WASHINGTON (JTA) — Emily’s List, the organization that encourages women to run for office, reported in April that inquiries from women about running for office on the local, state and national level have skyrocketed — from 900 during the 2016 election cycle to 11,000 since Donald Trump’s election as US president.
How many of these would-be lawmakers are Jewish is not known, but a few minutes with a search engine turned up seven who were all eager to talk. And when you ask what propelled them to the churning uncertainty of seeking election, many of them circle back to two things: family and Donald Trump.
“I joined a synagogue, got involved with early childhood learning, I sat on my temple board,” said Lisa Mandelblatt, describing her life in Westfield, New Jersey, a New York City bedroom community, after she gave up her law practice. “I became a substitute elementary schoolteacher, that was all fine, I liked what was doing. Then there was the election and I was horrified about Trump being elected. I thought about the qualities I had instilled in my children, fairness.” And now she has her sights on a US House seat in New Jersey.
Below are the stories of Mandelblatt and other political newbies like her.
Lisa Mandelblatt, from the Blue Box to the Women’s March
Lisa Mandelblatt recalls coming to Hebrew school on an October Sunday in 1973, when she was nine years old, and learning that Israel was at war. School was suspended; instead, the pupils were instructed to go door to door and raise money for Israel.
She had just started Hebrew school. She had begged her parents to send her — she can’t remember why — and she remembered thinking that day as she knocked on doors, “This is what we do.”
Forty-some years later, she felt a calling to knock on doors again. It was a slow recovery from her feelings of despair the night of the election.
“I started to get involved in resistance groups, I went to the Women’s March” in Washington, said Mandelblatt, 53. Her breakthrough moment was President Barack Obama’s farewell speech on January 10. Watching him on TV, she heard him say, “Grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself,” and she took the leap.
She’s one of four Democrats, so far, running in the primary for the US House seat in New Jersey’s 7th District. But she saves her barbs for the incumbent, a Republican, Lenaord Lance, who was elected in 2008 and is known as a moderate. Democrats see what was once a safe GOP district as competitive, and although Lance was among a minority in his party who voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act in May, he allowed it to advance in committee, which Mandelblatt said belies his moderate reputation.
“There’s a movement in this district,” said Mandelblatt, who is maintaining a heavy campaign schedule (she quit her job as a substitute teacher). “Healthcare has been at the forefront of everyone’s discussion.”
She’s also focusing on transportation — commuting to New York City has gone from grueling to excruciating — but also familiarizing herself with the more rural western part of the district, and the difficulty there of getting reliable Internet.
She’s raised $260,000, she said, mostly from small donations. She doesn’t often hear about Israel while stumping, she said, but when she does, she assures her listeners she supports the country, and pivots to the threat she says Trump poses to Jews.
“Trump is pro-Israel but he’s allowed a lot of anti-Semitism,” she said. “I don’t remember this in my lifetime the way I’m seeing it now.”
Elissa Slotkin, Hot dog heiress turned spy turned candidate
Elissa Slotkin says what seems to intrigue Jews when they get to know her is less her background in the CIA and at the US Department of Defense, and more that she lives on the family farm in rural Michigan.
“I keep hearing, ‘The only Jewish farmers I know are on kibbutzim,’” she said, speaking from her farmhouse office overlooking a soybean field (leased, she adds, to another farmer, an old family friend).
Her great-grandfather, Sam Slotkin, an immigrant, founded Hygrade, the company that originated Ball Park Franks for the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s. (The franchise has long since moved to corporate hands.) Sam’s son, Hugo, while building up the meat processing business, fell in love with the idea of owning a farm. “He had seen a few farms in New Jersey” while working for his father, “and it was the most American thing he could do.”
Elissa attended agricultural school at Cornell, developed an interest in international development, and signed on for a second degree at Columbia. Her second day at the Manhattan school was Septenber 11, 2001.
“When the dust settled, I really knew then that my interest in public service would be more focused on national service,” she said. Within a year, the CIA had recruited her as an analyst. She did three tours in Iraq and then worked for the Bush and Obama administrations, ending her career in January as acting assistant secretary of defense, where she says one of her responsibilities was ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Just 41 and married to Dave Moore, a helicopter pilot she met in Baghdad, she contemplated a run for Congress after the election — and quickly discarded the idea. “We looked at how much money you have to raise,” she said.
Then the incumbent in Michigan’s southeastern 8th District, Mike Bishop, a Republican, voted on May 4 for the bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That outraged Slotkin, who said Bishop did not hold any town halls on the issue. She is currently the sole Democrat running against him.
The impetus, she said, was the memory of her late mother, who found out she had ovarian cancer in 2009 — and that her insurance had lapsed. Until Slotkin was able to get her mother back on a plan, she and her brother shelled out tens of thousands of dollars.
