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Jewish student denies saving US ballot from mob



(JTA) Brennan Leach wants you to know that the caption on the viral photo of her taken inside the United States Capitol building last Wednesday was wrong.

The Jewish college student wasn’t rescuing the august leather boxes carrying the electoral votes that would let Congress certify Joe Biden’s election from the mob of Trump supporters trying to stop that process. The photo was from earlier that morning, when she and other assistants brought the boxes into the US House of Representatives chamber, before the mob stormed the Capitol and drove legislators and staffers into hiding.

“It was a great honour and excitement, it was like a political-science nerd’s dream come true,” Leach told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about being asked to partake in the ritual.

Leach, 19, is a student at Northwestern University majoring in political science who returned to the Capitol this week to assist with the certification process because the programme that usually supplies high school pages is suspended because of the pandemic. Someone snapped a picture of her at work last Wednesday morning, which morphed into a story of heroism on social media that afternoon.

“Here are the women – Senate aides – who had the presence of mind and courage to transport and keep safe the electoral votes before fleeing the Senate,” said @RaeMargaret61, a Twitter user whose posting garnered more than 360 000 likes by last Thursday evening. “There will always be villains. There will always be heroes.”

In an interview, Leach recounted her experience.

“The scariest part of all of this was just how quickly things escalated, and it went from one minute kind of looking out the window and laughing at like ‘look at the crazy people outside’ to all of a sudden we’re locked in the chamber and people are banging on the door,” she said.

“We can hear them outside. We’re able to pull up social media and see literal pictures of people on the other side of the wall. We had Confederate flags in the back hallway, we had dozens and dozens of people pouring in through the Rotunda and so, you know, to see those images and know that kind of the only thing that stuck between us and them was the wall of the Senate chamber. It was an intimidating and, in a lot of ways, utterly terrifying moment.”

Her terror was compounded when Leach realised that she had left her phone in the chamber. She soon found a way to reach her family and reassure them that she was secure. Her father, Daylin Leach, a Democrat who served for years in both chambers of the Pennsylvania state legislature, couldn’t contain his pride, posting the viral photo on his Twitter feed.

Brennan Leach said the experience cast the contributions that elected officials make for their constituents in a new light for her.

“It’s moments like this where you’re really kind of in the thick of the work that these people do and are forced to recognise how much they really put themselves at risk, how much they give for the work they do,” she said.

Last Wednesday’s photo wasn’t the first time that Leach, who lives in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, has landed in the spotlight. In October 2016, at a televised town hall in suburban Philadelphia, Leach asked then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton about the potential damage to young women being caused by then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about women.

Clinton naturally appreciated the question, but soon Leach was in the middle of a political firestorm when she told a reporter that she had run the question by her father. Conservatives decried her as a plant, which she denied then and does now.

The elder Leach was outspoken as a legislator in calling out what he saw as antisemitism, and centred his politics on tikkun olam, meaning “repair the world” that has become a rallying cry for American liberals. (“Donald Trump isn’t a tikkun olam kind of guy”, he said at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. “He’s more a destroy olam kind of guy.”)

Brennan Leach said she didn’t like to mix religion with politics, but as she worked and studied politics, her Jewishness was on her mind. She was proud to meet Jewish senators, she said.

“It’s great to see Jewish leaders in the Senate,” Leach said. (Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to become majority leader, the most senior position ever held by a Jewish person in US government.)

Leach said she wouldn’t count out a career as an elected politician, but her sights were set elsewhere.

“My dream job is White House press secretary,” she said, explaining that it combines both her academic disciplines, political science and communications, and also offers a kind of political might on its own. Last Wednesday’s riot, which came after Trump told his supporters to move to the Capitol, made that painfully clear.

“Being press secretary” Leach said, “is the ultimate liaison between the president, who’s obviously extremely consequential in their message, and the rest of the world, the press and public.”

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