Ben Leader Erdreich (1938- ) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1993 representing Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District. Erdreich was only the second member of the Jewish faith Alabama had sent to Congress, the first being Philip Phillips in 1853. Previously, he held a seat in the Alabama State House and in local offices, served in the U.S. Army, and practiced law. After losing reelection in 1992, Erdreich retired from politics and concentrated on property development in the Birmingham, Jefferson County, area.
Erdreich was born in Birmingham on December 9, 1938, to Stanley and Corinne Erdreich; he was the second of two children. Stanley worked in advertising and retail, and Erdreich’s grandfather Ben Leader had been a prominent political insider and informal advisor for many of the senators and congressmen of his day. Erdreich graduated from Shades Valley High of Birmingham in 1956 and continued his education at Yale University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1960. Following graduation, he returned home to study law at the University of Alabama Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Alabama Law Review before earning his law degree in 1963.
After law school, Erdreich spent two years in the Army. His service took him to New York City, where he chose to remain after his service ended to be near his high school sweetheart Ellen Cooper who was attending the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Her father, Jerome Cooper, clerked for Supreme Court justice Hugo Black and was a prominent civil rights supporter in Birmingham. The couple married in 1965 and had two children. Son Jeremy would go on to be an architect in the Birmingham area. Daughter Anna would work for First Lady Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard Riley before returning to Birmingham.
In New York, Erdreich found employment at a large law firm and worked there for some years, before the family returned to Birmingham. There, Erdreich joined his father-in-law’s firm, Cooper, Mitch, and Crawford. Erdreich soon took an interest in politics and was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1970 as a Democrat. He sponsored Alabama’s Clean Air Act and championed spending initiatives aimed at advancing special education programs across the state. Two years into his term, Erdreich challenged incumbent congressman John Buchanan Jr., the Republican representing the Sixth District. Buchanan had first been elected during Barry Goldwater’s 1964 southern landslide, defeating Democrat George Huddleston Jr. Buchanan, who ran as a far-right conservative, then established himself as a moderate. His advocacy for civil rights and calls for investigations into Ku Klux Klan made him very popular in the district. Thanks to his crossover appeal with Democrats, Buchanan soundly defeated Erdreich.
Erdreich decided against seeking a second term in the legislature, expressing displeasure with the sporadic schedule of the body. He instead accepted an appointment to the Jefferson County Commission as Commissioner of Public Welfare. He was then elected to two terms in his own right and focused primarily on promoting programs aimed at the county’s senior community. Erdreich’s popular programs included a “meals on wheels” service and Eldergarden, a downtown recreational gathering for seniors. Meanwhile, Buchanan was beginning to have issues with his increasingly conservative Republican primary voters. He survived a close call in 1978 and was defeated in the 1980 Republican primary by the significantly more conservative Albert Lee Smith Jr. Despite 1980 being a poor year for Democrats, when actor and former California governor Ronald Reagan was elected president, Smith endured a tough race against Wesley Bryant Clifford, a Democratic city councilman. Smith’s conservative politics and an economic downturn in the district that voters saw him as doing little to alleviate put his reelection in doubt. The poor state of the national economy and the closing of a number of steel and iron plants had increased unemployment in the district to around 14 percent.
Seeing an opening, Erdreich decided to seek the Sixth District office once more after encouragement from local Democrats. His campaign had little funding but committed volunteers who logged an impressive amount of phone banking and door-to-door campaigning. Erdreich also benefited from recent redistricting, which made the district more diverse and working class. Sensing that Smith was out of step with the district, Erdreich attacked him for focusing on social issues like abortion and school prayer rather than addressing the economic needs of his constituents. Erdreich particularly emphasized the need to extend unemployment benefits for former steel workers as well as public works projects for these skilled workers. Additionally, Smith’s campaign was also charged with making derogatory comments related to Erdreich’s faith. Erdreich won a modest victory over Smith in a district that had been held by Republicans for nearly two decades. This feat would represent something of a highwater mark for Alabama Democrats, as no other Democratic candidate has unseated a Republican incumbent in Congress since that time. Erdreich was aided by a large turnout of African American voters, including many who had lost jobs in the steel industry and were unhappy that Smith did not support extending unemployment benefits.
During Erdreich’s five terms in Congress, from 1983-1993, he chaired the Committee on Policy, Research, and Insurance. He also served on the committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, Government Operations, as well as the Select Committee on Aging. As Erdreich’s seniority increased, he also developed into one of the Alabama delegation’s more effective legislators. Politically, Erdreich was able to appease his district’s conservative wing without alienating himself from the liberal Democratic leadership. His voting history regularly earned him neutral scores from both Americans for Conservative Action and their liberal counterpart, Americans for Democratic Action. Erdreich was also a reliable vote for conservatives on defense and foreign policy issues. As for the key votes during his tenure, Erdreich voted with conservatives against gun control, supported failed attempts to pass a balanced budget amendment, and an anti-flag burning amendment. But, he voted with liberals in support of civil rights, raising the minimum wage, aid to Americans with disabilities, and the failed equal rights amendment. Erdreich lobbied hard for the Birmingham steel industry and championed unsuccessful legislation aimed at decreasing imported foreign steel. Erdreich’s successful legislation included the National Flood Insurance, Mitigation, and Erosion Management Act of 1991. The National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 required that all missing children cases be forwarded to National Crime Information Center at the Department of Justice. He was a delegate to the 1988 and 1992 Democratic National Conventions. Erdreich easily won reelections, save for a contest against the future Majority Leader of the Alabama State Senate, James T. “Jabo” Waggoner. Erdreich faced no noteworthy challengers until redistricting significantly changed his constituency.
Following the 1990 Census, Alabama redrew congressional districts in 1992, making the Seventh Congressional District a majority African American at the expense of much of Erdreich’s Sixth District voting base. (A 1982 extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act provided for greater minority representation.) Most of Birmingham was carved out of it and placed in the Seventh District, resulting in the both districts having peculiar shapes. (African American Democrat Earl Hilliard won the Seventh in 1992.). As the South became more conservative politically, this alteration of Erdreich’s district took it from over one-third African American to less than a tenth. Seeing an opportunity, Republicans fielded former state legislator and Alabama Republican Party chair Spencer Bachus. The race became bitter as Erdreich clung to a lead in the polls and the candidates’ mutual pledge to refrain from negative campaigning collapsed before Election Day. Bachus won by a modest margin as the Sixth District went from slightly liberal to one of the most conservative in the country. Pres. George H.W. Bush won more than two-thirds of the district’s vote despite losing the popular vote to moderate Democrat Bill Clinton. Following the defeat, Erdreich shifted his interests to developing property together with his children in the Birmingham area.