The Gentleman From Virginia: The Rise and Fall of Eric Cantor
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, hails not from the urban melting pot but from a Southern, explicitly Christian America
Representative Eric Cantor, the six-term Virginia congressman, is not a brilliant strategist or a visionary policymaker. He is, however, a very good politician. At 47, he cuts a trim figure in his dark two-button suits, with a full head of black hair and a strong jaw line that comes across well on camera. He speaks in calm, measured tones with a butterscotch lilt that makes him sound extremely reasonable when he talks about contentious subjects, like repealing health-care reform or slashing the federal budget. When he wants to seem conspiratorial—I’m on your side—his left eyebrow goes up behind his thin black wire-frame glasses; when he wants to seem sincere, both eyebrows rise in unison, and three deep grooves appear on his forehead. When he wants to make it clear he really, really means what he’s saying, the ghost of a fourth line appears just below his hairline, and he chops at the air in front of him for added effect. His default setting is “serious.”
Last month, when the Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and John Boehner was elected speaker, Cantor became majority leader, the second most powerful person in the chamber and the one tasked with driving the partisan agenda heading into the 2012 presidential campaign cycle. Cantor’s elevation, from minority whip, makes him the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history. As a Jewish politician, he is an anomaly: a Southern conservative and the sole Jewish Republican to be seated in Congress. (Indeed, he has held that distinction since April 2009, when former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party.) Unlike other moderate and conservative Jewish legislators—Specter, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, or even former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman—Cantor was raised far outside the urban, liberal milieu familiar to most American Jews. His congressional district, Virginia’s 7th, once belonged to Absalom Robertson, the father of televangelist Pat Robertson, and his hometown, Richmond, was once the capital of the Confederacy. In a place where religion permeates the public sphere, Cantor has succeeded by turning his Jewish identity from an ethnic distinction into a signal of the values and civic commitment he shares with his gentile constituents.
Cantor often describes himself as “a minority within a minority”—a Jew from the South, and a conservative Republican whose views are sharply at odds with those of the predominantly Democratic Jewish electorate—and this allows him to occasionally affect a self-deprecating, and sympathetic, underdog quality. He grew up in Richmond’s historic but tiny Jewish community, and in a solidly Republican household when Virginia was still Yellow Dog Democrat country. His parents sent him and his two brothers to the Collegiate School, a prestigious private academy that featured annual Christmas pageants, but they kept a kosher home. He was bar mitzvahed at the city’s main Conservative synagogue, where his own children also had their bar and bat mitzvahs. Cantor keeps kosher at work—his Democratic predecessor, Steny Hoyer, got him egg-salad sandwiches when they met for a rare bipartisan lunch in late January—and at home, where his mother-in-law supervises the kitchen. When I met Cantor in his new, eggnog-yellow office late last month, I asked him whether he would have preferred to grow up in a place where being Jewish wasn’t quite so exotic. “I think it’s given me a real appreciation—” he began, and then he paused. He looked directly at me and started again: “You know, we live in a Christian country.”
Since the beginning of the year, Cantor has become the de facto public face of a party that has grown steadily more religious and more suburban in the two decades since he began working his way up its ranks. In Young Guns, the conservative manifesto Cantor co-wrote last year with his House colleagues Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, the congressman drew an explicit analogy between their churchgoing and his own synagogue attendance. “I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” Cantor wrote. “Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their Gs.” What set him apart growing up—his distance from the heavily Jewish cities that now serve as metonyms for liberal elitism, his native ease with the Christian references so many Republican partisans use to define their political values—has become his passport into the heart of the GOP establishment. His position has been cemented by his reputation as a rainmaker for his colleagues and his party—$60 million in the 2008 election cycle, an estimated $10 million of which came from heavy-hitting Jewish donors across the country. His own campaign included donations from Republican casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to Chicago magnate Lester Crown, who was also a key Obama supporter the same year.
“A Jewish politician from Richmond is very different from a Jewish politician from the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” explained Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard editor who invented the “Young Guns” appellation. But there have been Jewish politicians from the South before—Democrats like Ben Erdreich, who was elected to Congress from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1982, and Norman Sisisky, who joined Virginia’s congressional delegation almost two decades before Cantor. Cantor is the first to emerge from a generation that grew up weaned on the red-blooded Republicanism of Reagan’s successful implementation of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. “Eric is certainly able to connect to a national Republican audience more than most Jewish politicians,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm. “He’s a social conservative, a traditional Jewish person with conservative social mores.”
In a sense, Cantor is following a model successfully pioneered by earlier generations of Southern Jews who achieved prominence in city and state politics—men like Emanuel J. Evans, known as “Mutt,” who as mayor of Durham, North Carolina, from 1951 to 1963, took pains to make sure his campaign posters noted his synagogue presidency and his work on behalf of Israel bonds. “My father said, ‘People down here respect church work,’ ” explained Evans’ son, Eli, author of The Provincials: A History of Jews in the South. “This is the tone for really successful Southern politicians, and Cantor has that one down pat.”
The history of Jews in Richmond stretches back to the colonial era. The city had a small but well-rooted Sephardic community; its first synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, was established in 1789, the year George Washington was sworn in as president. As the city grew, it attracted an increasing number of Jews, including German Jews like Samuel and Judith Myers, whose son, Gustavus Myers, a lawyer and a trustee of the Reform Temple Beth Ahabah, served nearly 30 years on the city council, including 12 terms as mayor in the mid-19th century. Myers also played an instrumental role in encouraging his friend, the Louisiana senator Judah Benjamin, to take a prominent role in Jefferson Davis’ Confederate government—advice Myers gave because he believed that “Jews of high station reflected well in the eyes of both the Gentiles and other Jews by serving in visible office,” as Evans wrote in his biography of Benjamin. After the Civil War, it was a Jewish former cadet from Richmond, Moses Ezekiel, who won the commission to design the Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cantor’s family arrived in Richmond from Eastern Europe in the wave of Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century. His father, Eddie, grew up in downtown Jackson Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood known as “the Harlem of the South,” living above the grocery run by his widowed mother, Frances. Eddie was an overachiever determined to make his way up the civic ladder. He graduated from John Marshall, one of the city’s best public high schools, at 15, and went on to Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond law school before going into practice with his older brother, Robert. He met Mary Lee Hudes, a schoolteacher from Baltimore, on a blind date set up by one of her University of Maryland sorority sisters. “They needed short dates—Eddie was short, and so was I,” explained Mary Lee, whose Romanian-born father, an ardent Zionist, ran a furniture store. Eddie impressed her as a real Southern gentleman. (Eddie, now 78, is ill and wasn’t available for interviews.) “I had to go to the restroom, and this guy got up—he was like a jumping jack,” Mary Lee told me. “I had never seen such manners.”
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