It’s not the answer you’re likely to hear from a Democratic incumbent weeks from this particular mid-term election.
“I’m wonderful! I’m great!” chirps Rep. Shelley Berkley as she scoops ground coffee into a four-cup Black & Decker in her suburban Vegas home on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah. We’re headed out to stop at four different synagogues. “I’ve got to be the luckiest person in the world!” she says.
In this autumn of mass discontent with incumbents in general and Democrats in particular, the six-term congresswoman with nominal 2010 opposition is counting her blessings. At 59, she’s arrived at the place she’s always wanted to be, recognized as one of the most strident, hawkish pro-Israel voices in Washington while not sacrificing a bit of her brassy, Vegas-style pizzazz or otherwise strident left-leaning views. Even the evangelical Christian activist Gary Bauer says of Berkley: “Oh, I like her a lot. I think she’s gutsy, she’s articulate, she has a lot of flair.”
Indeed, her only real political quandary right now is whether to continue to, as she likes to say, bloom where she’s planted in the House of Representatives, or seek grander glory. She is Nevada’s only safe federal Democrat this year—a notable contrast, in particular, to her mentor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—and her state’s other Senate seat is likely to be contested in 2012 thanks to a sex scandal hounding its Republican occupant, John Ensign. She openly wonders whether she might do even more for her two primary causes, Nevada and Israel, from Congress’ upper chamber.
“I wouldn’t have a primary,” she tells a Chabad rabbi during our day together. “I would capture the Democratic primary without a problem. I have to decide if I’m willing to forgo a sure thing to go for the gold. If I lose, then I’m out. I’d be risking a lot.”
Few politicians do this sort of deliberating and strategizing so publicly, but Berkley is also the sort to call out her own party’s president when she sees him making what she views as grave missteps on Israel. Fewer still would, as Berkley did on Rosh Hashanah, empathize with an irate Jewish constituent and say that President Barack Obama has “blown it” with the Jews.
Then again, Berkley is also willing to stand at the end of her driveway in triple-digit heat waving down a tardy, lost reporter arriving for an interview and then sit him on a breakfast-bar stool to make him coffee. She serves that brew in a blue plastic mug that reads “My favorite congresswoman Shelley Berkley,” and then when I wonder what my journalist colleagues would think of me drinking from it, jokes with a dismissive wave and a cackle, “Oh, puleeze, they all have their own!”
Then, clad in a bold fuchsia suit jacket, a monochrome-swirled skirt, and black-and-white polka-dot shoes she brags she bought at DSW, she drives us away in the Ford Fusion hybrid she recently purchased to replace her gas-guzzling Cadillac. (She drives a SmartCar in D.C.)
We’re en route to Temple Beth Shalom for her aliyah, for which she’ll take out the tiny piece of gum she’s always chewing and leave it in a scrap of tissue on her seat. That seat is at the front row of the sanctuary’s second section, where worshippers must walk by her and she can schmooze.
This is her shul, the one she has belonged to since she was a 12-year-old Rochelle Levine and her parents moved her and her sister here from the Catskills to outrun her father’s gambling debts. The Levines had planned to relocate to California, but her parents were entranced by the glitter of the Strip after a detour to see the Hoover Dam, so they stayed. Las Vegas had about 130,000 residents then, and it had one synagogue.
“The first thing my father did when we got here was go down to the union hall and get a job, and the first thing my mother did was join the temple,” she recalls. It was the summer of 1963, and her dad became a waiter at the Sands Hotel-Casino.
Politics entered Berkley’s bloodstream quite early, motivated as much as anything by the tales her grandmothers relayed of the shtetls her family came from and the Nazi genocide that occurred there. “I wanted to be in a position that, God forbid anything were to happen to my people like what happened in the Holocaust, I would be in a position to help stop it,” she tells me. “When I decided to do this, I decided I was going to be a Jew who happened to be an elected official. I wear my Jewishness on my sleeve. I don’t apologize for it to anybody.”
She first became president of Las Vegas B’nai B’rith Girls, and later she was UNLV student body president. She worked on successful state assembly campaigns in 1968 for two political novices who would become U.S. senators, Reid and Richard Bryan. Berkley paid for her law degree by serving cocktails in Strip casinos, then she served a term in the state assembly and two on the board of regents before her 1998 election to Congress.
That was a heady transition. She attended the 1999 state dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a breakfast for Jewish members of Congress the following morning at which Barak predicted that a peace deal would come within 18 months.
