(February 15, 2016 / JNS)
By Sean Savage and Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org
“The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man.” Those are the words of the Jewish sage Maimonides. They also describe the values that Ohio Jews believe are embodied by their state’s governor. But will Jewish voters and other voters nationwide take notice?
On the heels of his surprising second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Ohio Governor John Kasich is no longer under the radar in the crowded Republican field of presidential contenders. Labeling himself as a moderate candidate with a “positive message,” Kasich has promoted his Congressional and gubernatorial experience as exemplifying the right type of leadership needed for the presidency.
In an election that has seen the stumbling of traditional “establishment” candidates and the spreading of increasingly partisan messages on both sides, could Kasich be the type of independent-minded moderate leader who could serve as a feasible and electable alternative to the populist platforms of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and billionaire businessman Donald Trump?
Kasich is a “true conservative” who has always been “true to the [Republican] party’s core principles of reducing the size and scope of the federal government, tackling problems at the state and local level, and a commitment to a strong defense,” said Brad Kastan, senior vice president and managing director with the Raymond James & Associates financial advisory firm in Columbus, Ohio, and a close friend and adviser to Kasich for more than 35 years.
At the same time, Kasich is someone who “deeply cares about Americans who are financially challenged, disabled, or who suffer with an addiction or mental illness,” Kastan told JNS.org.
To voters outside his home state, Kasich was a largely unknown figure before his second-place finish in New Hampshire. But in Ohio, he is widely viewed as a strong leader, even by Democrats who disagree with some of his policies. Case in point: the Ohio legislature’s recent passage of a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, legislation that is now heading to the desk of Kasich, who has vowed to sign it.
“Some of his policies I don’t agree with, like defunding Planned Parenthood…I certainly don’t agree with him on his stance on abortion and some of the bills that have been put forth in the [state] legislature. But on the other hand, as a Republican governor he did [accept] Medicaid money from the Affordable Care Act even though there’s no [health insurance] exchange in Ohio,” said Rabbi Stephen Grundfast of Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Akron, Ohio, crediting Kasich with doing what was necessary to help those in need in Ohio despite the governor’s broader opposition to Obamacare.
Grundfast’s congregation, city, and county (Summit) are all Democratic-leaning. But the rabbi is able to acknowledge the success of Kasich despite their differences of opinion.
“He’s been good for Ohio, except for the things that I totally disagree with him on,” he said.
Within Ohio’s sizable and influential Jewish community, the 63-year-old Kasich has relationships that span decades. Howie Beigelman—executive director of the public affairs arm of the Ohio Jewish Communities (OJC), which represents the state’s Jewish Federations—said Kasich has a “deeply personal” relationship with Ohio Jewry and praised the governor for his advocacy on the construction of the state’s official Holocaust memorial.
“His vision led to the building of Ohio’s Holocaust and Liberator’s Memorial on the statehouse ground, which is, even among the few public memorials in state capitals, one-of-a-kind in size, central location, stark beauty, and in its message of honoring both the Nazi’s victims as well as our veterans,” Beigelman told JNS.org.
On the other hand, Kasich garnered some Jewish communal criticism for promoting stereotypes through a comment he made at last December’s Republican Jewish Coalition presidential candidates forum, where he shared advice he once received from his mother.
“She said, ‘Johnny, if you want to look for a really good friend, get somebody who’s Jewish,’” Kasich told the audience.
“And you know why she said that?” he continued. “She said, ‘No matter what happens to you, your friend, your Jewish friend, will stick by your side and fight right with you and stand by you.’”
Rather than those comments, Kasich adviser Kastan focuses on the governor’s record with Ohio’s Jewish community, which he called “exemplary.”
“With a 100-percent AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) rating during his time in Congress, he was the ‘go to’ member of the Ohio Congressional delegation on matters concerning Israel and the Jewish community,” Kastan told JNS.org.
Citing his 18 years in Congress, where Kasich served on the House Armed Services Committee, the “Kasich for America” team described the presidential candidate as a “strong supporter of president Ronald Reagan’s national security agenda.”
