'We were having this seder and they’re launching jets'

Navy commander who organized seder on aircraft carrier is running for Congress

Military vet, mom, and mermaid store owner is armed with a plan to retake Virginia’s second district

Elaine Luria at the Norfolk, Virginia shop she owns called the Mermaid Factory. (Courtesy of the Luria campaign/via JTA)
Elaine Luria at the Norfolk, Virginia shop she owns called the Mermaid Factory. (Courtesy of the Luria campaign/via JTA)

NORFOLK, Virginia (JTA) — The Norfolk Democratic Party Committee is meeting on a Saturday and Piccadilly, a breakfast joint propped along a highway in this scrubbed-clean hardscrabble town perched on the Chesapeake Bay, is loud with the clatter of dishes, cutlery and politics.

Until, that is, Elaine Luria is asked to take the podium and deliver a three-minute pitch for her candidacy for Congress.

“Good morning!” she says in the clipped, brisk tone of the US Navy commander she was until last June.

Luria takes 4 1/2 minutes — not that anyone objects — and she uses it to lay out a plan.

“I’m going to tell you what we have to do to take this district back in 2018,” she says. Without notes, she rattles off the margins by which Democrats won almost every election in the district since 2010 — except for the ones for the US House of Representatives. “Last year, who won this district? Ralph Northam by FOUR POINTS.” Northam is the incumbent Democratic governor.

“So there’s no reason that it has been a decade since we have elected a Democrat to the House of Representatives from the 2nd Congressional District. So how do we make that happen? What do I need from you?”

The three-point plan: Sign her petition to get on the ballot, contribute, volunteer.

“That last 1-2 percent of the vote to win the district is you,” she says.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees Virginia’s 2nd District as swing territory in an election year in which the party hopes to regain the House. There are four others in the room vying for the Democratic nomination to unseat Scott Taylor, the Republican incumbent, all Virginians who speak in the soft drawl that proliferates once you’re south of the cluster of Washington, DC, suburbs known as NoVa — northern Virginia. (Hereabouts, it’s NAW-fik, Virginia.)

They have personal stories, some affecting.

“I’m Karen Mallard, I’m a coal miner’s daughter from Coburn, Virginia, who grew up in a working-class family,” one says — and she’s not the only child of a coal miner running.

Elaine Luria, running for Congress, speaking at a Democratic committee meeting in Norfolk, February 3, 2018. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

But Luria 42, is the only candidate who comes with a plan — and who fulfills part of it at the committee meeting. There are maybe 120 people present. Midway through the brunch, she has 60 of their signatures on her petition forms.

Ruth Schepper, a fellow congregant at Temple Ohev Sholom, is present. Even though she can’t vote in the 2nd — she lives in the 3rd District — she will volunteer for Luria, who is examining Schepper’s swollen hand injured in a fall.

“She has enormous ability,” Schepper, who is retired from teaching accounting at Hampton College, a historically black institution, says of Luria. “She was in the service for years. She’s a wife and mom. It’s always nice to have another woman.”

Even her rivals seem ready to clear the field.

“She’s a lovely person,” Mallard says. “If she wins, I will volunteer for her.”

In a town with the largest Navy base in the world, Luria is quick to tout her military career. (Taylor, her potential foe in November, is a retired Navy SEAL).

“Our current representative frequently likes to say that his job as a leader is to find clarity in this chaos,” she says.

“I can tell you that after 20 years in uniform, and leading thousands of sailors during my career, my job as a leader was never to find clarity in chaos – it was to prevent the chaos in the first place.” Applause. “And that’s why I’m running for Congress, I served 20 years in the Navy, I deployed six times in the Middle East and western Pacific. I stood watch operating nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers while we were simultaneously launching strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

She doesn’t mention, not here anyway, that she used to take time out from monitoring the nuclear reactors aboard the aircraft carriers to organize Passover seders.

Speaking to a JTA reporter later at the mermaid shop (really) that she owns and runs, she explains the seders — like she explains much else — in terms of the leadership skills she acquired at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, decades ago.

Graduating from the academy, she volunteered as a lay leader for Jewish services during her Navy service.

