A Sept. 2 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Philadelphia was replete with equal parts optimism and cynicism.
At a Sept. 2 meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition — “the best kept secret in America,” as they say — the prevailing attitude seemed to be “our time is near.”
Once a curiosity, especially in Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, the RJC has now expanded to 40 chapters around the United States. Its membership is approaching 45,000 and folks — even on the other side — are beginning to take them seriously.
“We’re a niche market,” said RJC regional director Scott Feigelstein at the Philadelphia-Montgomery County Candidates Forum, which introduced Republican candidates for judge, county commissioner, prothonotary, controller, sheriff and other positions. “But the reality is, we’ve helped move the Jewish vote significantly.
“In the last election cycle, 32 percent of the vote was Republican. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you consider the low water mark in the late ’80s, early ’90s was 11 percent, we’ve clearly seen a significant shift in the Jewish communal vote. Clearly, our message is beginning to take hold and resonate.”
It did for the 35 attendees who fought early morning traffic and turned out at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue to meet the men and women who may help in the transition. With word coming out that Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey had just become the latest Democrat to announce his support of President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, the GOP was in a mood to bash Casey and those who are backing the administration.
No one took the news that Obama likely has enough support to overcome any senatorial veto and push the deal through any harder than Steve Tolbert, a candidate for county commissioner. “As an Iraq war veteran, I am thoroughly disgusted that we have members of our delegation that will be giving President Obama a rubber stamp for a poor agreement forged with Iran,” said Tolbert. “Unlike many others in this room, I can say I’ve risked life for country.
“I walked the walk. What do we expect of folks who represent us in Montgomery County who support this administration unabashedly? They’re supporting the president and his worldview, which is not a view of supporting peace through strength. That was Ronald Reagan’s view and that’s what I grew up learning in spite of the liberal bias across the road.”
For the most part, though, the RJC membership is not only in sync with each other — leaders say it’s gaining strength as professed Jewish Democrats weigh their options.
“The last five years, we’ve seen a lot of people concerned their values are not being shared within the tent of the other party,” said local RJC president Bill Wanger, who admits he was a Democrat until the 1980s. “They’re looking for a different tent. Unlike the Democratic party, the RJC has found a much bigger tent.
“The party left me. I didn’t leave the party. It didn’t welcome other voices.”
In contrast, the RJC says it does and points to its recent growth as evidence. “My single largest complaint is that we have historically been America’s best kept secret,” said Feiglestein, who’s looking forward to the RJC’s Dec. 3 Presidential Forum in Washington, where all of the current 17 presidential candidates are invited. “That’s changing, given the fact everybody seeking higher elected office realizes the RJC is a force they need to deal with. Clearly we’re headed in the right direction.”
According to Wanger, the changing dynamic goes well beyond concerns about Israel. “The Iran deal is not really about Israel,” said Wanger. “It’s about America.
“I think it puts us at risk. While the Republican community has continued its support of Israel, I wouldn’t be a member of the RJC if all I cared about was Israel.”
And he believes more equally concerned Jews — particularly young Jews — are finding the RJC suits their needs. As for the other side, for the first time he seriously questions their motivation.
“I used to say we” — both the Democrats and Republicans — “all want the same things,” said Wanger. “Now that’s not true.”
With two months until the 2015 elections and just 14 months until the 2016 Presidential election, it won’t be long before America’s “best kept secret” comes out — or remains hidden behind banquet room doors.
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