Ben Samuels returns to his roots

It is probably safe to assume that Ben Samuels, a 30-year-old Democrat now running to unseat Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) in the suburbs of St. Louis, is the only congressional candidate in the country who speaks Yiddish. “I’m proficient enough at Yiddish to make my way around Williamsburg without too much trouble,” Samuels, who studied the language in college, told Jewish Insider regarding the New York City neighborhood in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, outside of the Hasidic community, there’s not a lot of Yiddish speakers, so I don’t have the opportunity to use it much.”

He declined, however, to specify his favorite Yiddish word, perhaps mindful of his status as a candidate for federal office. “It’s not one, necessarily,” Samuels deadpanned, “that I’d want to say in an on-the-record interview.” Still, for Samuels, Yiddish seems to be more than a punchline or a means to accentuate a dirty joke. “In a lot of ways,” said Samuels, who descends from German, Polish and Russian Jews who began settling in St. Louis in the 1870s, “the history of Yiddish is similar to the history of a lot of immigrant languages in the United States in how it tells a part of the American story.”

Lately, Samuels has been mulling that story with urgency as he mounts his first congressional bid driven by what he describes as a growing sense of alarm over the fractured state of American politics, particularly following Republican efforts to overturn the presidential election results that resulted in the violent Capitol riot earlier this year. “I had worked in the public sector and the private sector before coming to this, but I’d never really seriously thought about running before,” Samuels told JI. “The attacks on the Capitol on January 6 are really what changed my perspective.”

Samuels was the first Democratic primary candidate of the cycle to announce a bid for Missouri’s historically conservative 2nd Congressional District, though he now has company with Trish Gunby, a state legislator who jumped into the race in early August. “I’m trying to do my part to protect democracy and turn down the temperature and reduce some of the hate and vitriol and divisiveness in politics today,” said Samuels, who launched his campaign early last month.

“The far-right extreme really seems to have taken hold of Ann Wagner and the rest of the Republican Party,” he added. “I don’t think we have the luxury of sitting by while there are concerted efforts on the part of a lot of certain electeds in the federal government to try to strip people of their voting rights and to try to move away from democracy.”

Wagner, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, opposed efforts to block certification of the Electoral College vote in January, despite having previously supported a failed lawsuit, filed by the Texas attorney general, challenging the election results in four swing states. More recently, Samuels is quick to point out, the five-term congresswoman voted against establishing an independent commission to investigate the Capitol riot, as did the vast majority of Republicans in Congress.

Earlier this month, Wagner announced that she would run for re-election after mulling a bid to replace outgoing Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) in the Senate. Last cycle, the 58-year-old Republican defended her seat in a competitive general election matchup against Jill Schupp, a Jewish state senator and top-tier Democratic recruit who received significant support from national groups. But while the race had been rated as a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Wagner prevailed by more than six points with 52% of the vote, dealing a decisive blow to Democratic hopes of flipping the district.

With upcoming redistricting in Missouri controlled by GOP legislators, Wagner’s seat could become even more prohibitive to Democrats running in next year’s midterm elections, according to Betsy Sinclair, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “We should expect the 1st Congressional District boundaries to grow,” she said of the seat occupied by Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), whose district may be redrawn to include more of St. Louis County because of declining population rates in the city — likely pushing Wagner’s territory into redder counties as a result. If that scenario plays out, “the 2nd district could become less Democratic,” Sinclair told JI.

Still, Samuels seems undeterred by the prospect of a redrawn map, arguing that he is uniquely poised to mount a credible challenge, despite some major obstacles. “I’m coming at this race as someone who’s worked both for and with Republicans and Democrats,” said Samuels, who believes his background in business and government will appeal to voters on both sides of the aisle.

“I’ve been an independent for a good chunk of my life, but I think in the era that we’re in right now, I’ve found that a lot of the Republican Party was moving towards right-wing extremism in a way that scared me,” Samuels, a moderate who says he aligns with centrist House coalition like the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs, told JI. “So I’m a proud Democrat now, but also come at this as someone who understands how to work with people across the aisle and a pragmatic approach that will be focused on getting things done.”

Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist in Maryland who supports Samuels but is not working on his campaign, echoed that view. “A candidate like Ben, regardless of what happens with redistricting, is going to be incredibly formidable next year,” he told JI in a phone interview. “You look at the stereotypical Republican attacks, they don’t work on someone like Ben Samuels,” Karp added. “He’s a real wonk who has made good on a personal commitment to work in public service and to be of service himself, and oftentimes that’s meant being bipartisan.”

Born in Connecticut, Samuels split his childhood between California and Missouri. He specialized in Near Eastern languages and civilizations as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he served as president of The Harvard Crimson and penned a first-person essay about his decision to forgo covering a football game because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur. “I had my Sandy Koufax moment,” he wrote in 2011, “abstaining not just for religious reasons, but also on principle.”

Out of college, Samuels worked at a tech startup that was later acquired by MasterCard, got a master’s degree at Harvard Business School and then took a job in former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. His most recent role was director of special projects for Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. 

Samuels says he moved back to St. Louis at the beginning of the pandemic, motivated by a desire to reconnect with his roots. But despite professing a deep connection with the district, his recent return to St. Louis is likely to become something of a sticking point as the primary heats up.

“Candidly, Rep. Gunby is the only Democrat with a real shot at beating Ann Wagner,” Rosetta Okohson, Gunby’s campaign manager, told JI. “She’s lived in the district for 25-plus years and won two elections against a well-funded Republican candidate and state party. She respects Ben, but he only recently moved to the district and lacks the local footprint and support necessary to win in the general.”

Samuels preempted such charges in conversation with JI, claiming that he is a sixth-generation Missourian on his father’s side and maintains longstanding ties with the district. “We had a shoe business that was in the family for generations back when that was a big industry here in St. Louis,” he said. “My ties here run deep and I’m proud of my family’s legacy.”

Braxton Payne, a Democratic consultant with Show Me Victories in St. Louis, who is not involved in the race, said Samuels is “still very unknown” in the district — but added that dynamic could work to his advantage. “He will be able to define himself early on as the candidate that he wants to be,” Payne told JI, “while Gunby has a record but has proven to know her constituents.”

Nevertheless, Gunby’s candidacy “will most likely prove to be tough for Samuels,” Payne said. “Gunby is a good fundraiser but works hard on the doors. But in a big congressional seat, that will be more difficult to have that grassroots game versus a small statehouse race.”

Gunby’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry regarding her fundraising numbers.

Samuels, for his part, has pulled in nearly $480,000 in less than two months, according to a campaign spokesperson. “This is above and beyond what most first time candidates are able to raise in July and August of the off-year, and shows just how viable Ben’s campaign is already,” the spokesperson, Nick Paprocki, argued.

“I’m lucky to have a lot of support from people locally and recognize that this is going to be a tough but a winnable race,” Samuels told JI. “We’re doing everything we can to try to flip the seat and bring some decency and some good common-sense solutions back to a role and back to a seat that sorely need it.”

In the interview with JI, Samuels focused largely on kitchen-table issues, repeatedly emphasizing, for instance, that he will bring jobs and businesses “back to St. Louis” if he is elected. “That’s something, having worked on economic development in the public sector and having worked in the private sector for a number of years, I think I’m well-suited to do,” he said.

“I have a background in climate change and want to make sure that I have the opportunity to address what I think is the most pressing challenge of our time,” Samuels added. While he doesn’t support the Green New Deal, Samuels advocates for an equally “ambitious” approach “that creates opportunities to grow businesses, creates job opportunities and helps people save money on their monthly bills.”

On foreign policy matters, Samuels made clear that he was eager to take an active role in bolstering the U.S.-Israel relationship, maintaining that his voice would be a valuable addition to the conversation amid festering Democratic divisions over the Jewish state. 

