Cantor grew up in an upscale neighborhood at the edge of Richmond, where established families date back to the nation's founding or its near-breakup during the Civil War. By contrast, his own family is two generations away from anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.
"I went to school and met people with a lot of history in Virginia ... and understood at some point that this was America, a merit-based society, and that if you worked hard, you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve," Cantor says.
As a student at George Washington University, he interned for then-US Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia. "He just had a natural talent, and that was recognized when he came [to the House] as a freshman," Mr. Bliley recalls.
A Roman Catholic, Bliley says he was drawn to Cantor's ability to make connections outside his own Jewish community. In big-city politics, a Catholic or Jewish politician can afford to stay within his or her own neighborhood, says Bliley, "but when you're in a neighborhood with a majority of people who are neither Catholic nor Jewish, you have to move to the larger community in order to succeed."
After gaining a law degree at the College of William & Mary, Cantor moved to New York, where he earned a master's in real estate management from Columbia University and met his wife, Diana. By 1991, he had won election to the Virginia House of Delegates.