Crime, housing, cost of living top issues for Baltimore City Jews

Baltimore City seal
Baltimore City seal (Wikiemedia Commons/Public Domain)

Ask Baltimore City voters what drives them to the polls, and you’ll get a variety of answers. Housing, employment opportunities, city crime and social equity issues have dominated conversations in recent years. National issues like antisemitism, racism and abortion rights, which are rarely reflected on local ballot initiatives, are hot-button topics as well.

But this year, street crime and concern over public safety have taken prominence in public debates. Cost of living, driven in part by national factors, are on voters’ minds as well, especially this month as the cost of gasoline reaches unprecedented levels.

This July 19, Baltimore City residents will go to the polls for the primary elections. The elections will include races for the sheriff and the state’s attorney offices.

Andrew Koch, who serves as the treasurer for the Maryland Republican Jewish Council, said that for him, the rise in gun violence in Baltimore is now the number one reason to vote in the primaries. Koch, who is a member of Baltimore’s small downtown Jewish community, said he believes violent crime is now a problem in many parts of Baltimore, including in the city’s residential Jewish communities.

“It’s become a priority for me [as a voter],” Koch said. He said the number of shootings that have occurred in the past year has convinced him that the city’s approach toward crime isn’t working.

“Crime has spread to parts of the city where it usually hasn’t been [found],” he said. In one instance, an altercation over a teenager’s dirt bike in the Park Heights Jewish community resulted in an exchange of gun fire that was captured on a synagogue’s security camera. He said the attack in that particular neighborhood was unprecedented. “To my knowledge, that’s never happened before … people shooting at each other in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon.”

He said he thinks Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision in 2020 to stop prosecuting nonviolent crime offenders sent the wrong signal, and he’s looking toward the upcoming elections, when Mosby will be up for reelection, to reverse this trend. To Koch, the significance of this year’s election “is all about crime.”

Koch isn’t alone in his concern. Felicia Graber, a north Baltimore City resident and Holocaust survivor, said she’s worried about safety as well. “My first priority [as a voter] is crime in the city,” Graber said. “The streets aren’t safe anymore.” Although she said she isn’t aware of any incidents in her neighborhood, the rising reports of antisemitism in the U.S. is a concern as well. “Crime affects everyone, including the Jewish community,” Graber said, noting that inflation, which she sees as a national problem, is reflected in the local cost of living.

Liz Simon-Higgs, a South Baltimore resident, sees the rise of extremism as a cause for alarm both in Baltimore and nationally, a trend that increases her worry about antisemitism as well.

“I am deeply concerned about the rise in white nationalism and male chauvinism,” Simon-Higgs said. “This ideology now dominates the Republican Party, and I do not understand why many Jews have cast their lot with Trump’s GOP.”

She also feels that women too often have to defend the right to make decisions about their own bodies, including the right to have an abortion. For her, voting in the upcoming election is a statement about the kind of government she wants to see in place.

“I look for elected officials who can hold a long-term vision for a more just society: one where the government supports families (so that families can meet their own needs), and where elected officials use government resources to reduce inequality and to sustain a healthy environment,” she said in an email.

“When people’s needs are met, crime goes down, people trust each other and people can contribute to society,” she continued. “Candidates who promise to reduce crime are usually looking at a very narrow set of parameters. Allocating more money to the police doesn’t provide folks with safe shelter, good education, access to health care, transportation or healthy food.”

Rachel Kutler, Baltimore community organizer for Jews United for Justice, who lives in Baltimore’s Arcadia neighborhood, believes that racial and economic injustice are at the core of Baltimore’s problems. She said the city’s inability to control crime is a reason not for more police enforcement, but for realigning its values.

“One thing we [JUFJ] really want to see is divestment from the over-inflated police budget and investment in community needs like housing, health care, recreation, etc.,” she said.

“[Baltimore City spends] more money on police per capita than any other city in the country,” Kutler said. “And we feel that doesn’t reflect our values. We know when we look at the data, more money hasn’t led to a reduction in crime.”

Instead, Kutler would like to see the city fund public programs that protect renters from unlawful eviction procedures, ensure affordable drinking water and increase police accountability. She said these are steps that can instill greater public faith in local governments.

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