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Can Eric Cantor save the GOP? The new minority whip is the highest ranking Jewish Republican in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Not long ago, Eric Cantor wouldn't have been recognized if he strolled outside the U.S. Capitol grounds. But now the 45-year-old minority whip and only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives has become the face of Republican opposition to the White House.

Photographs of the conservative congressman from Virginia were splashed on the front pages of the nation's newspapers in February after he helped keep all 178 House GOP members from voting for President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package. That feat, as rare as pitching a no-hitter, won the grudging admiration of the acerbic New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote that "somehow the most well-known person on the planet lost control of the economic message to someone named Eric Cantor."

Since entering the House in 2001, Cantor has been the consummate party insider. His climb--he was appointed chief deputy whip at the end of his first term and last November was elected whip, a position recently held by the likes of Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay--has been meteoric. While his detractors complain that he is a partisan divider, his supporters hope that Cantor, who occupies the highest position of any Jewish Republican in the history of the House, is the Moses who will lead the GOP back to the promised land.

Cantor was born on June 6, 1963, into an affluent family in the West End of Richmond, a neighborhood with two Jewish country clubs and two delis. He grew up in a traditional, kosher--and solidly Republican--home.

His parents sent him to the Collegiate School, an elite private school in Richmond, where attendance at Christian chapel services was required, as was participation in Christmas pageants. "It was my parents' choice to send me to a private school, and I think it made me realize who I am and allowed me to identify that much more with the Jewish faith," Cantor says in his buttery soft Southern accent.

Cantor's father, Eddie, a lawyer, ran a successful real estate company. He was also active in Virginia Republican politics and had close ties to Richard Dudley "Dick" Obenshain, who recruited numerous Virginia Democrats to the GOP. As a teenager, Cantor helped with the grunt work of campaigns--stuffing envelopes and putting up yard signs.

The seminal political experience of Cantor's youth was the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. "Reagan was my inspiration," says Cantor, who was 17 when the Gipper was elected. "I wasn't even old enough to vote yet, but somehow he sparked something in me." It was an especially euphoric time for Jewish Republicans. Reagan captured 39 percent of the Jewish vote--the highest showing for a Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eddie Cantor, who served as state treasurer for Reagan's campaign, attended the Republican National Convention in Detroit and returned to regale his son with stories about the charismatic California governor. "It's been an interesting sort of upbringing, being a Republican and being Jewish, but I found it allowed me to see America at its best," says Cantor.

The following year, Cantor laid the groundwork for what would become a critical political alliance. As a freshman studying at George Washington University, he interned for Thomas Bliley, a Republican Virginia congressman, a Catholic and a former Democrat. Bliley liked Cantor, whom he remembers as a "very polite, very smart young man," and the following summer the political science major drove the congressman around his district as he campaigned for reelection. "Eric was a good driver, and I didn't kill him smoking my pipe in the car," recalls Bliley.

After graduating in 1985, Cantor earned a law degree from Virginia's College of William and Mary and a master's degree in real estate development in 1989 from Columbia University. It was in New York that Cantor met his future wife, Diana Fine, on a blind date. She was his ideological opposite. Fine came from a prominent family of Florida Democrats, and when they met, she was living in Greenwich Village. At the time, she was working at Goldman, Sachs & Co., where she would eventually rise to be a vice president under Bill Clinton's future Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

The couple settled in Virginia, where Cantor joined his family's law and real estate firms, founding Trust-Mor Mortgage, a mortgage brokerage company. In 1992, he was elected to the Virginia State House of Delegates. Legislating from the stately building designed by Thomas Jefferson, Cantor earned a reputation as smart, hard-working and ambitious, juggling as many as 30 bills at a time.

Shortly before taking office, Cantor received a call from Alan Diamonstein, a veteran of the Virginia legislature and a Jewish Democrat. He had heard about Cantor from friends and wanted to give a few pointers to the rookie. "We were on different sides of the issues, but I found him to always be prepared, bright, sincere," Diamonstein says. At a reception in the governor's mansion one night, he couldn't resist asking Cantor, "What is such a nice Jewish boy like you doing being a Republican?" Cantor just laughed, having become accustomed to ribbing from Jewish Democrats.

