Two Jewish women are competing in the region’s hottest congressional races, both Democratic challengers attempting to unseat Republican incumbents.
In Pennsylvania’s 8th district, which covers Bucks County and a small portion of Montgomery County, lawyer Kathy Boockvar is locked in a tight battle with U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick.
And on the other side of the Delaware River, the battle is equally fierce. In New Jersey’s 3rd district, Shelley Adler is running against U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, the man who defeated her late husband, John Adler.
Just months after losing to Runyan, the 51-year-old centrist Democrat underwent emergency heart surgery and later died from complications.
The stakes in both elections are high.
If the Democrats have any chance of retaking control of the House of Representatives, they have to win districts such as these. In both, voters backed a Democrat four years ago; then, in 2010, they reversed course and supported the GOP candidate. That change was driven in part by frustrations with the economy, concern about the national debt and President Barack Obama’s job performance.
Competitive House races are a relative rarity nationally. According to The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan journal, only 40 out of 435 seats are deemed true contests. Yet having at least three close House elections have for the past decade been par for the course in southeastern Pennsylvania, which is home to an estimated 214,000 Jews, the overwhelming majority of the state’s Jewish population.
Due to the redistricting process, two of Philadelphia’s formerly suburban swing seats — which typically drew lots of national attention and money — have been redrawn to give Republicans a considerable edge.
Since it seems unlikely that the Democrats can unseat U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach in the 6th district or U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan in the 7th district this time around, the races in Bucks County and New Jersey have taken on added importance for both parties. Manan Trivedi, a medical doctor and Iraq war veteran, is challenging Gerlach; Lawyer George Badey is facing Meehan.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who is both the only Jew and only woman serving in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, said of the races: “The seats in suburban Philadelphia are seats that we are actively working on. They are winnable, but they are certainly challenging.”
Schwartz is heavily favored to defeat Republican Joe Rooney, a captain with Delta Airlines, to represent the newly reconfigured 13th district, which includes portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Philadelphia Democrats Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah also appear firmly entrenched in their seats. A Jewish candidate, John Featherman, is mounting a long-shot challenge to Brady. (See sidebar.) Fattah is facing U.S. Army veteran Robert Mansfield.
The 8th district, which is mostly in Bucks County, changed little in the redistricting process and remains a true swing district. The seesaw nature of the area was evidenced by the fact that voters tossed Fitzpatrick out of office in a nail-biter in 2006 and then voted him back in two years ago.
The Rothenberg Political Report lists both the Bucks and New Jersey races as competitive, with the Republican incumbents having a slight edge.
Both races have focused heavily on jobs, the economy, health care and what might be the best approach to preserve Medicare. So far, Middle East issues haven’t made a major appearance in the campaigns.
Boockvar, an attorney who is a member of Shir Ami in Newtown, accuses her opponent of being a Tea Party conservative representing a moderate district.
“He’s by far the most conservative person to ever hold this seat,” said Boockvar, who has a 13-year-old daughter. “He has been voting with the Tea Party on every issue of substance. He has voted for the Ryan Budget twice” and voted to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.
Fitzpatrick, the father of six, counters that he’s a moderate Republican who has voted against his party on major environmental legislation and is considered one of the most independent members of the House.
“We need to make changes. The longer you wait, the more serious the cuts will be,” he said, regarding Medicare. “We need to make smart reforms now in order to save Medicare.”
On social issues, Fitzpatrick is pro-life and opposes gay marriage, though he also opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage because he believe it’s an issue for the states to decide. Boockvar is pro-choice and favors gay marriage.
On issues related to Israel and the Iranian nuclear threat, Boockvar and Fitzpatrick appear to have little substantive differences.
Since 2006, Fitzpatrick — who has visited Israel twice — has said publicly that the United States should support Israel if that country’s leaders decided on a pre-emptive strike. When asked whether he would support a presidential request for Congress to authorize an American strike, he replied:
“You need to assess the conditions, the request and the threat,” he replied. “I don’t think the administration has done enough to enforce the sanctions that are already in place.”
Boockvar, who has not been to the Jewish state, said, “This is a very scary threat and I take it particularly seriously because it is our homeland.”
Echoing the theme that containment is not an option, Boockvar said she’s hopeful sanctions can still do the job.
“Any opportunity we can to avoid war is everybody’s preference. The last thing we want to do is put anybody at risk, and Israel is most at risk,” she said. “I think we need to be well-prepared for any and all options should this economic war show itself not to be working.”
In New Jersey, the 3rd district lost a huge portion of its Jewish voters when Cherry Hill was removed. In fact, Alder, herself a Cherry Hill resident, doesn’t live in the reconfigured district, which she is not required to do by law.
Still, the competitive makeup of the district, coupled with Adler’s dramatic story — running for Congress while still grieving over the sudden loss of her husband, and facing the man who defeated him — has garnered plenty of outside attention.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey is co-sponsoring a candidates’ forum on Oct. 18 at the Medford Leas Theater in Medford, N.J.
Adler, who has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, is a longtime member of Temple Emanuel and has four sons, said her candidacy is not about avenging her husband’s defeat.
She echoed Boockvar, claiming her opponent is too socially conservative for the district and that his votes have endangered Medicare and done little to advance job growth.
“I got into the race because my family believes in public service and I wanted to continue the legacy of public service, which is about helping people and not hurting people,” said Adler. “Right now, too many people are being hurt by what is going on in Washington.”
Adler added that Congressman Jon Runyan “rode the wave” to office in 2010. “He didn’t have a record. This time he certainly has a record and it’s not a good one.”
Runyan, the former offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, takes a different view.
“I think the biggest choice we really have to look at is, what is the direction and the future of this country,” said Runyan, the father of three children. “Obviously, the big obstacle that is out there is the fiscal crisis that is in front of us.”
“To listen to my opponent just say, ‘You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong’ on all these ideas and not really put anything out there that is concrete — that’s the problem with both parties,” said Runyan. “That’s what’s really gotten us to where we are at.”