Josh Kurtz: Cantor, Gansler -- oy!

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By: Josh Kurtz 

What does Eric Cantor’s ignoble defeat this week have in common with Doug Gansler’s impending one?

It means the pool of potential first Jewish presidents of the United States continues to diminish.

Cantor, Gansler, Eliot Spitzer, Joe Lieberman, Ed Rendell, Paul Wellstone – the list of wannabe’s who became coulda-been’s has gotten longer and longer in recent years, for one reason or another. And still we American Jews are waiting for our Obama.

Years ago, I had a barroom argument with a friend about whether the U.S. would have an African-American president or a Jewish president first. My friend, a gentile who grew up on the Eastern Shore, guessed a Jew would be elected first. He said even small town voters had met Jews they liked and admired – a local doctor, a teacher, a merchant, etc.

I said America would have a black president first – my logic being that at least many African-Americans share the Christian faith with most white voters. This was well before anyone outside of Illinois had heard the name Barack Obama, so points for me.

The “first Jewish president” moniker was first attached to Gansler back in 1998, when he was elected Montgomery County state’s attorney at the age of 36. Not sure who first called him that. Gansler himself? One of his friends? Me?

His trajectory seemed pretty clear: State’s attorney, then attorney general, then governor, then…

But barring a miracle, Gansler will not be elected governor this year. Which doesn’t mean that his political career is necessarily dead. He could wind up with a nice gig in the Obama administration. But the White House? Well, we Jews don’t believe in the resurrection.

In one of the many post-mortems I’ve read on Cantor’s spectacular defeat, somebody pointed out that while we’re no closer to having a Jewish president, Jews’ influence in Congress, even with Cantor being ousted from his leadership position, is pretty impressive. Jews make up just 2 percent of the population – but we’ve got 7 percent of all seats in the House of Representatives, and 10 percent of all Senate seats.

The list of senators (all Democrats): Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Al Franken of Minnesota (who once wrote a humor book, “Why Not Me?” that imagined him being elected president), Carl Levin of Michigan, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Chuck Schumer of New York, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and of course, Maryland’s own Ben Cardin. Schumer is the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, and is odds-on favorite to get the top spot if Harry Reid ever leaves.

On the other hand, the number of Jewish senators has actually dropped off in recent cycles: Lieberman, Arlen Specter, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl were all replaced by gentiles. Levin is retiring, and his replacement will be a gentile. Schatz, who was appointed to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, faces a tough Democratic primary challenge from Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. Cardin, Boxer, Feinstein and Sanders aren’t spring chickens and won’t be around forever.

But there are also signs of progress. Kentucky has a Jewish House member (John Yarmuth). Colorado has a Jewish House member (Jared Polis, who is also gay multimillionaire tech entrepreneur). Tennessee has a Jewish House member (Steve Cohen, who represents a majority-black Memphis-area district, and once described his governing philosophy as akin to that of a black woman’s).

And the Minnesota seat that Franken occupies was held before him by Norm Coleman, Wellstone and Rudy Boschwitz, successively. Right there in the Land of a Thousand Lakes and a million Lutherans.

(Fun trivia: Coleman, Schumer and Sanders are all graduates of James Madison High School in Brooklyn. Other famous alumni: Chris Rock, Carole King, Martin Landau, Andrew Dice Clay, and Frank Torre.)

So who would you put now on the new list of potential first Jewish presidents? Let’s start with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – he’s already been to Iowa, and helped elect Democrats to House seats in Iowa when he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Illinois and Iowa are neighbors. You’ve got to look at Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who doubles as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) has openly pondered a White House bid – but he faces the same obstacle (Hillary Clinton) that Martin O’Malley does.

I’d also like to nominate new Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for the list. He isn’t just Jewish, he’s Hispanic – a potent combination for the 21st Century.

But the perfect candidate – if her health improves and she has a stomach for a return to the political game – is former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Who could possibly vote against her?

Then again, has America already had a Jewish president?

Remember how people used to say that Bill Clinton was our first black president? Maybe Barack Obama has been our first Jewish president. Not only does he host annual Passover seders at the White House, but he has lived in liberal enclaves with significant Jewish populations, like Chicago’s Hyde Park and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

That rubs off. After all, he’s already been called a Muslim…

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.