Republican Kirk Cox, who was majority whip in the Virginia House of Delegates at the time, remembers that Cantor distinguished himself as a member of the chamber's Strategy Committee, which set overall policy. "Eric had to be the youngest and least senior member to serve on that committee," Cox says. Cantor also served on the Corporation Insurance and Banking Committee. During his nine years in the legislature, he was known as an especially prodigious fundraiser. Considered pro-business, he also earned the nickname "over-dog" among some Democrats who accused him of being too attentive to the concerns of large corporations.

But Cantor, who learned from observing President Reagan, understood the political value of supporting programs that would help middle class voters. He and his wife helped to establish the Virginia College Savings Plan, an independent state body that enables parents to lock in their children's future college tuition at current rates for the state's public and private schools. Diana Cantor, a social liberal but fiscal conservative, was appointed as executive director of the organization by then Governor George Allen, a Republican, and became well-known in the state by promoting the plan on television.

Cantor also helped secure a new home for the Virginia Holocaust Museum, which was rapidly outgrowing its space in Richmond's Temple BethEl. Jay Ipson, the founder of the museum and a Holocaust survivor, was scouting for a new location and zeroed in on an old Richmond tobacco warehouse owned by the state.

"I went to Eric and he went to the governor and other officials and told them of our needs," says Ipson. The state decided to donate the building and Cantor helped raise funds for construction of the museum, says Ipson, by donating honorariums from speaking engagements. Cantor also chaired the Virginia-Israel Foundation and was active nationally through AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

When Thomas Bliley decided to retire in 2000, he made it clear that he wanted his former intern to succeed him in representing Virginia's heavily white and Republican Seventh Congressional District, a position once occupied by James Madison.

The primary was marred by some thinly veiled anti-Semitism in the form of calls to Republican households in the district emphasizing that Cantor's opponent, Stephen Martin, an evangelical state senator, was "the only Christian" in the race. Martin denied having anything to do with the calls, which were made by a group known as Faith and Family Alliance, with which some of his campaign staff members were associated. But Martin did make Cantor's family wealth an issue, noting that, unlike Cantor, he wasn't from "a wealthy family" and didn't have "the support of a well-oiled machine." In the end, Cantor won the primary by a razor-thin margin of 264 votes, then went on to crush his Democratic opponent with 67 percent of the vote.

In the ensuing years, Cantor has won re-election by sizeable majorities, and, given the racial and political makeup of the district, it is likely that he will be able to defend it until he draws his last breath or moves on to other, presumably bigger things. As Bob Holsworth, the former director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it, "This is a dream district for a Republican. It's yours for life."

As a congressman, Cantor has been notable not for his skills as a legislator, but for his rapid ascension within the GOP hierarchy. He entered Congress at the beginning of George W. Bush's presidency, when the dominance of the Republican Party that began under Reagan was already on the wane. The House GOP leadership no longer had the comfortable majority that had powered former Speaker Newt Gingrich's mid-1990s "Republican Revolution." Over the next eight years, it would become harder for Republicans to hang on to their seats due to the Iraq War, the declining economy and an increasingly unpopular Republican president.

Corruption thinned the ranks, too, inadvertently fueling Cantor's rise. But he did have a brush with Jack Abramoff, the now jailed lobbyist, and hurriedly donated $10,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff to charity. Democrats touted the fact that the lobbyist hosted a fundraiser for Cantor at his Washington kosher deli, Stacks. Once the scandal broke, Cantor had to suffer the further embarrassment of having had a menu item--the Eric Cantor Tuna Sandwich--named by Abramoff in his honor.

Somehow, Cantor managed never to look too ambitious as he rocketed up the ranks. As the House GOP leadership presided over the staggering loss of more than 50 seats in the last two election cycles, the rank-and-file grew restive, some even mulling a coup. Had Cantor joined them, he might have tipped the balance. But he remained loyal to then-majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and his successor, John Boehner of Ohio. "Bright and able though he is, Cantor has drunk the Kool-Aid in viewing the Republican Party as a private club where personal loyalties must transcend all else," influential conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote in 2006. Cantor's patience and loyalty paid off. Blunt moved aside as whip last November to smooth the path for Cantor's ascent in an ever more conservative and regionally marginalized GOP caucus.