“In many cases, a lot of younger Jews don’t always understand why Israel is important to our collective safety and to Americans and to the Jewish people,” said Samuels, who has family in Israel and has visited twice. “I think a new generation of younger Jewish leadership is in a very good position to try to do something about that and help younger Americans and younger Jews understand the importance of the U.S. relationship with Israel.”

When former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was in power,” Samuels added, “he was doing a lot to make Israel a partisan issue, and I don’t think that benefits Israel. I don’t think that benefits the U.S. I don’t think that benefits any of us in terms of our collective safety.”

“I think a new governing coalition in Israel,” Samuels said, “is a real opportunity for us to reset and focus on making sure that support for Israel remains bipartisan in the United States.”

Samuels wouldn’t directly commit to supporting the Iran nuclear deal as the Biden administration seeks a return to the agreement. “What I don’t think is helpful is foreign policy that see-saws back and forth between Democratic and Republican administrations,” he said, “and this gets to the broader point of why it’s important to have consistent bipartisan support for Israel because that allows us to maintain more consistent policy and allows us to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to keep Iran from getting nuclear capabilities.”

“No deal is going to be perfect,” he allowed, “but we need to do everything we can to keep Iran from getting nuclear capabilities and we need to make sure that it’s a consistent approach.”

Samuels’s support for Israel in particular will likely appeal to Jewish community members in the district, who make up a sizable population of around 38,000, according to a 2014 survey. The rookie candidate says he is attuned to their concerns on a range of issues, not least because of his personal connection to the community. “A couple of years ago, there was a Jewish cemetery that was desecrated here in an act of antisemitism, and I have a number of ancestors who are buried in that,” he said. “So I understand the challenges that a lot of the Jewish community faces today, but I’m also really proud to be part of the Jewish community here in St. Louis.”

“It’s part of who I am,” Samuels elaborated. “It’s part of my family and social network and my value set and everything else. Now, on the Cardinals [baseball team] over the last 20 years, you’ve had David Eckstein and Trevor Rosenthal, neither of whom are Jewish, much to my mother’s dismay, but still part of our upbringing and our community all the same.”

While the race is only in its early stages, Samuels is starting out with a substantial “head start among a pretty sizable group of voters” in the Jewish community, as Karp views the dynamics. “Seeing him at home working on behalf of his own community is very exciting, and I think Ann Wagner has faced tough opponents before, but she’s never faced anyone like Ben Samuels,” Karp told JI. “Ben is the next generation of Jewish talent in America. There’s no doubt about it.”

For his part, Samuels argues that his message is resonating as he embarks on what is expected to be a contentious campaign cycle. “I think people are receptive to the fact that politics has become really divided and isn’t working for people anymore,” he said. “We need people who can go to Washington who are able to rise above the partisan noise and focus on the sorts of things that actually help people in their day-to-day life.”

Samuels hit on a similar theme earlier this month while delivering a sermon on the Yiddish language — one of his favorite topics — at Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in St. Louis attended by his family. “Back in the early 20th century, when most American Jews would have had at least some familiarity with Yiddish, it’s how other groups communicated with us: businesses, unions, cities and towns, neighbors, other religious and ethnic groups, friends and neighbors alike,” he told congregants at a recent Friday night service. “And that in turn made it easier for us to get involved, to participate — in many cases, for the first time — with the non-Jewish world, to remain Jewish but to become American.”

“As we look at the world around us, it feels like we’ve lost that ability,” Samuels lamented. “We may all speak the same language, but it feels like fewer and fewer of us speak the same language.” Near the end of the talk, however, Samuels landed on an ultimately hopeful message. “We can all do better to communicate with people on their terms,” he said, “to close the gap, to learn from our history to build towards something better tomorrow.”

“I’ll close with a Yiddish expression that I like: az men muz, ken men,” Samuels concluded, opting for a phrase that was no doubt less vulgar than the one he refrained from mentioning in conversation with JI. “‘If you have to, you can.’ Let’s all do what we can — I don’t think it’s too much chutzpah to ask for that.”

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