Open Zion

10.31.12

Are Jews 'The Real Housewives' of Cuyahoga County?

It’s not often that one’s particular religious and geographic subgroup becomes the topic of a New York Times op-ed, as mine did with Roger Cohen’s latest Times column, “The Jews of Cuyahoga County.” As a proud Shaker Heights native and former campaign staffer for the 2006 Ohio gubernatorial race, I, along with the other 80,000 Jews residing around Cleveland, am tickled that we've become the Kardashians of election season. Like the behind-the-scenes staff of an electoral reality show, media coverage of Cleveland and its Jews is taking a somewhat heated debate, giving it an ominous soundtrack, and manufacturing a suspenseful plotline.

This election, the candidacy of Josh Mandel, a well-funded Jewish Republican native with deep ties to the Cleveland Jewish community (his father Bruce was chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council) has lent the heady campaign atmosphere a personal touch for Cleveland's Jews. Like Cohen, I was curious about the impact of Mandel's candidacy on the 80,000 Jews of Cleveland, who could hypothetically cut into the margin that both Sherrod Brown (Mandel's opponent) and President Obama need in Cuyahoga to carry the state.

Yet my reporting for Open Zion concluded that Mandel had gained little traction, and had in fact lost the Jewish support he had in earlier races. The feedback I heard was underscored by polls by the Cleveland Jewish News among Cuyahoga Jews, which most recently showed Mandel losing to Sherrod Brown 81%-18%.  Meanwhile, statewide polls have consistently shown Obama and Sherrod Brown with narrow leads since August.

Cohen even quotes James Ratner saying "this may well be a case where the noise is obscuring the music." So if the Jews of Cleveland are unlikely to demonstrate their hypothetically disproportionate power to swing the crucial state, why devote so much coverage to them?

One reason is the borderline operatic drama among Cleveland’s Jewish political elite. In lieu of a great electoral realignment, at least we get snapshots of a juicy family drama worthy of Shakespeare (or at least Bravo). Both Cohen and Eliza Gray at The New Republic reported on the tensions within the Ratner family, among Cleveland’s premier civic and philanthropic leaders. Family patriarch Al Ratner is a central advisor to Mandel, while Democratic activists Ron and Deborah Ratner told the candidate, “You represent everything I've spent my life working against. Why would we support you?”

Meanwhile, the CJN remains host to the rhetorical and advertising arms race in which each camp tries to persuade Jewish voters with increasingly high-pitched appeals. One letter demonstrated great theatrical flair by picturing Mandel atoning for his campaign during Yom Kippur: "I will be looking for Mr. Mandel in temple; he’ll be the one still banging his chest long after the rest of the congregation has finished.”

Jewish supporters are making their most fervent pleas for votes because they know the margin in Cuyahoga matters—but also because the media seems to have camped out in the parking lot of Beachwood Mall (check out the Nordstrom sales!). Columnists like Cohen have invested the political debate among Cleveland’s Jews with disproportionate significance, only to have activists respond in kind with amplified language on both sides. But just because there’s an exciting and selectively edited trailer for the electoral season finale doesn’t make the outcome in this traditional Democratic stronghold any less predictable than your average reality show.