Nationally, Cantor has steadily built political alliances, aided by his impressive fundraising talents. In his earlier role as chief deputy whip, one of his primary tasks was to form a leadership political action committee. His ERICPAC--Every Republican Is Crucial PAC--immediately exceeded all expectations. During his years in Congress, his office estimates Cantor has campaigned for other Republicans in over 80 congressional districts and raised $60 million, including $10 million for Senator John McCain's presidential run.

In Washington, such largesse translates quickly into future favors owed. Last summer, there was speculation that McCain might name Cantor as his running mate. Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia and expert on the state's politics, says that although Cantor was vetted, he was not considered a serious contender by GOP insiders. Sabato, in fact, believes that Cantor's staff orchestrated the rumors. In any case, Cantor's name was quickly eclipsed by the excitement generated by the nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Like all good politicians, Cantor is adept at taking care of his constituents. Last fall he met with officials of the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects in the splendid Tudor mansion that is the group's headquarters in Richmond. Dressed in a well-tailored light gray suit, deep blue shirt and red stripe tie, Cantor arrived punctually. The architects griped about a federal law under which 10 percent of their fees are withheld until a project is completed. Cantor listened carefully and nodded his head sympathetically. "I still consider myself a small business person," he said. "It's all about economics. When you put money out, you've got to see where you get it back," he told the receptive audience.

Cantor still reaps the benefits of his early legal and business careers. According to a disclosure statement filed with the House of Representatives, Cantor's investments and bank accounts range between $2.2 million and $7.1 million, generating between $148,000 and $396,000 a year in income. (Diana Cantor is also a force in the private sector. She runs Virginia Private Bank & Trust, a branch of Emigrant Bank's wealth management division. She also earns significant income as a director of Media General, owner of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Domino's Pizza Inc.)

Cantor's business experience gives him credibility in Congress, where he and fellow Republicans are betting that they can continue to call for tax cuts and not do themselves any political damage. Last fall, Cantor opposed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's proposal for the U.S. government to buy distressed bank assets, particularly mortgage-backed securities. It was controversial among Democrats and Republicans alike, attempting both to bolster the economy and to rescue companies that had made bad decisions. When the $700 billion rescue package first came to the floor, most Democrats voted for it, while most Republicans, including Cantor, voted against it.

Cantor blamed the bill's defeat on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had called the economic policies of the Bush administration "reckless." He stood before television cameras waving the text of Pelosi's remarks. "Right here is the reason, I believe, why this vote failed," he said, criticizing her partisan tone. But after the Dow plunged 777 points following the House defeat, Cantor and many other Republicans voted for a similar measure.

In the face of the deepening economic crisis, Cantor appears to be softening his criticism of big government. "There is a proper role for government that works and can actually do its job ... I feel my challenge is to make sure we don't go too far the other way, because America leads by the competitive spirit," he says. The hint of flexibility once again reflects his reverence for Reagan. "The way that I saw Reagan demonstrate leadership was that he had his set of principles, and it wasn't that he was so adherent to them that he couldn't bend, or talk to anyone else. He was artful in applying those principles and in coming up with solutions to problems," Cantor says.

Still, the primary responsibility of a whip is to keep party members in line. Thomas Bliley describes Cantor's whip-style as "low key," "very persuasive" and "not polemic." "He doesn't fly off the handle," he says. One senior House Democrat, who requested anonymity, disagrees. "He is very conservative, very partisan, very ambitious, very hard-working," the Democrat said.

Cantor's views reflect the conservative core of the Republican Party. He is not just a fiscal conservative. He has voted for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, voted against allowing human embryonic stem cell research and opposed abortion, earning a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee and a zero from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But Cantor has been careful not to link his faith to his stance on abortion. "There isn't a monolithic Jewish position on anything," Cantor told U.S. News & World Report last year. "You can find many rabbis that differ on the question of when life begins. That's one of the things about the Jewish faith ... There is a multitude of opinions. Our faith has been about discourse. It's been about interpreting the texts for thousands of years."

As the chair of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, a forum organized by conservative Republicans, Cantor is also building up his national security and foreign policy credentials. He was a vocal supporter of the Bush Administration's war on terror and advocates isolating regimes like Syria and Iran.

