Worrying signs, deep in the heart of Texas

Worrying signs, deep in the heart of Texas

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

HOUSTON — The first results of the 2010 Census confirmed what we already knew about our nation’s population shift. While the rate of population growth slowed, Americans continued to move to the South and Southwest in record numbers. That means more political clout for Texas and Florida and Nevada, with Arizona and the Carolinas not far behind. As the Northeast and the rust-belt states of the Midwest continue to decline, the future locus of power is headed, literally if not figuratively, south.

The congressional reapportionment created by the population shift will affect a likely partisan swing in the House of Representatives for the 113th Congress, which will arrive in January 2013. This is likely to produce a gradual but very real decline in Jewish political power and clout as more and more states with smaller and smaller Jewish populations emerge as the dominant political forces.

According to the 2000 census, Texas had a population of 25 million people, while separate surveys (the census doesn’t count Jews) put the state’s Jewish population at 150,000 or 0.4 percent. The 2010 census showed that the population of Texas increased to 4.2 million, while the Jewish population is thought to have grown almost 30 percent to approximately 200,000. That still represents less than 0.5 percent of the state’s population, despite the fact that Jews are more involved than ever in the Texas economy, including its oil business.

These numbers don’t represent a huge blow to the ability of Jewish Texans to advocate on behalf of their interests, except for two curious and connected factors, one specifically religious and one religious/political. Southern Baptist churches are huge, and attendance in the mega-churches is climbing. This translates into support for their political agenda, much of which is encompassed within that of the Tea Partyers.

While Evangelicals have traditionally been solid supporters of Israel, the Tea Party leans toward isolationism, a threat to many Jewish concerns on the international front, to say nothing of some of their views on the social, domestic agenda.

A recent event in Texas politics, however, ought to have sent shivers down the spines of many in the Texas Jewish community.

State Assemblyman Joe Straus, a Republican and a Jew, found himself the target of a nasty campaign by those opposed to his selection as speaker by the incoming State Assembly. Beginning over a month ago, a set of robo-calls urged that Straus be unseated as speaker because he wasn’t a “true Christian conservative.” Straus’s challengers repudiated the calls, but, with the election slated for Jan. 11, it will be interesting to see how effective this campaign will be. Some Republicans previously believed to be pledged to him have now announced that they need to heed the wishes of their constituents and support one of Straus’s challengers.

What is especially disturbing to some observers is that this very sophisticated campaign probably could not have been mounted without the financial support and political guidance of some Tea Party supporters.

One incident ought not stigmatize a party or slate of elected officials, but it does raise a red flag. For Jews, the question is about much more than the individual incident. It challenges the future of Jewish power and clout. Jews undoubtedly will continue to be major financial contributors to both parties (although even that is not a given, in light of the dramatic change in campaign financing brought about by the Supreme Court decision last January in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which virtually eliminated the cap on corporate campaign financing).

At stake is the continued ability of Jews to influence the political agenda in states as well as nationally, as their percentage of the general population declines. As a consequence of such a reality, there could be a dramatic shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East, as oil-producing and -refining states like Texas gain greater and greater political power in Washington.

Dr. Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of political science at Kean University in Union (gkahn@kean.edu).

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