Forward: Can A Jew Snatch Bob Corker’s Seat in Deep Red Tennessee?

Has James Mackler taken leave of his senses? Resigning from a comfortable partnership in one of Nashville’s top law firms? And to run for the U.S. Senate in a Mid-South Bible Belt state as a Jew, married to a rabbi—and, maybe tougher—as a progressive Democrat?

Sitting in an unassuming local coffee shop, the fit, dark-haired Army veteran recalled hearing that same question the last time he left his legal practice—to fly a Blackhawk helicopter in the Iraq War.

Not surprisingly, that’s a career change he emphasizes a lot these days. Whether it will be enough to overcome the hurdles someone with his background faces in red state Tennessee is an open question. But with the retirement announcement last week by Senator Bob Corker, the Republican incumbent in the seat for which Mackler is running, a previously lopsided 2018 contest has been unexpectedly transformed into something less predictable.

Mackler was 30 years old when he pulled off that earlier shift, into the military, far past the usual enlistment age. But on September 11, 2001, when those planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Mackler immediately decided he needed to “do something.” It took a special age waiver from the Army to enable him to enter its flight school program. But he eventually spent 10 years in active service and still serves in the Tennessee Air National Guard.

“I imagine my thoughts were similar to what [my grandfather’s] generation thought about Pearl Harbor,” said Mackler, noting that his grandfather was a World War II veteran. “Our faith teaches, you take action to repair the world, tikkun olam. I could not keep doing what I was doing in light of what was going on the world.”

In April 2017, looking at a Washington that he calls “broken,” Mackler decided it was once more time to do something. Now living in Nashville, he was working as a civilian attorney again, married to Rabbi Shana Goldstein Mackler of The Temple Congregation Ohabai Sholom (who was listed last year as one of the The Forward’s Inspiring Rabbis). The couple was raising two daughters.

“Our country is so tribal, so divided,” he said. “One party crafting a secret bill behind closed doors. That’s not how this country is supposed to work.”

Mackler cited as his inspiration the story of Nahshon, the Israelite who waded into the Red Sea, the waters of which rose up to his head before they parted. “He took action before the path was clear,” said Mackler. “Six months ago, I decided, I’ll be like Nahshon, and begin walking.”

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