The Gentleman From Virginia
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
Eric, the second of their three boys, was born June 6, 1963. At the time, Richmond was in the throes of integration, but life carried on as usual in the upscale West End, where the Cantors had settled. “I was in my own little Jewish world,” Mary Lee explained. With her mother-in-law, she opened a maternity store in a local strip mall, but her main focus was taking care of her sons. The family began keeping kosher. Mary Lee’s observant maiden aunt relocated from Baltimore and moved in nearby. They were active members of Temple Beth El, the city’s large Conservative synagogue, where Eddie had taught Sunday school before he got married.
A Jewish day school opened in Richmond in 1966, but Mary Lee pushed her husband to enroll the boys at Collegiate, where Richmond’s first-string Jewish families—like the Thalhimers, who owned the big department store downtown—sent their children. “Eddie was raised very poor,” Mary Lee told me. “His argument was that there’s only one type of society there, and he was concerned the boys were only going to see that society.” What didn’t worry her, she said, was the prospect of having them perform each year in the school’s Christmas pageant. “They didn’t do a lot of, excuse me, Christ-y things,” she explained. After she and her husband went to Israel for their 13th wedding anniversary, in 1972, Eric’s older brother, Stuart, did a slideshow presentation about the Jewish state for his third-grade class. “For Hanukkah I did latkes and a menorah, for Passover we’d bring matzoh,” said Mary Lee.
The boys’ extracurricular lives revolved around their Jewish activities. “They went to Hebrew school three times a week, and if they had Little League practice, they got to practice late,” Mary Lee told me. “They knew they were Jewish.” All three brothers joined Jewish youth groups like United Synagogue Youth and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. “He grew up like any Jewish kid in the mid-Atlantic South, doing the normal stuff everyone did,” recalled one childhood friend, who remembers going on Indian Guide overnight trips with Cantor and his father.
The one thing they did that few others did, though, was talk Republican politics. As the boys were growing up, their father became increasingly involved in civic affairs—and in the nascent Republican movement that was emerging in opposition to the Harry F. Byrd Democratic political machine, known simply as “The Organization,” which controlled Virginia for most of the 20th century. “Eddie was a Jewish Republican when there weren’t any Jewish Republicans in Richmond,” said Phil Cantor, a cousin. “You could easily say you didn’t know any Jewish Republicans other than Eddie Cantor.” As a Jew, he was barred from joining the silk-stocking Country Club of Virginia and the Commonwealth Club downtown, despite having grown wealthy from his real-estate dealings, but he was welcomed at the Virginia Masons’ Fraternal Lodge 53. As an outsider, he had little to lose, socially or in business, from bucking the Democratic hierarchy and everything to gain as conservative Dixiecrats drifted further away from their liberal Yankee brethren.
When the boys were little, Mary Lee made sure they waited until their father got home to sit down to supper—“no matter what time he got home from work,” Mary Lee said. “They’d say, ‘We’re hungry, why do we have to wait,’ but I’d have them do their homework instead, and we’d have discussions at the dinner table that Eddie would lead—politics, current events, sports, whatever questions they had.” When Eric was in high school, a friend of his father’s, Richard Obenshain, a fellow attorney, was a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. (Obenshain died in a plane crash before the general election and was replaced on the ballot by John Warner, the former Navy secretary then married to Elizabeth Taylor.) In 1980, Eddie, who was serving as state treasurer for the Reagan campaign, recruited Tom Bliley, Richmond’s Democratic former mayor, to make what turned out to be a successful run for Congress as a Republican. Bliley was a Catholic whose family ran the local funeral parlor and was happy to make common cause with Cantor. “We buried most of the Jews in Richmond, almost all of them, so I was well known in the Jewish community,” Bliley said. “Eddie and Mary Lee welcomed me with open arms and supported me in my bid for the nomination.” The family effort included Eric, who volunteered on the campaign. “They were like peas in a pod,” Bliley said of 17-year-old Eric and Eddie, who was a delegate to the 1980 Republican nominating convention in Detroit.
As a result, Eric Cantor never went through the archetypal reactionary experience of being “mugged by reality” that characterized an older generation of Jewish neoconservatives like Irving Kristol—and he didn’t forge his political ideas in the crucible of the College Republicans, where so many of his Reagan-era conservative cohort found their inspiration. As a freshman at George Washington University, in 1981, Cantor interned in Bliley’s Washington office, and the next year he was promoted to chauffeur, driving Bliley around during his re-election campaign. The two became “fast friends,” as Bliley put it, and remained close as his young protégé made his way through law school, at William & Mary. After passing the Virginia bar, in 1988, Cantor made a detour, moving up to New York for a year to do a master’s at Columbia in real-estate development. It was a culture shock, at least for his mother. “He had the cruddiest housing,” she told me. “It was across from Central Park, and that was the only nice thing about it. The wind was so bad in the winter he had to put towels around the windows to keep it out.”
But Cantor, then 25, nevertheless managed to tap into the city’s magical alchemy: While he was in New York, he fell in love. During our meeting in his office last month, he talked about courting the woman he would marry. A classmate set him up on a blind date with Diana Fine, a Miami Beach native who had gone to law school at New York University and was working at Goldman Sachs as a vice-president handling leveraged buyouts. “Just on a lark this friend introduced us, and that was it,” he told me, with a dreamy look, when we met last month—the only time I saw him break his reserved public persona. “Falling in love in New York City is a very cool thing.” He shook his head, and let out a deep, genuine sigh.
Diana, six years older than Cantor, was freshly grieving for her father, Ronald, who died of cancer in November 1988. When Cantor finished at Columbia, she agreed to return with him to Richmond, where they were married in 1989. “Middle ground,” Mary Lee said, with a laugh. “Eric had a job here, and she’d had enough of New York.” The joke at the wedding was that it was a mixed marriage: Diana came from a family with New York roots on both sides, and her grandmother, Mildred, who held a master’s in home economics from Columbia, was a well-known Democratic activist who was elected in 1979, at 72, to a term as Miami Beach commissioner.
All three Cantor brothers joined the family’s commercial real-estate business. Eric—the only one to follow their father to law school—was put to work handling routine legal transactions, including debt collections, according to Brett Zwerdling, a local bankruptcy attorney who remembers running into Cantor around the courthouse. But it quickly became clear that Eddie, who was then a district Republican committee chairman, had bigger plans for his middle son. In 1991, a few days short of his 28th birthday and with an infant son at home, Eric Cantor filed his candidacy for a vacant seat in the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of Virginia’s legislature. With help from his father and other Republican party activists who had watched him grow up, Cantor assiduously collected endorsements, and he beat his nearest primary challenger by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in a three-hour nominating contest held in a high-school gym—and called to order with a prayer invocation, according to an account in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. There were no Democratic challengers in the general election, and in 1992, Cantor became the youngest member of the state assembly.
Eight years later, Cantor would win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But his ascent to Washington was almost stopped by a fellow Jewish Republican, the super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff—or at least that’s how the story came to be told in the wake of Abramoff’s conviction for conspiring to bribe senior members of Congress. What actually happened is more complicated.
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