While the Baltimore Jewish community is generally concerned about many of the same issues as others in the state, there are some areas Jewish locals are following closely.
Judging by interviews and anecdotal evidence, specific budget items, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the economy and Maryland-Israel relations are weighing more heavily in some Jewish voters’ and advocates’ minds.
As a whole, Baltimore-area voters appear most concerned about the economy and jobs heading into the general election, according to a poll released by Goucher College on Oct. 7.
Twenty-five percent of respondents told pollsters that the most important issue facing the state today is jobs and the economy. Another 18 percent said taxes, followed by education, crime and the
Thirty-one percent of respondents described their current financial situation as worse than it was a year ago. That number is up from two years ago, when only 24 percent said their finances had gotten worse, and 34 percent reported being in a better financial situation than they had been in the year prior. In both 2012 and 2014, the highest number of those polled — 41 percent — reported no change.
The results bode well for real estate executive and Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who has built his insurgent campaign on fiscal issues. Although overall, Hogan was trailing Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown by 7 percentage points in a recent Baltimore Sun poll — a Washington Post poll put the Republican 9 points back in the same time period — his narrowing of Brown’s lead in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 is impressive.
Another question in the Goucher poll asked Marylanders which party — Republicans or Democrats — is most apt to deal with each of the issues facing Maryland residents. Respondents were split evenly on which party they had confidence in when the issue was taxes and economic development; crime saw the Democrats ahead by only a slim margin.
Baltimorean Sherlynn Matesky has been following the gubernatorial campaign closely but said she thinks Anthony Brown is a shoe-in, something she doesn’t mind.
Matesky said she is most concerned with global terrorism. While she said she knows the governor’s office does not have power over foreign policy, she said she wants the state’s next leading executive to be vocal in his opposition to terrorism, and she is encouraged by Brown’s record of military service.
“We’re just a stone’s throw from D.C.” she said, adding that she wants a governor who will work to influence Congress.
Sonia Schindler, a Democrat, said she wants change in Annapolis after two terms under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. She said she intends to vote for Hogan because of his focus on the economy.
“People are disgusted with O’Malley, but Brown is going to do the same thing,” said Schindler, adding that she is tired of tax hikes in the name of schools. “Democrats spend money on schools, but then they say they don’t have money for schools.”
Eddie Steinberg, owner of J.S. Edwards men’s clothing store in Baltimore, has been keeping a close eye on the issues that most affect his business.
“When taxes go up, people think twice about buying,” said Steinberg. In talks with other business owners around the country, he said he has noticed that Maryland’s recovery from the Recession has lagged a little behind that of other states.
“It’s better, but during the recession [business] dropped, customers dropped,” he said. “It has come back, but I don’t think it’s as good as other states around the country.”
However, Steinberg doesn’t think the new governor, no matter which candidate voters pick, will have an immediate impact on the business climate. He said he has focused his attention on determining which candidate will be best for business in the long run.
The politically involved members of the Jewish community have a set of issues on which they tend to focus each year. For the Baltimore Jewish Council, eyes are always on the governor’s budget.
“The budget, I would say, is the No. 1 concern for the community,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, deputy executive director at the BJC. “Our agencies are providers to Maryland at large in a variety of different ways.”
Funding for agencies and their programs, as well as capital projects, is at the top of BJC’s agenda each year, and it’s essential to have a governor receptive to the council’s needs, she emphasized.
“We really depend on the governor, his views, what he supports and his support for the Jewish community,” echoed BJC president Lainy LeBow-Sachs.
Budget issues and capital projects on the BJC’s agenda have included the Sinai Family Violence Prevention Program; the domestic violence program at Northwest Hospital, which trains medical staff on how to identify victims; the Hillel Center for Social Justice at the University of Maryland; the Medical Home Extender Plan, which helps the uninsured and underinsured; the Elder Abuse Center; the Supportive Community Network, which helps seniors stay in their homes; and the Maryland/Israel Development Center.
The council has also been a major proponent of the Maryland Education Credit, which would provide a tax credit to businesses that donate to nonpublic schools.
Both LeBow-Sachs and Tolle said Israel, anti-Semitism and the BDS movement are also at the forefront of the issues the BJC is watching.
Although LeBow-Sachs said she’s not sure what anybody can really do about anti-Semitism, having officials who vociferously denounce it is important.
