MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Democrats better luck returning a seat to Alabama’s ruby-red legislature in November would also give the Statehouse its only Jewish legislator.
Phil Ensler doesn’t make much of his Jewishness in his campaign materials, although the Democratic candidate mentions in his biography that he is the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama. With a nod to local sensitivities, he describes himself in a campaign flyer as a “servant leader,” a Christian-leaning term commonly used by evangelical candidates.
But in a fundraising letter to his Jewish supporters, Ensler, who attended Hebrew School at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue and graduated from Yeshiva University’s law school, frames his campaign in Jewish terms.
“I am thrilled at the opportunity to become the only Jewish member of the Alabama State Legislature,” he wrote.
Ensler, 32, has a chance to unseat Republican incumbent Charlotte Meadows due to a 2021 redistricting that brought more Democratic voters to the East Montgomery district, which is now 55% black.
He is trying to build a coalition of black voters, white moderate liberals and independents, and the few Jews in the area. Ensler lived in Alabama, home to approximately 10,000 Jewssince moving to Montgomery ten years ago, spurred by his interest in the civil rights movement to join Teach for America in the Deep South.
Here, he worked to create networks — through his teaching, mentoring, practicing law and leading the federation — that he relies on to elicit the vote.
Aylon Gipson, a Montgomery native who now attends Morehouse College, said he knew firsthand how dedicated Ensler was to the community and most people he met knew the former teacher. or had heard of him.
“He did his best to understand the city,” Gipson said.
As a high school student on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ensler became interested in civil rights history and government service, which he says shaped his life. As a student at George Washington University, he visited Alabama’s civil rights museums and monuments.
“I have been touched and inspired standing in the very places where Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks and countless other heroes and foot soldiers had the courage to stand up for a more just and equal Alabama,” writes- it on its website.
After graduating in 2012, Ensler returned to Montgomery and taught social studies at the predominantly black Robert E. Lee High School.
The same year, he founded Marching On, a week-long program in which he took up to 70 students to Washington, D.C. They met with government officials and other decision-makers, and visited universities and institutions. local cultures.. The program eventually included students from all five public high schools in the city.
But after two years with Teach for America, Ensler concluded he could have more impact as a lawyer. While at Cardozo Law School, Ensler articled at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, working on juvenile rights and education issues. He also worked with the Innocence Projectand in the office of New York Governor David Paterson, the state’s first black chief executive.
After passing the Alabama bar, he went to work for Steve Reed, Montgomery’s first black mayor, and in 2017 joined the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which focused on evictions and payday loans. predators.
In 2019, Ensler was the subject of a flattering profile in the Montgomery Advertiser, the city’s largest daily, which named him its monthly “Community Hero.”
“At the intersection of politics, education, and legal advocacy,” the paper writes, “Ensler is an advocate for those in need.”
A seat in the Alabama legislature hasn’t changed in a dozen years. To make it happen, Ensler has raised $300,000, which allows him to send out weekly mailings to voters and buy TV ads. This compares to Meadows’ $100,000 war chest.
He said the race was not marred by anti-Semitism. He is also careful to approach issues in a way that is unlikely to irritate voters from either party. Although he strongly supports abortion rights, it is not mentioned in his campaign materials. He talks about public safety — “common sense policies that reduce gun violence” — but not assault weapons regulation.
Meadows advocates a ban on abortions without exceptions and a law on “unlicensed” firearms. She also wants to use $440 million in federal Covid money for prison construction, which Ensler opposes.
Much of Ensler’s political and financial support came from his family and friends – “Cousins, aunts, uncles, college friends,” he says. Additional support has come from the Jewish community in central Alabama and from Jewish donors outside his district and Alabama — but none from Jewish billionaire George Soros, who was the target of antisemitic tropes.
Ensler is a member of Agudath Israel/Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem, the main Conservative/Sephardic synagogue in Montgomery, but he also makes appearances at Beth Or, the area’s Reform synagogue.
“The Jewish community is very supportive of me,” he said, in part by not asking him to step down from his day job leading the federation during the campaign. “They want me to win.”