And then there was Lieberman. "Don't you think his being Jewish will cost him votes down there in the Bible Belt?" I asked from my Manhattan perch.
"Maybe. Maybe it could cost him a few points," my father admitted. He should know. He's been elected in Buncombe County more than half a dozen times, serving in the State Senate and as a judge. And he's Jewish.
Jews have been elected to office in the South for 200 years. There was David Emanuel, who became the sixth governor of Georgia in 1801. Gustavus A. Myers was elected to the Richmond city council 27 times in the 19th century. Phillip Phillips represented Mobile, Alabama, in the U.S. Congress in 1853.
After the Civil War, there was Franklin Moses, Reconstruction governor of North Carolina; Samuel Weil, state senator from Atlanta in the 1870s; Benjamin Franklin Jonas, U.S. senator from Louisiana in the early 1900s; and many more. When my father, and later my aunt, were elected to the North Carolina State Senate, they were following in the footsteps of Jacob Henry, the first Jew elected to the legislature in the Old North State. In 1808, when Henry was elected, North Carolina boasted a constitutional provision requiring all legislators to swear allegiance to the New Testament, but Henry defended his seat, and he was sworn in.
Just because they have won favor at the polls doesn't mean Southern Jews have had an easy time of governing. Perhaps the most famous to serve, Judah P. Benjamin, U.S. senator from Louisiana, became secretary of state and secretary of war to the Confederacy. Confederates, no doubt, appreciated his loyal service to the cause, but whenever anything went wrong, Benjamin got blamed, angry rebels calling him "Judas Iscariot Benjamin" and accusing him of showing special favor to other Jewish Southerners.
A century later, Jewish politicians who spoke out for civil rights contended with the opposition of fellow Jews, who worried that they shouldn't rock the boat. When E.J. Evans was asked to run for mayor of Durham in 1950, members of the local Jewish community pleaded with him not to run. They feared, Evans' son Eli Evans writes in his memoir, "that if anything happened in the city, the whites would blame the Jews and that a divisive campaign might sink into an anti-Semitic slugfest that could cause racial unrest, threats to their business, and ugly incidents." Evans ran anyway, and, though there was some ugliness--suggestions that Durham was being roped into a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and so forth--he won, and served six terms.
Some credit the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with creating a political environment in the South more hospitable to Jewish officeholders. Southern politics after 1965, the argument goes, became generally more moderate. The black Southerners who gained the vote usually vote Democratic, and Jewish candidates are usually Democrats. And, as tolerance and political correctness march on, the type of explicit anti-Semitism that inspired the heckling of Benjamin and Evans is largely a thing of the past. My father and my aunt haven't been subject to too much Jew-bashing.
And once in office, Jews can expect to be taken seriously and accorded respect. Aunt Leslie, by all counts, shouldn't have gotten anything accomplished during her six years in the North Carolina legislature. She was one of a handful of female senators; she was from a rural state's largest city, Charlotte; she was one of the two most liberal members of the Senate; and she was a Jew.
Yet during her third term, Leslie ranked in the top eight senators in the state's Center for Public Policy Research's biennial rankings of legislative effectiveness. When Leslie, the education committee chairwoman, declined to run for re-election in 1998, colleagues mourned, worrying that educational reform would screech to a halt without her. The Raleigh News and Observer reported that "Even those who disagree with her respect her." The following year, she became the first non-Christian to receive the Council of Churches' Faith Active in Public Life Award.
Not that there weren't awkward moments. One week, when I was home from college and tooling around the Senate, the president pro tem announced that the opening benediction would be given by a rabbi, a special guest of a senator who was a fervent evangelical. Generous, I thought, but odd of him to invite a rabbi to give the benediction. About three words in, it became clear that this was no ordinary rabbi: He was a Messianic Jew. From across the room, I could see a vein start popping out of my father's forehead, the one that pops out whenever he is angry.
So Lieberman might cost Gore a few votes in the Bible Belt. But not, I suspect, too many. For one thing, evangelicals have been in a philo-Semitic mood the last few years, loving Israel and loving the Jews. For another, Lieberman's no ordinary Jew. He's an Orthodox Jew, who keeps kosher, walks everywhere on the Sabbath, and won't campaign for 25 hours after sundown on Friday. Southerners are religious people, and they respect piety. Better a devout Jew--someone who, like them, takes his religion seriously--than a wishy-washy Episcopalian.