Peaks and Valleys: Luria reflects on time in Congress, looks to future

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) speaks on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, May 13, 2021. Source: Screenshot/C-SPAN.

By Keila Lawrence

A daughter. A wife. A mother. A proud Jewish woman.

An American Maritime Hero. A two-term Virginia Congresswoman. A true champion for her community and the nation.

“Isn’t that what every Jewish girl from Birmingham does?” Elaine Luria jokingly asked, recalling her atypical journey, while sitting in her Norfolk home, reflecting on her two tumultuous terms in Congress and talking about what may be in her future.

As she spoke, Luria, 47, carried herself with an air of humble confidence. Her language was steeped with unmistakable expressions of her legacies, both inherited and earned: a generous dose of Southern hospitality layered with nautical phrases through mentions of undercurrents and wavetops. At her epicenter, she has a heart for safeguarding America and a visceral affinity for caring for people and upholding moral standards.

Hanging in the background were naval portraits, artful reminders of exactly where ambition and determination can lead someone; her walls are a gallery of her patriotism. Included was a distinct, vintage “Merchant Marine” depiction perched above her shoulder, with a sailor grasping the helm of a ship and overhead the emboldened phrase “Let’s Finish the Job!” The image was another indication of her work not yet completed and the need for a champion. Luria’s endeavor to begin this work started when she was 17 years old, when she entered the U.S. Naval Academy.

Throughout her life, Luria assumed the role of champion in her various positions, but her impressive lineage laid the foundation.

Luria’s deep Alabama roots span four generations in Jasper and Birmingham, more specifically the suburb of Mountain Brook.

She comes from a family of leaders: her great-grandfather helped spearhead the construction of Temple Emanu-El in Jasper, a vital affirmation of faith where there were relatively few Jewish people. Her mother, Michelle, held major roles in the Birmingham Jewish community. Her cousin, Ben Erdreich, served as a congressman representing Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District for five terms.

Erdreich’s district was significantly redrawn, negatively impacting his chances of re-election in 1992, and foreshadowing what would ultimately become the same case for Luria. Elected as Democrats, their redrawn districts favored Republicans.

Peaks and Valleys

Luria’s Congressional debut came during a time of turbulence; she encountered exceptionally high peaks and exceptionally low valleys.

Despite this, collaboration between her Democratic caucus and Republicans across the aisle was a consistent goal throughout her terms. Even before she was officially sworn in, she embarked on her first trip to Israel. The trip was organized by the American Israel Education Foundation as a bipartisan initiative. She and five other newly-elected representatives — two additional Democrats and three Republicans — traveled to learn more about the state of affairs and security challenges in the region.

After this trip, her voice crescendoed during both of her terms as she became one of the most outspoken allies of Israel — vouching to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship against other representatives, including some in her own party, who either disagreed or emphasized different priorities. In addition, in the face of antisemitism, Luria rebutted strongly, speaking out on the House floor with vigor and pride in her Judaism.

Luria made many contributions to the fight against antisemitism, including cosponsoring the Never Again Education Act with more than 300 other representatives, which was introduced to expand U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum education programming. Luria also cosponsored House Resolution 1525 condemning antisemitism by public figures, which was introduced in December 2020 and has yet to be passed.

“There was never a quiet moment in the four years that I served in Congress.”

Her first cohort of House members was pegged by the media as the “blue tsunami” because of the large influx of Democrats. This high was quickly plagued by a slew of uphill battles: the longest U.S. government shutdown; a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, which is in the district she represented, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her next term was similarly challenging. House Democrats across the country battled to keep their seats and only a few were successful. Although her race for a second term was hard-fought, Luria received another chance to continue advocating for her community and country.

The satisfaction of her victory was momentary and eclipsed by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Luria, who witnessed the attack, saw that day as a pivotal moment in American history. She would later be asked to serve on the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack, an assignment that would propel her to the national forefront.

Serving on the committee had a profound impact on Luria, who as a young naval officer and later a Member of Congress, had twice taken an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Sworn to protect America against enemies, both foreign and domestic, Luria knew this was a moment to step forward on behalf of her country.

Members of the committee had their lives threatened; Luria and two other Jewish members received antisemitic hate mail. During this time, Luria called on her Jewish faith for sustenance and guidance. “My faith has been something that has been an important thread through my entire professional career.”

One scene was particularly painful to her: the man who wore the “Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom” hoodie was from Newport News, Va., which was in Luria’s district.

She was determined to hold those responsible for the Jan. 6 attack accountable. “I never abandoned that attempt, but it was difficult.”

Although serving on the committee was extremely stressful and intense, the experience didn’t compare to supervising the operation of eight nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier, something she did as a naval officer.

When asked what she learned about herself through her work on the Jan. 6th Committee, she noted, “It reinforced my strong convictions about what’s right and that there is a truth that’s absolute.”

Pressing On

Even after losing a bid for her third term, Luria pressed on and worked incessantly until the very last day of her expiring term, until the very last moment.

As that term concluded, Luria secured more than $18.5 million for multiple projects in her district. The Eastern Shore Post reported that Luria said, “These… projects will create good-paying jobs, support local government, improve infrastructure, combat climate change, spur economic development, and lead to further growth and opportunities throughout Hampton Roads. Community Project Funding projects are good government at work that improves the lives of Coastal Virginians.”

Even though no longer in Congress, her odyssey continues. Luria still leads a busy and impactful life. She established a state Political Action Committee to support Virginia Democrats seeking office; she began a fellowship at Georgetown University where she teaches at the Institute of Politics and Public Service, and, most importantly, she says, she is preparing for her daughter to start high school.

Another goal is advocating for a strong alliance between Jewish Americans and Black Americans. As a result, she is working with current Members of Congress to create a congressional initiative to further this partnership.

Her efforts are inspired by her ties to Birmingham and her awareness of the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities during the Civil Rights Movement. She recalled her mother sharing stories about growing up in Birmingham and, specifically, about Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Milton Grafman — an outspoken Civil Rights supporter — and his sermon in 1963 on Rosh Hashanah which addressed the tragic bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and admonished his congregation for not doing more to help the Black community.

Even though Luria moved away, had a remarkable naval career and achieved national political prominence, the Birmingham Jewish community remains close to her heart.

“I am very proud of where I come from and the community that I grew up in. What I learned and the place I’m from has really shaped how I view the world and influenced how I pursued my work, both as an officer in the Navy and as a Member of Congress. Ultimately, where I’m from and who I am is defined by growing up in Birmingham and being part of the Jewish community in Birmingham.”

As she explores new horizons and pursues other ventures, the question of whether Elaine Luria will run for office again remains unanswered. “I’m leaving the door open,” she said with a grin.

Keila Lawrence, a graduate of Miles College, an HBCU in Fairfield, Ala., works for Clyde Group, a public relations and public affairs agency in Washington. She is a contributing writer to Southern Jewish Life.