With the guidance of an influential Ohio Jewish businessman and Republican activist, the late Gordon Zacks, Kasich made his first visit to Israel shortly after being elected to Congress in the 1980s. Kasich went on to take up the issue of persecuted Soviet Jewry by helping advocate for the release of famed refusenik Natan Sharansky, the current Jewish Agency for Israel chairman, from Soviet prison.
Kasich for America said in a statement provided to JNS.org that the U.S.-Israel relationship “is one of our most important [relationships] because of the role it plays in advancing our shared national interests and helping stabilize what is a very tough neighborhood of the world. It is also mutually beneficial to our economies and is a reflection of our shared values.”
“The governor’s support for Israel and engagement with its leaders goes back decades and reflects his fundamental belief that supporting Israel is simply the right thing to do,” Kasich for America said, adding, “Friends will always disagree and that’s okay, but friends also extend one another the courtesy of disagreeing in private and supporting one another in public, and that’s the approach that the governor will bring to all of America’s important allied relationships.”
Kasich came out strongly against last summer’s Obama administration-brokered nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers. Even in his current capacity as a state governor, rather than a member of Congress, Kasich personally attended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-discussed March 2015 speech to Congress in opposition of the emerging deal.
“When Netanyahu recently spoke to Congress, John cleared his calendar and made the trip to DC to support Bibi,” Kastan said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Kasich said he believes the U.S. should have walked away from the negotiations with Iran, like Reagan did for talks with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
“Just remember Reagan in Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital), where [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev said, ‘Look, get rid of all nuclear weapons,’ and I remember Reagan getting back in the car and saying, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that,’” Kasich told Fox News last July.
Beth El Congregation’s Grundfast questioned the significance of Kasich’s pro-Israel position.
“Every politician is pro-Israel. That doesn’t mean very much to me. They can’t not be pro-Israel. If anybody wants to criticize [Israel], they’ll be thrown under the bus….Barack Obama tried to do that and he’s been skewered by many people. I’m sure [Kasich] is as pro-Israel as all the other candidates have to be,” said the rabbi.
Kastan, however, believes that Kasich’s support for Israel is sincere and deeply personal.
“It is not just important to observe what is in John’s head, but what is in his heart,” Kastan said. “Sure, he supports Israel because it is good for America. But, he also believes there can be no light between the U.S. and Israel because of the shared values between the two countries. He has a record of over 35 years of unwavering support for the Jewish state.”
Despite his strong showing in New Hampshire, Kasich faces an uphill battle for the nomination in a year when many Republican voters are angry at the direction of the country and dissatisfied with traditional politics, pushing them towards non-traditional candidates like Trump, who won the New Hampshire primary.
Nevertheless, OJC’s Beigelman said Jewish voters can find “common ground” with Kasich, the type of leader who “defies labels.”
“From expanding healthcare to school choice, to protecting the dignity of Holocaust survivors, to helping those in need get a hand up, to containing Iran…there are many areas [in which] independent-minded voters, including Jewish voters, could find common ground with him,” Beigelman said.
Kastan, similarly, said Kasich “has his own moral compass and does what he believes to be the right thing.”
“All Americans want is a [president] who understands how to bring our country together to solve problems. John is doing that in Ohio,” Kastan said.
Moderate candidates “are always a good choice,” said Grundfast.
“When you get the extremes on both sides, left and right, you’re talking to the fringe elements. [Kasich] does work with Congress, he does work with the Democrats, and that’s important. We haven’t had that in a long time,” he said.
“I think he’s a person that might be amenable to having a discussion, and to sit down and try to come up with some kind of compromise,” Grundfast added, noting that he believes other GOP candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) are not as willing to compromise, while “who knows what’s going to be” with Trump.
While Grundfast expects Kasich to get a spike in campaign funding after his success in New Hampshire, he said that a more significant test for the governor will be the forthcoming primaries/caucuses in South Carolina and other states with more diverse populations than New Hampshire and Iowa, the states whose voters have already spoken,
“He’s been a strong leader here [in Ohio],” said Grundfast. “You have to look at a person overall….He has a folksy, informal type of style, and a lot of experience…I think he gained some traction because he is centrist or not a hard-right type of person, which may or may not be good for him.”
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