“I walked out of that breakfast thinking, ‘I’ve only been here five months. I’ve already brought peace to the Middle East,’ ” Berkley says as we sit in the Beth Shalom lobby after her aliyah. “I thought, ‘What is so difficult?’ The reality is not so easy. I remember being interviewed and telling people what happened in the breakfast, but then the peace track with Syria fell apart because Assad demanded Israel give back the Golan Heights before they would sit down. That wasn’t going to happen. Arafat continued and continued and continued until he had wrung out every concession he could make. At Camp David, Israel offered 97 percent of the West Bank, control of Gaza, control of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and Arafat walked away, started the second Intifada.”
Those early years set the tone for Berkley’s tenure in Washington. To her, it proved that the Palestinians don’t want peace, they want the destruction of Israel, and so it is incumbent upon the United States to stand firmly beside Israeli leaders almost no matter what.
That explains her rocky relationship with the president. Berkley was a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter who endorsed Obama only after Clinton conceded the nomination and only after Obama called and pledged his support for Israel as well as his opposition to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, one of the top local issues for Nevada.
Then she was apoplectic when the administration “drew a line that didn’t need to be drawn” by condemning West Bank settlements in May 2009. Berkley believes Obama is trying to—and can—recover, and that his performance during the flotilla crisis was “excellent,” but that there is a genuine mistrust in the activist Jewish community toward the Democratic president.
“Nothing is irretrievable,” she says, shortly after making the remark to the constituent that Obama had “blown it” with the Jews. “But right now he’s in a very bad place with the organized Jewish community.”
She’s pleased to see Rahm Emanuel depart as Obama’s chief of staff. Berkley, who chairs a semi-annual gathering of Jewish legislators from the European Union and the United States, recalls often being asked why Emanuel wasn’t doing more for the Israeli agenda. Berkley and Emanuel, former colleagues in Congress, “weren’t the closest of friends then and nothing much has changed,” she says. Meanwhile, while she faults President George W. Bush for many things during his presidency, she believes the Republican president was more personally committed to Israel than Obama.
It’s this sort of blunt talk that impresses folks like Bauer, the former president of the Family Research Council now on the executive board of Christians United for Israel. The two part ways on virtually every other issue, but on this they’ve formed an unlikely friendship.
“I think she’s a leader in this regard,” says Bauer, who recalls Berkley receiving the most rousing applause of any speaker at his group’s annual convention in July from a crowd he described as “overwhelming conservative, Christian, and pro-life.” “There are other people on Capitol Hill that will privately say to their constituents, ‘Of course I’m with Israel and I’m talking to the White House behind the scenes’ to get the policy better. But she’s been willing to say it publicly. This is the way you can tell when a political figure really feels something in their heart.”
Because of her prominence on Israel, Berkley’s own constituents occasionally seem to forget how liberal she is. She supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, the Obama stimulus efforts, and the health reform bill. On Rosh Hashanah, as she dropped in on one Jewish group after the next, several people cornered her to explain her refusal to condemn the planned Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York. The Chabad rabbi was particularly upset.
“You know what also made me crazy,” Berkley retorts in a thick New York accent, still intact despite a near half-century in Nevada. “Two things. First of all, I didn’t like the fact that opponents keep calling that area ‘hallowed grounds.’ This is downtown New York. There’s a porno place, a bar, and tattoo parlor. Not exactly hallowed ground. And, number two, I’m very cognizant of the fact that we are such a small minority and I thought if a Jewish congresswoman starts condemning other religions and building where they have the right quite frankly to build, that’s going to turn around on us.”
Berkley happens to be on fairly good terms with the Muslim community in Las Vegas. A Muslim friend, Dr. Ikram Khan, played shadkhen in arranging her first date with her second husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, and Berkley says Lehrner’s practice is half Muslim. The day after our Rosh Hashanah tour, she visited a mosque to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Aslam Abdullah, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, says he finds Berkley to be accessible, friendly, and respectful.
Accessible, indeed. This is a congresswoman who admitted to me on my “The Strip” podcast in 2006 that she missed a vote on Gulf Coast relief after Hurricane Katrina because she was recovering from plastic surgery. (Republicans reacted with a press release, which still makes her giggle.) She happily indulged the hounding cameras of TMZ.com in July 2009 on why she supported a posthumous Congressional honor for Michael Jackson because of his ties to Las Vegas. And as she walks me around her home pointing out her favorite tchochkes, we wind up in her bathroom taking stock of the framed pictures from exotic worldwide destinations she and her husband have visited.
“I love being the congresswoman from Las Vegas and a lot of the bright clothes and the bling and all,” she says. “I have an image I want to portray. I reflect the glitz and the glitter of the community I represent. And every now and then I take a step back and I just can’t believe that I am fortunate enough to be doing what I’m doing. I’m the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants who couldn’t speak English, and I’m a member of the House of Representatives. I mean, how amazing is that?”
Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based writer who blogs at VegasHappensHere.com and contributes regularly to the Daily Beast and AOL News.