Shortly before taking office, Cantor received a call from Alan Diamonstein, a veteran of the Virginia legislature and a Jewish Democrat. He had heard about Cantor from friends and wanted to give a few pointers to the rookie. “We were on different sides of the issues, but I found him to always be prepared, bright, sincere,” Diamonstein says. At a reception in the governor’s mansion one night, he couldn’t resist asking Cantor, “What is such a nice Jewish boy like you doing being a Republican?” Cantor just laughed, having become accustomed to ribbing from Jewish Democrats.
Republican Kirk Cox, who was majority whip in the Virginia House of Delegates at the time, remembers that Cantor distinguished himself as a member of the chamber’s Strategy Committee, which set overall policy. “Eric had to be the youngest and least senior member to serve on that committee,” Cox says. Cantor also served on the Corporation Insurance and Banking Committee. During his nine years in the legislature, he was known as an especially prodigious fundraiser. Considered pro-business, he also earned the nickname “overdog” among some Democrats who accused him of being too attentive to the concerns of large corporations.
But Cantor, who learned from observing President Reagan, understood the political value of supporting programs that would help middle class voters. He and his wife helped to establish the Virginia College Savings Plan, an independent state body that enables parents to lock in their children’s future college tuition at current rates for the state’s public and private schools. Diana Cantor, a social liberal but fiscal conservative, was appointed as executive director of the organization by then Governor George Allen, a Republican, and became well-known in the state by promoting the plan on television.
Cantor also helped secure a new home for the Virginia Holocaust Museum, which was rapidly outgrowing its space in Richmond’s Temple Beth-El. Jay Ipson, the founder of the museum and a Holocaust survivor, was scouting for a new location and zeroed in on an old Richmond tobacco warehouse owned by the state.
“I went to Eric and he went to the governor and other officials and told them of our needs,” says Ipson. The state decided to donate the building and Cantor helped raise funds for construction of the museum, says Ipson, by donating honorariums from speaking engagements. Cantor also chaired the Virginia-Israel Foundation and was active nationally through AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition.