment," but did not specify whether he supports federal funding for such charities.

But in contrast to the Bush administration’s plan that allows religious charities to receive federal funds while allowing the hiring of individuals of a specific religion, Edwards said the charities should follow anti-discrimination standards.

He is a former co-sponsor of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, legislation that has languished in Congress for years and would give employees the right to seek accommodations for their religious practices. While Edwards has not put his name to the legislation this year, Jewish organizational officials say he is expected to support the legislation if it moves forward for a vote.

A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Edwards has called for changes to the USA Patriot Act, which some say strips away civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

He also has actively backed hate crime legislation that would expand federal authority for prosecuting hate crimes.

He has a high rating from abortion rights activists but was absent from Senate votes on the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.

While he was running for president, Edwards emphasized his experience growing up poor in the South and how that helped shape an outlook that makes him attractive to groups that see themselves as outsiders scrambling to get in.

"I feel such a personal responsibility when it comes to issues of civil rights and race," Edwards told voters at a New Hampshire restaurant last December, shortly before the state’s primary.

In his stump speech, Edwards said the color of one’s skin or any other circumstances of birth "should never control your destiny."

"I’ll never forget when I was in the sixth grade — I was living in Georgia at the time — my sixth grade teacher walked into the classroom at the end of the day and said he wouldn’t be teaching next year because they were about to integrate the schools, and he wouldn’t teach in an integrated school," Edwards told high school students attending a forum at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire. "He unfortunately didn’t use the language that I just used."

Born in South Carolina on June 10, 1953, Edwards and his family soon moved to North Carolina, where he spent most of his childhood. He was the first in his family to go to college, graduating from North Carolina State University in 1974. He received a law degree from the UNC at Chapel Hill in 1977.

Edwards’ specialty in law was personal-injury cases involving children. He won a record-setting verdict for Valerie Lakey, a girl who was severely injured by a faulty swimming pool drain in 1993.

He was apolitical until the 1996 death of his eldest son, Wade — who was killed at age 16 in a car accident — changed Edwards’ life.

"When John walked out of the church for Wade’s funeral, all he said was, ‘Something good has got to come from this,’" said Fred Baron, who was the co-finance chairman of Edwards’ presidential campaign and a former president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "You saw a transformation."

Edwards withdrew completely for six months, friends said, and walked away from his law practice.

"He decided at that point that he wanted to do something other than the strict practice of law," said Ken Broun, a former dean of UNC’s law school. He wanted a larger mission, and he chose to challenge incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a Republican.

"When he decided to run for political office, it made incredible sense to me because of his incredible talent to connect with people," said Bill Cassell, a longtime Edwards friend and former Jewish federation campaign chairman in Greensboro.

Kaplan, the Greensboro businessman, remembers early meetings Edwards held with Jews in the community.

"When he first started considering the Senate race, he was a great listener," Kaplan told JTA earlier this year. "He was as knowledgeable as someone can get when they first run for office but didn’t have first-hand experience."

Upon his election in 1998, Edwards continued listening.

"A lot of times you go into a Senate office and they just repeat back to you the party line," Kaplan said. "With John, he would really listen and you could tell he was really thinking about it."

Edwards, a Methodist, has a good grasp on the religious politics of his state, friends say.

"Up until the last 15 years, this was a fairly lonely place for Jews and Catholics," Broun said. "I think he understands that."

In a statement Edwards wrote for JTA, he said, "Faith is enormously important to me personally and to tens of millions of Americans."

Edwards’ friends say the candidate is privately spiritual. Cassell said that Elizabeth Edwards "wouldn’t let him be any other way."

The couple, married in 1977, have three living children. Their eldest daughter, Cate, is a recent graduate of Princeton University. They have another daughter, Emma Claire, 6, and a son, Jack, 4.

Baron described Edwards as someone with "a great deal of inner peace."

"I’ve never seen him look troubled or act troubled," he said. "If he has a bad day, he just moves on to the next one."

