BY TOM BAXTER / AJT //
Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell can remember when you could tell who was going to get Metro Atlanta’s Jewish vote by attending the right lunch. Businessman Abe Goldstein and a group of senior leaders would get together to decide who they would support, and due to the realities of the day, the favored candidates, nationally and locally, were almost always Democrats.
“Back then there were people who could deliver the Jewish vote, but you have to remember there weren’t but12,000 inMetro Atlanta,” Massell recalled.
With the rise of a larger and more diverse Jewish community, as well as a Republican majority in state politics, it’s a lot harder to characterize Jewish voters now than it was back in the lunch days.
Think of it as the Home Depot divergence, after Arthur Blank, a loyal Democrat, and Republican Bernie Marcus, a staunch Republican. There are few hard numbers, but enough anecdotal evidence to suggest Metro Atlanta’s Jewish voters in this year’s election were far from monolithic in their choices.
The deep ties which continue between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party are perhaps best underscored by the fact that the only Democrat on the statewide ballot this year was Public Service Commission candidate Steve Oppenheimer. The growing Jewish involvement in the Georgia Republican Party, meanwhile, is highlighted by Attorney General Sam Olens, who in 2010 became the first Jewish candidate of either party to win a statewide partisan election.
“Like the state has changed, the Jewish community has changed,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who has chaired several Republican presidential campaigns in Georgia and served as chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor.
Tanenblatt, who was co-chair of Mitt Romney’s national finance committee and accompanied the Republican presidential candidate on his visit to Israel before the election, is senior managing director at McKenna, Long & Aldridge.
The community has long had its Republican stalwarts, like Jarvis Levenson and Clyde Rodbell, Tanenblatt said. But now he sees a lot of younger Jewish Republicans as well. With a new generation have also come new attitudes more in line with the fiscal conservatism of the Republicans.
“Jews have often not been thinking voters. They’ve been guilty voters,” said Mike Bodker, the Republican mayor of Johns Creek. “I think that you can be compassionate, that you can give to the less fortunate, and still be a Republican.”
Those issues that center around the concept of “repairing the world” have always been important to Jewish voters. So has support for Israel, an issue that burned particularly hot in the past election, with doubts cast about the Obama Administration’s loyalty to its key Middle Eastern ally.
Nationally, according to exit polls and post-election surveys, about 69 percent of the nation’s Jewish voters cast their ballots for Obama. That’s down from 2008, when 76 percent of Jewish voters chose the Democratic candidate, and less than the impressive margins Obama rolled up among Hispanics (71 percent) and Asians (73 percent). But it nevertheless amounts to a strong rejection of Romney’s overtures.
“The Republican Party tried to create a dynamic in which, if you are for Israel, then you have to be for the Republicans because the Democrats are against Israel. I don’t buy that argument at all, and I think the events of recent days (with the administration’s support ofIsraelin the recent conflict with Hamas) have proven that it was not correct,” said Linda Fisher, a Democrat who is an active volunteer in the Jewish community.
If Romney had won the election, there might be a different set of questions about the trajectory of Olens’ career. The former Cobb County Commission chairman was the only statewide elected Republican to back Romney early on in the campaign, and the only Georgian to be given a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention inTampa.
But what he does next is still a big question in terms of the kind of inroads the GOP could continue to make among Jewish voters.
Even such a longtime Democrat as attorney Steve Lebovitz, a colleague of Tanenblatt’s at McKenna, Long and Aldridge, acknowledges that Olens would be a powerful draw to Jewish voters.
But the larger factors are likely to be how effectively the Republicans hang on to power at the state level, along with the continuing growth of the Jewish community. In the future, being Jewish will still be a strong indicator of how you might vote, but so will your zip code.
Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and later chief political correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and currently writes a column for the Saporta Report, www.saportareport.com