Kerry’s entree to Jewish vote

Times Staff Writer

Cameron Kerry is cuter than his brother, with curly hair and warm eyes.

But his gestures recall those of his older sibling -- his hands rise up, his thoughts sometimes pause in mid-sentence. While nearly 20 years of speeches in the Senate have smoothed John F. Kerry’s delivery style, Cam Kerry is a law professor and sometime lobbyist for the cable industry. He doesn’t do flourishes.

He does do synagogues, though. And delicatessens. And any other place where Jewish voters gather, especially in swing states. Warming up the crowd at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton the other day for that political rock star, former President Clinton, Cam Kerry told the audience that 21 years ago, “I became a Jew by choice.” There are audible gasps from the audience. John Kerry’s brother is Jewish? Who knew?

He tells them he wanted to be “a whole participant in my daughters’ religious upbringing.” There are nods of approval. The girls are now 13 and 17, freshmen in high school and college, respectively. “I’m going to be proud when my brother takes the oath of office as president,” he says, sparking a round of exuberant applause. Then he touches his heart. “And it just might equal the pride I felt when my two daughters read from the Torah.” Now there is a cooing sound coming from the crowd.


In Yiddish, this is called nachas, parental pride. In politics, it is called reaching for the women’s vote.

In 2000, George W. Bush got 19% of the Jewish vote nationally -- below Ronald Reagan’s modern high-water mark for Republicans of 39% in 1980 and above Barry Goldwater’s low 10% score in 1964. This year, given Bush’s aggressive response to Islamic terrorism and his stalwart support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his campaign is aiming for 25% of the Jewish vote. In a close election, that could be the difference.

That is why Cam Kerry flew around Ohio for three big rallies of Jewish voters last weekend. That is why this weekend will find him hopscotching around Michigan (wife Kathy Weinman was born in Detroit and still has family there). And that is why earlier this week, Cam Kerry found himself at Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House in Miami Beach, where two dozen Democratic Party faithful were sitting in red leather booths eating dessert -- no Atkins here: Strawberry shortcake piled high with whipped cream was a favorite.

Cam greets Ginger Grossman, soon to be 86 years old, wearing a lavender suit (“Lavender is a good color for women,” she advises. “It’s sexy”). She is also wearing a campaign button unique to Florida. “I Didn’t Vote for His Daddy or His Brother Either,” it says, in reference to former President George H.W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.


As Kerry works the room, others in his entourage give pep talks. Then they are off to the next stop.

Accompanying Kerry on this campaign of voter outreach in southern Florida -- where an estimated 15% of households are Jewish -- is a busload of comic, legal and political prowess. Eight Jewish members of Congress come along to attest that John Kerry, who is Catholic, is dedicated to Israel; Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard legal expert, is here to warn voters of the dangers of another contested election; and Larry David, creator of “Seinfeld” and star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is here, well, because this election could save his marriage.

Wearing a yarmulke and his trademark sneakers, David tells a crowd at Temple Samu-El OrOlom in south Miami that his wife, Laurie (who spent the day on a separate Florida bus tour with members of the group Women for Kerry), wakes him in the middle of the night ranting about Bush. He says he can’t live with it for another four years.

He complains that when John Kerry is down in the polls, he, Larry David, cannot “function.” Which is to say that between the GOP convention and the first Bush-Kerry debate, “I had no sex.” After Kerry’s performance in the Miami debate, “I performed like a teenager,” he reports, until his wife said “what every Jewish man hears eventually -- ‘Enough already.’ ” Which is how he feels about the Bush administration. “Enough already.”

The crowd is on its feet cheering, more than 500 voters come to hear Cam Kerry and his traveling show. Then David leaves. Dershowitz had peeled off earlier, so the congressional heavyweights still there do what they do best -- make speeches.

“These are big Jews here,” says Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.). “Can you imagine so many big Jews packed into one bus? It’s like a bunch of Hasidim going to the Catskills.” There are a lot of jokes all day about the bus and about the food on the bus. David says he is nauseated from the smoked herring.

Janis Berman, wife of Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), marvels at how much food there is, including black-and-white cookies. But the truth is the bus is a luxury van, with leather seats and two big-screen television sets and the food is, well, deli.

Ackerman talks about how Bush has divided the country worse than at any time since the Civil War. He says that of 28 Jews serving in Congress, 27 have endorsed Kerry.


Then he tells a joke about two men, Izzy and Abe, who are in a concentration camp, about to be killed by Nazis. They are ordered to dig their own graves and asked if they have a last request. Izzy tells Abe he’s going to ask for a blindfold. Says Abe, “Don’t make waves.” There is nervous laughter. It is one thing for David to come into their synagogue and make jokes about his sex life, or for them to take potshots at the food on the bus. But this is the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews lost their lives.

Then Ackerman delivers the coup de grace, the line that wins the audience: “We saw what happened in the last election,” he says. “We are here to help you make waves.”

They are on their feet cheering again, roaring. “Drive people to the polls,” he urges. “You know what to do.”

Afterward, voters buttonhole their favorite speakers. Cam Kerry shows one voter his yarmulke, black with a Boston Red Sox emblem in the center. Another voter jokes with Kerry, telling him to be sure to remember to vote for John Kerry on Tuesday. Still another talks with Berman, worried that the Orthodox vote will swing to Bush.

Reflecting on the day, Kerry says he enjoys the interaction with individual voters. “I love retail politics,” he says. Shaking hands at a deli with a few dozen voters. Driving a few senior citizens to the polls in Florida’s experiment with early voting. Greeting voters who rush over to shake hands because they heard John Kerry was there.

He is sanguine about Bush’s prospects among Jewish voters, predicting that the president will “do better than he did four years ago,” when the first Jewish candidate was on a major party ticket -- Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut senator. Cam Kerry is self-effacing about his role. Introduced often as “the next first brother,” he smiles wryly, mentioning “a certain history here,” hoping perhaps not to cause his sibling as much trouble as Donald Nixon or Billy Carter or Roger Clinton did for their brothers.

He sounds wistful about nepotism laws -- passed during the Johnson administration after President Kennedy was assassinated and his brother Robert was still attorney general -- that would keep him from serving in his brother’s administration. “I’ll look for other ways to help,” he says.

One of the features of life on the campaign trail, circa 2004, is child journalists. At B’nai Torah Congregation, Kerry is interviewed by the Freedom News Network, affiliated with Freedom Shores Elementary School in nearby Boynton Beach. The on-air talent -- 11-year-old Spencer Snitil -- asks Kerry if he is older or younger than his brother. Seven years younger, Kerry says, confessing that when they were kids, he used to round his age up to be able to say that he was only six years younger.


Spencer has spiked his blond hair for his TV interview with Kerry. His cameraman is less bubbly. “I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” says cameraman Nathan Weinbaum, who is 10. “Also, I always bring lunch.”

Swiss on rye?