State Races Get Hot

As I made the rounds of endless cocktail parties and debates two weeks before March 7 primary day, I could see that the Jewish community has little reason to cheer term limits, just as it will not likely salute restrictions on campaign contributions, if that should ever come to pass. The Jewish community has spent much of the past 30 years learning the effective use of government for the wider public good. The race between Assembly members Wally Knox and Sheila Kuehl to replace State Senator Tom Hayden is another case of chopping our institutional wisdom at its root. Newly-installed Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, already regarded as one of the most effective and professional legislators of his generation, will be term-limited out of office at the next election term.

As it is, the Knox/Kuehl fight is being waged as gingerly as two hard-hitting adversaries can make it — velvet on steel.

“Time after time we agree on much,” Knox told the Sherman Oaks Property Owner Association last week. “We are strategic allies.”

Nevertheless, much of this newspaper’s readership lives in State Senate District 23, extending from Sherman Oaks to Westlake and Malibu, in which 25 percent of the electorate is Jewish. So how will you likely vote?

The answer is, probably with much pain.

The assets of both candidates — two Harvard Law graduates, both well-known in the Jewish community, with vast identification on liberal issues, are easy to enumerate. Since you’ve received their mailers, too, I’ll just say that what impresses me about each is as follows:

Knox, a former labor lawyer, has a gut instinct for high-profile consumer issues like saving the 310/818 area codes and studying the car-choked 405/101 freeways. He acted fast on gun control, especially after Buford O. Furrow, Jr. opened fire on the North Valley JCC. He played a key role in legislation enabling Holocaust survivors and their families to recoup on European insurance policies. In the battle of endorsements, Knox has Mayor Riordan. One factor in the loss of Gov. Gray Davis to Kuehl may be Knox’s early support of Jane Harmon in her gubernatorial bid.

Kuehl, forever known as Zelda Gilroy on “Dobie Gillis,” takes an equally effective approach, especially with regard to family-related issues like nursing care, HMOs, financial privacy and overhaul of the Kafka-esque child-support collection system. She acted fast to repair Pacific Coast Highway, and is a fervent protector of motion picture industry interests, and the environment. And she’s an independent thinker, a maverick who refused to back Gov. Pete Wilson’s hastily-designed, potentially disastrous school “reform” package, including onerous educational testing which is now causing much pain.

Once upon a time, Jewish clout, and the seats that went with it, seemed to be endlessly expanding. Tony Beilenson began his Sacramento career representing exactly the district that Knox and Kuehl are now fighting to win. He ended his congressional career 25 years later, and most of his seat was near Ventura County. But unless upcoming reapportionment splits the Valley and Westside into two Senate seats, the political pond is shrinking.

West Hollywood City Councilman Paul Koretz and attorney Amanda Susskind are the front-runners for the 42st Assembly District vacated by Sheila Kuehl, with Dan Stone, a Beverly Hills physician, an earnest third. One campaign insider termed the Koretz/Susskind race “the nerd vs. the activist,” and that almost says it all.

What it leaves out is the way that local politics, in a campaign in which both candidates will raise $600,000, breaks down into distinct subgroups. Gays, seniors, women, homeowners — each of these will find a candidate to match their schism.

Community activists Adele and Ira Yellin are typical: Adele is for Susskind; Ira for Koretz. A Koretz fundraiser on Thursday featured real estate interests from West Hollywood focussed on density issues along Sunset; at a Susskind event the previous day, the topic among women activists was the need for better hospital care.

Susskind is by far the more gregarious and articulate candidate, a charming policy wonk who can make her decades spent representing small cities like Hidden Hills seem like a glamorous precursor to her current foray into politics. Her father, who was a Kindertransport survivor from Nazi Germany, became an engineering professor at UC Berkeley. Her mother was a veteran of the London blitz. A hardball campaigner, she has the support of both Mayor Riordan and Latino powerbroker Assembly member Richard Polanco. Howard Welinsky, Jewish community activist and former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, is one of her biggest backers.

Nevertheless, Koretz, whose diffident speaking style hides considerable political acumen, has sizable support and name recognition in the Jewish community. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (and Gov. Davis) back Koretz, who has spent his career in local politics as aide or elected official.

“We’ll be able to be proud of either candidate,” a long time political observer told me. But when it comes down to March 7, that sentiment will be cold comfort to the loser.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal.

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.

A Gift in the Hand is Worth…

Shimon Peres, the most experienced Israeli politician still in the harness, was not on Ehud Barak’s 25-man team negotiating peace with Syria in West Virginia this week. But the 76-year-old economic cooperation minister may have moved within striking distance of the last public position he still craves: the presidency.