“They won’t put your mother into the MRI machine until you write a check for $6,000,” she said. “She’s on the little table and they will not wheel her in.”
Trump won the district 51-44 in November, and while his election helped propel her to run, she’s careful not to target him, instead focusing her ire on Bishop and the state GOP machine. She said she raised $100,000 in small donations 72 hours after announcing. Political assessors still rate the district as “likely Republican,” although the Cook Political Report recently said it was also competitive.
“We need the return of the Midwestern Democrat,” Slotkin said. “That practical reasonable middle-of-the-road Democrat who cares about jobs and the economy and is willing to work across the aisle when it helps.”
Debra Kerner, running in a Texas district that “looks like me”
Democrats sensed an opportunity in November when Hillary Clinton won the traditionally Republican Texas 7th, comprising parts of Houston and its suburbs.
Now there are two Jewish women among the seven Democrats ready to challenge Republican John Culberson, the incumbent since 2001: Debra Kerner and Laura Moser.
Kerner, since 2008 a member of the Harris County Department of Education board, said she sees the county is looking more and more like her: well educated, affluent, professional — and female.
“There’s a lot of women who are like me,” Kerner, 68, said she’s learning as she campaigns. “A little bit older, not a millennial, with a lot of experience,” she said.
Kerner was one of two Democrats who broke a long Republican monopoly on the board of education when they were elected in 2008. The Cook Report is keeping the district in its “likely Republican” column but is also listing it as competitive.
Kerner confronted Culberson at a town hall in March, getting up into his face as she made a point about education cuts in the state. The photo went viral. She said she’s running for Congress in part because she would be better positioned in the US House of Representatives to push back against cuts to public schools.
“I’m concerned about Betsy DeVos as secretary of education,” she said. “She wants to promote charter schools and vouchers and I’m concerned about that.”
Kerner has been involved in Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women and the local Anti-Defamation league office, where her focus has been civil rights.
“I am very concerned about the current administration,” she said. “I see an increase in civil rights issues, in hate crimes against Jewish people, against blacks, Hispanics and Muslims.” She cited an arson attack earlier this year on a mosque in suburban Houston. “We’ve been trying to do more things with the Muslim community, to be supportive of them.”
Chrissy Houlahan, running for her father and her daughter
On November 8, Chrissy Houlahan and her daughter wrapped up a day of canvassing in suburban Philadelphia for Hillary Clinton. The Air Force veteran changed into a pantsuit to welcome in what she thought would be Clinton’s presidency; her daughter dressed in white in a nod to the suffragettes.
That night she wept with her daughter, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, and several nights later she had a lachrymose relapse when her father, a Holocaust survivor, came to visit. “A grown and very strong man was in tears about the opportunities that might be denied the next generation, and outsiders,” she said.
Her father had arrived in the United States at age 5 after the war, with his mother and grandmother, the only survivors in their family. He became a career Navy officer, in part, Houlahan said, “in appreciation for the gift he had been given by this country.” (Houlahan does not herself identify as Jewish.)
The 6th District is one of a couple of dozen in the United States that voted for Clinton and returned a Republican to Congress. Houlahan, 50, decided to run after participating in the Women’s March in Washington, saying her experience as a military veteran and businesswoman will help her unseat GOP incumbent Ryan Costello. (The Cook Report lists the district as leaning Republican.) She’s secured a number of endorsements, including from Emily’s List.
She said her major issue is health care, “making sure people have what I believe is access to a human right.” She raised $460,000 in the last quarter.
Laura Moser, keeping Democrats on track through social media
Laura Moser twice despaired after the election: Trump was president, and Democrats seemed in disarray.
So Moser, 39, an author who is married to Arun Chaudhary, a videographer who worked for the Obama White House, set up a 21st-century phone tree to fill in what she saw as an activism gap. Each morning, at 10 a.m., hundreds of thousands of people get texts from Daily Action, tailored to their zip codes, recommending what action they can take that day to hamper the Trump agenda.
“One quick action a day, like a phone call to Congress,” she said. There’s always what to do. “Every time I leave the room, there’s an another scandal, another bill being pushed through.” She said her group helped keep Congress from gutting its independent ethics office.
When she learned that her home district, Texas’ 7th — the Houston area district where Kerner is also running — had voted for Clinton but re-elected the Republican Culberson to Congress, she decided to return home. Her roots in the city go back to her grandfather’s arrival from Germany in 1942 as a refugee from Nazi Germany.
“It seemed like I’m in this weird position where I have proven organizational abilities, I am a woman, and it really is offensive to me that a man who has no respect for women was elected,” she said.
