Unprecedented influence: Almost 10 percent of superdelegates are Jewish

According to a new survey conducted by the Forward, a disproportionately large share of the Democratic Party’s superdelegates are Jewish.

And many of them have declared their support for Hillary Clinton, accounting for more than 15 percent of her current backers.

All told, more than 70 Jewish superdelegates will make the trip to Denver this summer for the Democrats’ nominating convention. They account for about 9 percent of the party’s nearly 800 so-called superdelegates, the informal term for elected and party officials whose status as delegates to the convention does not depend on state primaries and caucuses.

If the Democratic presidential primary comes down to a photo finish, these Jewish insiders could play a role in anointing a nominee at the party’s August convention.

It would be a history-making experience: Although Jews, who make up about 2 percent of the U.S. populations, have long been considered a formidable voting bloc, they have only more recently become common as Democratic establishment insiders, with unprecedented numbers of both Jewish elected officials and party leaders.

“Politics in America has become a Jewish profession, just like arts and the law,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the author of a book about Jews and American politics. “We now are overrepresented in all these areas.”

The relatively high number of Jews among superdelegates highlights a larger political shift that has occurred in recent decades, according to Forman. Although Jews have always been well represented on the American left, he said, historically they have tended to gravitate toward causes, such as the labor and civil rights movements, rather than active participation in party politics.

In the years since World War II, however, the number of Jewish politicians has grown significantly, with 33 Jewish members elected to Congress in 2006, up from 13 in 1950. In addition, over the past 15 years, the Democratic National Committee has been led by three Jewish chairs — Americans for Peace Now head Debra DeLee; Massachusetts-based party activist Steve Grossman and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, all of whom are now backing Clinton — while the current chairman, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, is married to a Jewish woman and has raised his children as Jews. Of the DNC’s nine national officers, three are currently Jewish.

Susan Turnbull, who became a vice chair of the DNC in 2005, said she has begun organizing get-togethers for Jewish DNC members at the party’s national meetings in recent years, and occasionally communicates via email on issues of mutual concern, as when, several years ago, she was helping to pass a DNC resolution against divestment from Israel.

To compile a list of Jewish superdelegates, the Forward included elected officials and DNC members known by the paper to be Jewish. Turnbull identified additional Jewish DNC members, and the Forward’s list was vetted by the Clinton and Obama campaigns. This list may omit Jewish superdelegates whose religious affiliation is not widely known.

In the current presidential primary, the support of Jewish party insiders is particularly critical for Clinton, who won contests in New York, New Jersey and California and has pledged support from a preponderance of Jewish superdelegates in the Golden State and the Northeast — including nearly a dozen in New York.

In recent weeks, as Sen. Barack Obama has won more new superdelegates and snatched away some superdelegates who had previously committed to Clinton, Clinton’s backers have worked to shore up her existing support and counter the growing perception by many in the party that if Obama maintains his current lead in the popular vote, as well as in total states and delegates won, the superdelegates should fall in line behind him.

The superdelegates “were not selected by the national party to be either potted plants or rubber stamps,” wrote Grossman, a top fundraiser for Clinton, in an open letter he sent out earlier this month to DNC members. The letter urged those who are still uncommitted to suspend making a judgment in the race until all state contests are concluded in early June.

In an interview with the Forward, Grossman argued that if the result from the disputed Florida primary is counted, and Clinton performs strongly in upcoming primaries, the results of primary season would be inconclusive and it would be the responsibility of superdelegates to vote their conscience.

But despite the efforts to ensure their support in recent weeks, several Jewish superdelegates who are currently committed told the Forward that they were open to changing their vote.

“I’m on the horns of an emotional dilemma,” said June Fischer, 76, a member of the DNC from New Jersey who worked for several Democrats during a long career in politics and currently serves as a part-time special projects coordinator for N.J. Sen. Bob Menendez.

While Fischer originally endorsed Clinton after her initial choice, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, dropped out of the race, she said she was open to revisiting the decision — despite two phone calls from former president Bill Clinton, one in the past two weeks.

Rachel Binah, a longtime Democratic activist from Mendocino County, said she committed to the New York senator after some “heavy arm-twisting,” which included phone calls from both Chelsea and Hillary Clinton. Binah explained her quandary a bit more bluntly.

“Anybody who had any sense wouldn’t have declared, and if I were smart, I wouldn’t have,” Binah told the Forward. “But how can you say no to the former first lady, and potentially the first woman president, who personally talks to you for 20 minutes on the phone?

Jennifer Siegel is a staff writer for the Forward.com, where this piece previously appeared.