The prospects of Ezer Weizman’s completing his second term have diminished after he confirmed a report by investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak that he received nearly half a million dollars from a French Jewish tycoon, Edouard Seroussi, while serving as a legislator and minister in the ’80s.

The gift was never declared, either to the Knesset or to the tax man. A decade ago, with Weizman’s blessing, Seroussi was behind an abortive attempt to launch a second English-language daily to compete with the Jerusalem Post. He maintains a home in the upscale Tel-Aviv suburb of Saviyon.

Government lawyers have opened an investigation. Weizman says he did nothing illegal, since his friend Seroussi had no business interests in Israel and the money had been paid into a trust, administered by Weizman’s attorney (from whose office the president’s file appears to have been filched). It is alleged that thousands of dollars were transferred piecemeal to the private accounts of Weizman, his wife and daughter, even after he became president in 1993. In effect, Seroussi seems to have bankrolled the old pilot’s political career.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has warned against rushing to judgment. Nevertheless, the rumor mill is churning. Prime Minister Barak is reported to have promised Peres his support. Ra’anan Cohen, Labor’s secretary-general, has confirmed that the former leader is the party’s choice to succeed Weizman. Peres, the only Israeli to have held all four top government posts — prime minister, foreign, defense and finance — makes no secret that he is available. He remains as active and creative as ever.

The ailing, 75-year-old incumbent has “welcomed” the chance to clear his name and is turning over all relevant papers, but some commentators are already demanding that he step down. The clamor has been amplified by resentment — not only on the right — at the way Weizman has begun campaigning for a Golan withdrawal as part of a peace package with Damascus.

The president announced that he would resign if Israelis did not vote “yes” in the promised referendum. More than 60 percent of the public polled by Gallup condemned that as inappropriate intervention by a national figurehead who is supposed to be above the political battle.

So far, his fellow politicians have been more reticent than the media, who don’t want to be accused of gunning for right wingers suspected of bribe-taking, like Shas’ Aryeh Deri and the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, while ignoring establishment peacenicks like Weizman.

In an editorial headlined “The president must resign,” the liberal daily Ha’aretz went for the jugular: “The public expects its representatives to make do with their monthly salaries and not be tempted to accept gifts, which could affect the recipient’s judgment. Nor was this a reasonable one-time gift that one friend gives another. It was in fact a second, and very hefty, monthly salary that was given to Weizman when he held a highly influential public position.

“In the past, some public servants faced trial for receiving gifts of far less value, the assumption being that any gift that is given to a public figure is suspect, and that the more senior the person and the larger the gift, the more suspect it is. The fact that it is impossible to point to a direct connection between the gift and the quid pro quo is not proof that the crime of bribery was not committed. A financial investment in a senior public figure can sometimes be a long-term affair.”

Writing on the same page, columnist Dan Margalit, argued: “The issue has nothing to do with criminality, but rather with norms. In a country whose president receives half a million dollars from a tycoon who is not a relative, it is impossible to put a junior civil servant on trial for having accepted a bribe in return for a building permit.”

Margalit, a former Washington correspondent who blew the whistle on then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s illegal American bank account 23 years ago, broadened the attack on Weizman. “His intervention on behalf of peace with Syria represents a serious deviation from the kind of behavior one would expect from an Israeli president,” he wrote. “Weizman will destroy much more than just the presidency, because he is not prepared to represent the minority in this country; because, after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, he will lack the moral authority to heal the wounds in our society; and because he sets such a poor example as to how civil servants should act.”

In truth, Ezer Weizman has more critics than enemies. His story is the story of Sabra Israel, in war and in peace, this last half century. When he figured in a “This is Your Life” TV program in the ’70s, the nation came to a halt. He is a rude charmer, a chivalrous male chauvinist. When he was accused not long ago of shooting from the hip, he retorted that the gunslinger who didn’t shoot from the hip ended up dead on the saloon floor.

If he does have to resign, no one will dance on his political grave. In the fall, after he had his gall bladder removed, it was whispered that he would step down this spring when he completed seven years in office. Sadly, he may no longer have that honorable option.