She’s running as a progressive in a district leaning Republican, in part because Jon Ossoff failed in June to win a similar district in suburban Atlanta by hewing to a vague and fuzzy middle.
“You’re not going to win by not talking about the issues,” she said. “The Jon Ossoff thing is one reason I’m in this race. As a party I felt like this is your base, these are the people who stood with you and always show up, and we’re not talking to their needs.”
She’s furious that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has agreed to back candidates who oppose abortion rights. “We compromise our values and we repel people and Republicans do everything for their base and it works,” she said.
She hopes to win by bringing out minority women, but also by appealing to Republicans who are unhappy with Trump for moral and economic reasons, citing the tens of thousands of people in the district projected for removal from the insurance rolls should Republicans make good on their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. She’s also focusing on infrastructure, saying Culberson has neglected a district that has suffered in recent years from frequent flooding.
She’s capitalized on her media savvy; she wrote a first-person essay for Vogue about the fraught transition from yoga mom to polished pol. (“No more work-at-home Fridays in Outdoor Voices leggings: From now on, it will be nothing but red nails and high heels,” she warned other women contemplating a run for office.) Her closest brush with fame until now was when she got to attend the 2015 White House seder and her daughter had a meltdown captured by the White House photographer.
The exposure in Vogue got her a lot of attention — “I’ve had a lot of good press this month” — and donations from around the country. “I have donations from 48 states, and today I got a $10 donation from someone in Hawaii — that makes it 49,” she said. She’s raised $250,000 so far. “You don’t need $20 million to win,” she said, referring once again to Ossoff’s unsuccessful race.
Hannah Risheq — fearing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
Hannah Risheq, then a student at Columbia University, had secured a spot at the election night party at the Javits Center in New York, hoping to cheer Clinton in as president. Instead she watched news break of Trump’s victory.
“I was devastated,” said Risheq, 26, who said she felt the loss not only as a Clinton supporter but as a woman. “I remember talking to my brother that night, asking, what are we physically going to do to fight back?”
Hannah and her brother, Waleed, are the politically involved members of the family. “I was at the end of my second master’s, he was in law school, and we realized it should be me,” she said.
“It was important to me because of all the hateful rhetoric. The anti-Islamic rhetoric was really bad for me because my dad’s Muslim and my mom’s Jewish,” Risheq said. “Knowing my mom’s family dealt with anti-Semitism, and my fiancee’s Jewish and he lost family in the Holocaust — knowing that and seeing the parallels with hate rhetoric to Muslims, it inspired me to get involved.”
She decided to run in the district where she grew up, in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, for a seat in the House of Delegates, the oldest legislative body in the New World, saying she understood the problems in her region.
“I didn’t want to go too far from my community,” she said. Among the district’s neglected constituencies, she said, were college graduates who could not find work and had moved back in with their parents.
She lost in the June 13 primary, in part, she said, because she came in too late to raise substantial amounts of money. “I learned that money does matter, I started really late, we raised $30,000 in 3 months — $10,000 a month is pretty normal” for a state race, she said. She benefited in part because of national media drawn to her youth and her unusual background. (Risheq calls herself both Muslim and Jewish.)
Will she run again? “I wouldn’t say absolutely no,” she said.
Dori Fenenbock — moving Democrats to the pro-Israel center
Dori Fenenbock is in the running to replace Beto O’Rourke, the progressive in Texas’ 16th District, who has declared his bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz.
The district, encompassing El Paso, is a safe one for Democrats. Fenenbock, 49, has name recognition as the president of the El Paso Board of Trustees, the equivalent of the school board.
How safe? O’Rourke didn’t even face a Republican in the most recent election. Fenenbock raised $350,000 in the month after she filed papers for an exploratory committee in May.
Fenenbock, 49, nonetheless said Trump’s election factored into her decision to run in this district on the border with Mexico. “There are some parallels in the past that begin with a populist movement and become dangerous,” she said in a recent interview in Washington. In a border town with a substantial Latino population, “we’re all concerned about the implications of this presidency.”
She has another reason for running: She admires O’Rourke and wants him to oust Cruz, but she’s worried that he is a sign of a party that has strayed from the pro-Israel center. (O’Rourke this week picked up the endorsement of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group.) She faults him for not voting for a bipartisan non-binding resolution that condemned the UN Security Council for its vote in December condemning Israeli settlements.
“He continues to waffle, even though we got him to travel to Israel,” she said, putting on her hat as a lay leader with the local Jewish federation and a longtime activist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“We’ve lost our way in the Democratic Party when it comes to Israel,” said Fenenbock. “It’s easy to legislate from here. I see my job as helping our party understand the complexity of these issues.”