This Jewish Congressman Can Stop Trump Building That Wall

When Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth returns to D.C. in January, he is likely to be heading the House budget committee – which is bad news for the president. Don’t expect him to do Benjamin Netanyahu any favors, either

Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District, in Washington, March 16, 2017.
Bloomberg

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – It is the day after the midterm elections and John Yarmuth’s campaign headquarters are empty. A pile of blue and orange placards are propped up by the restroom. Couches are strewn with bumper stickers. There is half a frosted vanilla cake sitting forlornly on a shelf and a six-pack of energy drinks by the screen door.

Yarmuth – a Yale-educated, independently wealthy local newspaper publisher-turned-popular politician – walks in, clears some clipboards off an office chair and sits down to take stock of what has just happened.

On the one hand, the 70-year-old, six-term congressman from Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District crushed his Republican challenger by over 25 percentage points. On the other, that was about the only good news the Democrats got in Kentucky, a reliably Republican southern state.

In the highly watched race in Kentucky’s 6th District, for example, any hope that former fighter pilot Amy McGrath might win over white working class voters in rural areas were dashed early on.

Polls close at 6 P.M. Eastern time in Kentucky, and the state is famously fast at tallying up the votes – meaning that results here are among the first to announce, making it a sort of bellwether for the rest of the country. McGrath’s loss provided an early glimpse into whether the so-called blue wave was happening. It wasn’t, even though the Democrats did retake the House of Representatives.

The results in Kentucky, where Donald Trump got elected two years ago with over 62 percent of the vote, raised questions about the Democratic Party’s future viability in the state outside of Louisville and Lexington.

Republicans won five of the state’s six congressional seats, while the two Senate seats – one held by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the other by Rand Paul (neither of whom were up for reelection this year) – remain in the hands of the Republicans, where they have been for 44 and 31 years, respectively.

Wearing a white button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, no tie and no airs, Yarmuth admits it could have gone a little better. But he is also at pains to stress the positives. “We should be celebrating. Maybe there were some unrealistic hopes,” he says.

Yarmuth’s own victory, meanwhile, has larger national ramifications now that Congress is back in the hands of the Democrats. When he returns to Washington, he will be the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on the Budget. This makes it highly likely he will become its chairman when Congress resumes in January.

Democratic pushback

Yarmuth has long said that Trump can forget about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The budget committee doesn’t appropriate money, but it does set levels for federal spending – and a big Democratic pushback on the $1.4 billion initial cost of building such a wall is expected by all.

“It will be up to the president at that point as to whether he wants to precipitate a government shutdown or not,” Yarmuth told the Courier-Journal paper on Wednesday.

Yarmuth has also said he will want to see Trump’s tax returns and that he has plans to turn the budget committee into a forum for several liberal causes – including a national discussion on a single-payer health care system (dubbed “Medicare for All” by its supporters).

John Yarmuth, right, with fellow Democrat Rep. Peter Welsh in Washington, December 3, 2014.
Bloomberg

Faraway Israeli lawmakers, too, might want to pay attention to the powerful gavel Yarmouth is about to yield – and how he feels about Israel’s government today.

The son of a Russian immigrant father from the Bronx (Yarmuth’s paternal grandfather was a kosher butcher) who enlisted and came to Fort Knox as a soldier, Yarmuth grew up in the 7,000-strong Jewish community of Louisville, comfortable with his Jewishness. (There are some 11,200 Jews in the state today.)

He attended the town’s Reform synagogue but went to a non-Jewish school. As an athlete, he belonged to mostly non-Jewish sports clubs, where he was often the only Jew. None of this was ever an issue, he say. He later married a non-Jew and today keeps few Jewish traditions. But his only son, he says, would probably identify as “more Jewish than anything else.”

Bold-faced liar

He remembers some exclusion growing up in Kentucky. For instance, his parents’ bid to buy a house in one of Louisville’s tonier neighborhoods in the early 1960s was rejected. But overall, he says he never personally experienced any anti-Semitism.

Originally a young Republican in the Reagan era – scouted out and encouraged by none other than McConnell – Yarmuth later changed his affiliation, in part because he was turned off by the rise of the evangelical right.

When elected to Congress for the first time 12 years ago, he was not only a rare Democratic representative, he was also the first ever Jewish congressman from Kentucky (although Louisville also boasted a Jewish mayor and Jewish superintendent of schools).

Yarmuth has long donated his congressional salary to dozens of groups and causes close to his heart, including the local Jewish Federation. He has visited Israel three times, including as a teenager in 1963 when he arrived at Haifa Port by ship and had an awful time at a Club Med resort. More recently, he went on two congressional trips – one organized by pro-Israel lobby AIPAC; and the other, more to his liking, leading a J Street one.

Today, Yarmuth is at the forefront of Democratic disillusionment with Israel’s leadership.

“Unfortunately, Israel has lost a lot of support,” he says. He has dubbed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the Dick Cheney” of Israel – “willing to say or do anything to scare his crowd into supporting him.”

“I once sat across from Netanyahu and looked at him and felt he was the most bold-faced liar I had ever heard,” he says.

Yarmuth was one of those who led the boycott of Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress when he urged lawmakers to oppose the Iran nuclear deal. More recently, he was vocal in his opposition to Trump’s cutting of aid to the Palestinians, and has balked at the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

He shakes his head when asked about Netanyahu, as well as Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett’s recent handling of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. “Trump has clearly made it more acceptable to surface your prejudices,” Yarmuth says. “The president has clearly changed the whole environment. It’s just not socially repugnant anymore to hate.”

He adds that for Israeli leaders to try to protect Trump at such a moment is “off-putting.”

Almost lost in the recent frenzy of news, but not forgotten here in Kentucky, is that two days before the Pittsburgh shooting, two African-Americans were murdered in a suburb of Louisville by an alleged white supremacist.

Yarmuth won’t say how the midterm results might affect Trump’s chances of reelection – because his prediction is that Trump won’t actually run again. “I just don’t think he will be on the ballot – which would make the elections a whole new game,” says the congressman.

A lot of Trump’s supporters, he adds, like the president because he “gives the finger to everything they hate.” Without Trump in the running, Yarmuth says, getting up and absentmindedly sorting through a handful of his campaign buttons, the next election would once again return to being about policy. And that, he concludes, would be a very good thing.