Washington — Jews compose less than 2% of the population of Delaware, which at 900,000 has one of the smallest state populations in the nation. But still, a mezuza adorns the governor’s mansion in Dover. It was placed there three years ago, with the participation of the state’s nine congregational rabbis, shortly after Jack Markell, the First State’s Jewish governor, moved in.
The fact that Markell is Jewish — as is Matthew Denn, Delaware’s lieutenant governor — would remain an item of curiosity but for the presidential electioneering that will reach its peak after Labor Day. Jewish elected officials are in high demand, and Markell, the only sitting Jewish governor in the United States, has been recruited by the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach effort. It is a new role for a governor who, though prominent in local politics, has yet to become a player on the national scene. But Markell is now part of a select group of elected officials tasked with bringing the Obama message to Jewish voters in swing states.
That’s a challenge the GOP is doing its best to make daunting, in particular with harsh attacks on Obama’s record on Israel. But Markell seems unfazed. “If you dig in and look at what the president has done domestically and what he has done concerning Israel, you have a very strong story to tell,” he told the Forward in an August 15 interview.
Two days later, the governor took that message to a crucial audience when he joined Ira Forman, the campaign’s Jewish outreach director; Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the party’s deputy national political director, Steve Walker, for a conference call with some 30 Jewish elected officials. It was one of several calls and meetings designed to prepare a battalion of Obama surrogates for a major outreach effort after the Democratic convention in early September.
Those slated to serve as Obama’s faces to the Jewish community, which include elected officials on the national level as well as state legislators, were provided with detailed talking points on the president’s commitment to Israel, including responses to claims that he is hostile towards the Jewish state. The tutorial also emphasized health care issues, which are shaping up as the campaign’s main selling point to Jewish seniors.
Markell insists that his new role as an Obama national surrogate does not mean he harbors national ambitions of his own, though the role has brought him national attention. But others are not so sure. Markell’s Republican rival, Jeff Cragg, took issue with the governor’s out-of-state aspirations. “Now more than ever,” Cragg told delawareonline.com, “Governor Markell should be focusing on the chores the voters sent him to Dover to complete and not traveling around the country furthering his personal political goals.”
The Obama surrogates team draws heavily on the pool of Jewish elected officials, where Democrats, with more than 30 members of Congress as well as several former lawmakers who are still active on the campaign, have an advantage. The surrogates, all known for both their political and Jewish credentials, are seen as the campaign’s most effective vehicle for carrying Obama’s message to Jewish voters.