Members of America’s Jewish community, by and large, are some of the most progressive voters there are. They consistently back pro-choice Democrats, in some cases by a margin greater than 2-1, and other candidates who advocate increased public expenditures for social service projects and education.
But they’re also staunchly pro-Israel, a fact that has many in Montgomery County scratching their heads over a decision by the progressive political action committee Emily’s List — which backs Democratic women running for Congress — to throw its financial support, some of it raised from local Jewish voters, behind Rep. Donna Edwards in her primary fight against Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Both want to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
“It’s unfortunate that they’re going against one of the good guys,” said state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17), a Van Hollen backer, a member of Montgomery County’s Jewish community and an Emily’s List supporter, of the push for Edwards over Van Hollen. She said, “And now they have less money to spend in Pennsylvania, California, New York and other key races around the country.”
And at the top of the political heap nationwide stands former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who finds herself in a narrowing race for the Democratic nomination for president.
Emily’s List has “an opportunity to elect the first woman president of the United States,” said Kagan. “It seems to me like that would be a really important use of their time.”
(Emily’s List is on record as supporting Clinton in the primary race against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but its super PAC, Women Vote!, has spent more than $2 million on behalf of Edwards, who currently represents the Fourth Congressional District. Van Hollen represents the Eighth District.)
The controversy surrounding Edwards’ ties to Emily’s List played out onstage Monday night during an often contentious debate between the two candidates at Goucher College. When Baltimore Sun opinion editor Andy Green asked Edwards about her contributions from the PAC, she asserted she was “proud” to have its support.
“Emily’s List doesn’t hide who it is,” she said. “They support pro-choice Democratic women because we need to expand the number of women in the Senate and in all of our legislative bodies. On the other hand, Mr. Van Hollen, who was swearing off dark money, is now being supported by [the] Realtors PAC putting almost $1 million into his campaign.”
Van Hollen retorted that Edwards had taken $25,000 in PAC money from Realtors over the last two election cycles.
“Look, if you’re against Citizens United, you don’t get to pick and choose which super PAC you like and which one you don’t like,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court decision several years ago that affirmed the use of so-called “soft money” in federal campaigns.
Van Hollen went on to challenge television ads being run by Emily’s List that assert that she is not tied to big business.
“When you see their ads running that say Congresswoman Edwards doesn’t take any money from Wall Street, guess what? The overwhelming majority of the money for that super PAC, Women Vote! comes from people on Wall Street,” he said. “Hedge fund managers.”
Some in the Washington Jewish community, such as Helane Goldstein of Chevy Chase, dislike Edwards due to her voting record on foreign affairs, in particular a vote in which more than 400 members of the House of Representatives, including Van Hollen, backed a 2013 bill supporting sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. Edwards was one of 21 members who voted against it.
“She has played her hand dozens of times where she has showed us she’s not a supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship, because legislatively she’s been on the other side of the fence of the House,” said Goldstein.
Goldstein, a supporter of Emily’s List, feels pay equity along with other women’s issues are important in the race, but she said that one should not vote solely based on gender.
“We don’t back Jewish candidates just because we’re Jewish,” she explained. “We have to be moral, and we have to be strategic. And we have to delve into what’s right and what’s wrong for us. I’m not going to support a candidate just because she’s a female.”
Edwards’ record on Israel has also been a source of concern for Washington attorney Behnam Dayanim, who wrote an op-ed last month for supporting Van Hollen. In an interview, Dayanim said he thinks Edwards has been “distinctively unsympathetic” toward Israel by not standing with other members of the House on votes such one on the Goldstone Report in 2009 — a United Nations-commissioned report that accused the Israel Defense Forces of human rights violations in the Gaza war and whose conclusions were later disputed by the lead author of the report. Van Hollen voted with the majority of Congress in denouncing it.
“On a consistent basis when it comes to issues that are important to Israel, Chris Van Hollen has been there and Donna Edwards has not,” Dayanim said. “That’s the kind of unhelpfulness and the lack of Israeli support that we’ve seen from her, and that contrasts with what we’ve seen from Chris.”
Dayanim added that Emily’s List’s decision to invest so much money to Edwards’ campaign shows a “lack of sensitivity” for Jewish voters in Maryland who care about Israel and thinks the organization ought to consider whether there is “anything about the candidate who might raise concerns within the constituency upon which they are running” when considering where it should spend its money.
“I think it raises a lot of questions about how Emily’s List prioritizes the candidates its support,” he said.
In a race in which Edwards has positioned herself as the standard-bearer of women’s issues, Kagan pointed out that Van Hollen is fervently pro-choice and has a record of supporting working families. She characterized Emily’s List’s stance as putting money into a “race against an ally.”
“Fundamentally, we shouldn’t be electing people because of gender. I didn’t ask people to vote for me because I was a woman,” said Kagan, who has known Van Hollen since the 1990s, when they both served in Maryland’s House of Delegates. “I thought I could be most effective and a lot more consistent in my advocacy than my opponents. I would love to have a woman as Barbara Mikulski’s successor, but more important than that, I want an effective leader for the state of Maryland in the U.S. Senate, and hands down, that candidate is Chris Van Hollen.”
Personal ties to Van Hollen are key for Bethesda resident and former Democratic National Committee vice chair Susan Turnbull, who has known Van Hollen since the early 1980s. Turnbull said everyone she knows has contributed to the Van Hollen campaign, including those who regularly give to Emily’s List.
“Emily’s List has as its sole mission the election of pro-choice Democratic women, and so I believe that they had no choice in the matter,” she said. “However, I believe that the long-term impact will be negligible among those who are paying attention to this race.”
One Jewish voter said he’d be happy with either.
Ken Feinberg, a Washington lawyer who was chief of staff for the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, would be happy with either Edwards or Van Hollen.
He said, “Not with any regard to any specific candidate, I think more women should be in government.”
For her part, Edwards sees Emily’s List support as a logical step in a legacy that reaches back to the PAC’s support for Mikulski during her first run for the Senate in 1986.
“Thirty years later,” said Edwards campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes, “we’re proud to have their support and the support of working women all across Maryland and around the country.”