“Before people go out into the fleet, they try to make sure everybody’s comfortable being a lay leader in some capacity because you’ll very likely find yourself on a deployment,” she says, “where you have other Jewish service members. You might be the only person who’s comfortable doing that or the only officer there.”

Illustrative: Chaplain Irving Elson performing a seder for active-duty soldiers in Iraq. (Courtesy)

She organized a seder aboard the USS Enterprise during sorties into Iraq in 2006, during the Iraq War.

“Three inches of steel above our head in the chapel on the ship — we were having this seder and they’re launching and recovering jets,” she recalls. “These situations are juxtaposed, you’re celebrating this holiday that you’re used to be celebrating with your family, but you’re on the aircraft carrier and jets are landing over your head — literally. When they land over your head you don’t just hear it, you feel it. When they launch off the catapults when you’re at that corner of the ship, everything shakes.”

Still, she says the dozen or more celebrants — not all of them Jewish — managed to establish a sense of family.

Luria seems driven in everything she applies herself to. A few years ago she launched the decorate-your-own-mermaid business for birthday parties and girls’ nights out. There are now two branches. Non-restaurants were not licensed for liquor, so Luria set about lobbying the state’s lawmakers to allow entertainment venues to serve alcohol.

“I wrote every delegate and every senator on every subcommittee,” she says.

As a result, if you run, say, a mermaid factory in Virginia, you can now serve clients up to two glasses of wine. (Not today: We’re surrounded by girls of the 10-year-old variety crowned with tiaras and splattered with glitter. “We have 17 colors of glitter,” Luria says.)

Luria inside the Mermaid Factory, where kids can make and decorate their own toy mermaids. (Courtesy of the Luria campaign/via JTA)

Luria’s capacity for delivering facts and figures at an auctioneer’s pace is on display when she gives a reporter a tour of the naval base. As she steers past naval vessels, she assesses the income of other towns and areas in the 2nd District, the flooding dangers facing the region and the economic harm that it could suffer now that President Donald Trump has opened much of the eastern coast to oil drilling.

She is simultaneously warm and solicitous and possessed of the caution of a veteran politician. Alone among the candidates at the Democratic meeting, she does not mention Trump. Was that part of a strategy to win over voters in a district Trump won by 3 points in 2016?

She stares at a reporter for a moment.

“What I think we really need to be is for something, not against something,” Luria says.

Touring the base, she lets slip a rare concession to regret — a commanding officer would not let her board oil-smuggling boats during the Iraq embargo in the late 1990s.

“My CO was like, ‘I don’t think women can climb the ladder,’” she recalls.

The reporter wants more. Luria smiles, recognizing the risk of saying something controversial, and looks back at the road. The Navy has turned around, she says, and now accommodates women.

“I was one of the first women who could do my entire career on a ship,” she says.

Luria has been attending Democratic Party meetings for a year and a half, taking notes, before announcing her candidacy almost as soon as she was decommissioned in June. She has already been to Washington and met or spoken with an array of top Democrats in Congress, including Jewish House members like Jerry Nadler of New York and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is interviewed in New York on March 21, 2016. (AP/Richard Drew)

In the mermaid shop, she falters only at the Jewish question: What was it about growing up Jewish that made you what you were?

She runs through some memories of growing up Jewish in Birmingham, Alabama, her mother’s meetings with the National Council of Jewish Women, with Hadassah, her mother’s thrill from returning from an Israel trip (one Luria has yet to make). And then she concedes: “I don’t think it had an outsized influence.”

Instead, it is her passion for the Navy, instilled during a science and engineering week at the Naval Academy when she was in high school, that drives her.

“The idea of having more of an obligation of continuing to serve,” she says, describing why she is running.

Later, on the military base, her rapid-fire speech slows for a moment: She wants to explain when — and why — she joined Ohev Sholom. When her daughter was in the first grade, she felt a sudden need to sign her up for Sunday school.

“I thought I had to raise my daughter Jewish,” she says softly stopped alongside a massive aircraft carrier, the kind on which she once controlled a nuclear reactor. “It was critically important to me for her to have that education.”

She pulls back into the road, asking her guest if he read what Larry Sabato, the dean of Virginia political analysis, said about the 2nd.

“Swing territory,” she says.

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