And Israel has been high on his agenda. Within his first two years in the House, he sponsored bills that attempted to stop Palestinian excavation on the Temple Mount and would have cut off all U.S. support to the Palestinian Authority. Cantor opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. "It would be premature," he says.

He has a personal connection to the violence in the Middle East. In 2006, his 16-year-old cousin, Daniel Cantor Wultz of Florida, was one of 11 people killed in a suicide bombing of a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.

The cantors live in a seven-bedroom house in the leafy Richmond suburb of Wyndham, with their three children. Evan, 18, is a freshman at the University of Virginia. Jenna, 16, and Michael, 14, attend Deep Run High School, a public school in nearby Glen Allen. Diana's mother, Barbara, a staunch Democrat, lives with the family and keeps the home kosher, helping with shopping and cooking.

"I maintain a somewhat kosher lifestyle," says Cantor, who considers himself a Conservative Jew but worships at Keneseth Beth Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Richmond. "I don't eat any non-kosher meat or chicken. I'm basically a vegetarian when I eat out."

Cantor has denied that his faith has had anything to do with his swift rise. But the Republican Party is clearly attempting to expand its base beyond white, male, Christian, Southern and rural voters, and it is doing so in part by literally changing the face of the party. This year, Michael Steele became the first African-American to lead the Republican National Committee. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from India, has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate. As a Jew, Cantor is a natural to reach out to another important constituency.

"Jewish voters are one segment of an increasingly diverse electorate that we must do a better job of attracting," says Cantor. "Many older Jews remain unwilling to consider voting for Republicans because many years ago they or their parents may not have felt welcome in the party. This is no longer the case. Jews and Americans of every extraction can find under the GOP umbrella a party very willing to include them."

As a group, Jews have heavily supported Democrats since the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought them into the American mainstream. No recent Republican candidate has been able to match Reagan's impressive performance in 1980, although the party has spent ample time and resources courting Jews. "To have a Jewish Republican who also fits into the sweet spot of where his party's ideology is and who's also extraordinarily attractive and articulate and popular is a big plus," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "The Republican Party really wants to make additional inroads with the Jews."

In Republican circles, some see potential inroads with Jewish voters if the new president missteps in the Middle East. "I think that we're going to see a lot of unrealism about the Middle East from the Obama Administration," says former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "There's a great deal the Democratic Party can do to push away Democratic voters. The last time there was a big shift in Jewish voting was during the Carter years."

Political observers predict a bright future for Cantor within the GOP, though some question whether he can measure up to recent powerful House leaders. "He doesn't have a dominating character that makes him stand out," says Hugo Gurdon, editor of The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. "He's kind of a bland figure. Gingrich and DeLay had a lot of detractors, but they also had a lot of admirers. There was a much smaller number of people who felt indifferently about them. Cantor is somebody who could get to the top position and take the party in a new direction. I wouldn't rule it out because he is a smart guy and well-liked with strong conservative credentials, but he would certainly have to grow into the job if he were to do it."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a key player in conservative politics, recommends that Cantor stick to core Republican principles and not try to invent "New Coke." So far, Norquist is satisfied with the job Cantor and other Republican leaders are doing in stemming what he sees as excessive government spending. If Cantor continues to stick to his guns, says Norquist, he will have many options. "He could stay in the House, work on rebuilding the majority and be speaker some day," he says. "Or Cantor could decide, 'I'll go be senator.' Or he could decide to be governor. Or he could end up as vice president."

Or even president. Bliley, Cantor's old boss, hears about his former driver all the time. "I was at a benefit dinner in Richmond for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and this friend said, 'I used to play tennis with Eric's mother and her boys were running around and Mary Lee (Cantor's mother) says, 'That one, Eric, says he's going to be president of the United States,'" Bliley says.

Cantor responds with the customary denials: "I am not interested in running for the nomination to challenge President Obama in 2012," he insists. "My focus rests on the House of Representatives and helping regain the public's trust in the Republican Party to lead."

Bliley agrees that the president-talk is premature. "I think it's far-fetched," he says, "I don't think he's given any serious thought to it at this time. But he's still a very young man."
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Author:Greenberger, Robert S.
Publication:Moment
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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