Through the BJC’s advocacy, Tolle pointed out, the budget passed by the General Assembly this year included language denouncing the BDS movement.
“It was the only language of its kind in the entire country that was passed,” Tolle said.
When BJC officials spoke with Brown about the BDS issue, Tolle said, “he dropped everything and picked up the phone and started working on the issue.”
She is confident that both Brown and Hogan would be advocates for the Jewish community, referring to meetings she’s had with both candidates.
“[Hogan] sat down with us on multiple occasions to talk about our priorities … and he said, ‘Unequivocally, I’m here with you,’” she said.
In addition to the BJC’s priorities, Abba David Poliakoff, first vice president, said issues such as the economy, crime and education have their own effects on the Jewish community.
“The one thing that was made poignantly clear by a number of governors, including Gov. O’Malley, is that the infrastructure in the Jewish community provides resources for community members that would other- wise be a burden that would have to be borne by the state,” Poliakoff said. “I want to see that infrastructure
That means he wants to see opportunities for high-skilled jobs and Baltimore City’s help to promote the creation of those jobs.
“I have to wonder what the future’s going to be like,” said Poliakoff, whose family has been in Baltimore for six generations. “We’re not a manufacturing town, we’re not a financial services town, we’re not a corporate headquarters town. What are we? The industry here in Baltimore is
basically life sciences and high tech.”
While he’s seen the state help out these industries, he would like to see more of that emphasis in Baltimore City. And he would like to see the city better deal with crime so companies can recruit workers to a safe city. He alluded to what some in the Jewish community call “massaging statistics,” accusing police of under-reporting or downgrading certain incidents in reports.
“It really is a city issue, but the city affects the state, and it would reallybehoove the state to ensure that its biggest city is a safe place for residents,” Poliakoff said.
On Israel, as the former chair of the Maryland/Israel Development Center, Poliakoff said he’s confident the next governor will be a good partner for the organization. A good partner, Poliakoff said, would promote and facilitate business development between Maryland and Israel “so that Maryland companies can do business in Israel, and notably Israeli companies and Israeli technologies can find their way into the United States through Maryland.”
O’Malley was active with the MIDC, he said, and went on several trade missions to Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue said his congregants are very politically engaged, and many have been following the election for governor closely, some even volunteering on campaigns.
“It’s a very diverse place, as all congregations are,” said Burg of the Reservoir Hill synagogue. “I suspect that it skews left in the way that the Jewish community broadly tends
to skew left, especially on social issues. But when it comes to more fiscal policy, I’m not sure.”
Over the past few years, Burg has been active in advocating for social change in the state when he sees a connection between an issue and his Jewish values. But with legislation now in place for tightening gun control, raising the minimum wage and outlawing the death penalty, immigration is the only topic that still must be settled, he said, although Maryland has done a good job so far.
Additionally, he said he has heard a lot of discussion about taxes, but that is not something he discusses with congregants in his role as rabbi.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation said issues such as the economy, taxation, the business climate, gun control and birth control have come up in conversations at his synagogue. Politically, his congregants are diverse.
“There are some who feel that their tax dollars are certainly being used effectively to fund things like education, and we have a top-notch education,” he said. “And then there are others who feel we have too much of a heavy tax burden. It’s split.”
While political and social issues are sometimes discussed during Torah study because a passage will remind someone of a contemporary issue, Sharff said he doesn’t advocate for candidates or political positions but will add a Jewish voice to the conversation when relevant.
“I’ll talk about collective responsibility but not tax policy,” he said. “I will never publicly endorse candidates, but I’ll tackle issues as I perceive them through a Jewish lens.”
Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that recently expanded to Baltimore, highlighted several issues on the legislative docket this coming year. JUFJ, which works for social, racial and economic justice, supports paid sick leave benefits for “everyone who works,” the HOME act, which would prevent income-based housing discrimination, and the Trust Act, which would prevent local public safety resources from being used to implement discriminatory federal deportation programs, the group said in a statement.
The group also hopes the next governor will take on issues such as criminal justice reform and environmental justice.
“We are alarmed and outraged by discriminatory policing and policies that put stumbling blocks in the way of citizens returning from incarceration,” the statement said. “Finally, we hope the new governor will listen to the voices of citizens and communities — rather than moneyed corporate interests — when considering issues impacting the environment and our climate.”
Early voting begins Oct. 23 and continues through Oct. 30.