Peter Deutsch had a problem. The House of Representatives was thrashing its way toward a historic vote on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and Deutsch, a congressman representing a heavily Jewish section of Broward County, Fla., suddenly found himself pursued by swarms of tenacious reporters.
The Bronx-born, Yale-educated Democrat, a short, hyper politician who gives the impression of barely contained energy, had emerged as one of the president’s fiercest defenders. Major newspapers and broadcast networks were desperate for interviews with the sharp-tongued legislator.
Deutsch, 42, didn’t shrink from his sudden notoriety. Far from it. At the time he was contemplating a Senate run in 2000 (at press time, he was still thinking about it), and the sudden glut of attention would be money in the bank
— literally — as he mapped out his statewide campaign.
But the vote was scheduled for a Saturday, and Deutsch, who grew up in a Reform home but has become observant in recent years, was not willing to violate Shabbat for the sake of politics.
He spent the day at the downtown home of a friend, walking several miles to the Capitol to vote. Afterward, he returned for a quiet Shabbat afternoon meal, despite the clamoring reporters.
But at sundown, all hell broke loose.
“It was just five minutes after Havdalah when his aides showed up and the phones started ringing,” said one of his Shabbat companions. “The cell phones were ringing and the faxes were coming in. Peter had a phone in each ear, and an aide was holding another with a network reporter on the line. Staffers were rattling off interview requests like a machine gun.”
In his fourth term and already established as a major figure in Florida politics, Deutsch could be the prototype of a new species of Jewish politician: brash, confident, much more overtly Jewish than Jewish lawmakers of past generations but also not interested in making a big deal about it.
Deutsch is an observant Jew who can’t understand why people ask dumb questions about his Jewishness. A relentlessly ambitious politician, he neither trades on his Jewish nor papers it over.
Asked about his turn to Judaism, he gave the impression he’d rather have root canal therapy than answer.
“I guess I’ve marginally changed,” he concedes. “It doesn’t have anything to do with being in Washington, or with the issues I’ve learned about here. It’s a function of having kids, getting older, that kind of thing.”
His Jewishness is important to him personally, but almost irrelevant as a factor in his public service. “I didn’t run and I don’t serve as a Jewish member of Congress,” he says. “Even in my own dealings with my colleagues, I just don’t see it as particularly relevant in terms of my serving in the U.S. Congress.”
Twenty years ago, a much smaller handful of Jewish legislators either tried to hide their Judaism — or, if they were from overwhelmingly Jewish districts in places such as Brooklyn or Miami, play it to the hilt.
Deutsch does neither. He’s been active in pro-Israel efforts on the Hill, but he has not sought a high profile. He hasn’t been particularly close to Jewish groups active on the domestic front, although his voting record pleases many of them.
Deutsch said his low-key approach to his Judaism reflects the new confidence of a generation of Jewish politicos who see their Jewishness — in some cases, their serious Jewishness — as just one more biographical detail.
“I don’t think it reflects Congress so much as it reflects changes in America over the years. America is a different place. My generation is the first generation who identifies as Jewish, but isn’t particularly identified as Jewish. That doesn’t have anything to do with Congress; it has to do with America.”
Deutsch, even some admirers say, is no paragon. He can be abrasive, egotistical and impatient, according to former staffers. He is hard to work for and — colleagues say — sometimes hard to work with. The Almanac of American Politics described him as a “seemingly unstoppable engine of political ambition.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the only Orthodox Jew in the Senate, has parlayed his Judaism into a unique status among his colleagues, a product of both his deep and visible devotion to Judaism and some artful political spin.
Deutsch stands out for his ordinariness. He’s one more smart upstart politician eager to do a good job and at the same time get ahead in the political game — who just happens to be a serious Jew.
Lieberman gives the impression of rising above politics. Deutsch is right in the middle of the fray.
“Politics is a contact sport,” he snaps when asked if the bloody partisanship of the past few years bothers him. “Historically, Congress by its very nature is a partisan place. People sometimes think of the good old days, but when they’re really forced to remember, they realize they really weren’t that different from the new old days.”
And he pointed out an obvious fact about the endless kvetching about the slash-and-burn politics of our era: “As much as people complain, there’s never a vacancy in Congress.”
Deutsch’s politics reflect the continuing preferences of a Jewish community that remains more liberal and more Democratic than non-Jewish America. Planned Parenthood praises his voting record; the Christian Coalition says he voted with them only 7 percent of the time in a recent survey period. He gets good marks from labor groups, a passing grade from both environmental and business organizations.
Despite a numerical drop in the number of Jewish members after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, Deutsch said Jewish and pro-Israel power continues to grow, in large measure because Jewish lawmakers have successfully enlisted support from non-Jews across the political spectrum.
“The depth of the support for Israel is amazing,” he says. “The best indicator of that is the fact that foreign aid for Israel is almost unopposed.”
He denied that differences over the Mideast peace process threaten that hard-won Jewish clout. “I just don’t think our community is as divided as people say,” he maintains. “And I don’t think I’m naive. Our similarities are far in excess over our differences, and people in Congress understand that.”
Jewish power is less visible in debates over domestic issues, he says. “We do hear a lot from Jewish groups. Their lobbying has an impact in terms of helping set the agenda, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact the pro-Israel movement has in terms of bottom-line, definable results.”
Deutsch says he’s been able to reconcile the incredible time commitment of being a member of Congress — and a candidate for the Senate — with the demands of family life. He is the father of two young children.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Lubavitch director in Washington who now counts dozens of House and Senate staffers and a few legislators among his flock, agrees.
“I’m amazed at how cool he is about balancing his responsibilities to his constituents and his responsibilities to the Creator,” he says. “To him this is his life, that’s it. He doesn’t make noise about it because to him it’s just not a big deal. He doesn’t make a whole thing about it.”