Having their say

Despite a campaign some in the Democratic Party have called lackluster, front-runner Hillary Clinton, who gave supporters a thumbs-up before the last televised Democratic debate of 2015, enjoys a substantial lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and  former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, second from right. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Despite a campaign some in the Democratic Party have called lackluster, front-runner Hillary Clinton, who gave supporters a thumbs-up before the last televised Democratic debate of 2015, enjoys a substantial lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and
former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, second from right.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

With a month until the Iowa caucuses, the 2016 presidential election is heating up and Jews from the Baltimore-Washington region are pouring their hearts, minds and dollars into the race.

The field of candidates currently stands at three Democrats and 13 Republicans vying for their respective parties’ nomination.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has a sizable network in Maryland that includes a number of prominent Jewish donors such as Matthew Gorman and Gary Gensler, both of whom supported her in 2008 and were part of former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Also in the donor mix is Michael Bronfein, a Baltimore venture capitalist who created a stir in 2002, according to The Baltimore Sun, when he recommended donors refrain from giving to then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s re-election effort in order to preserve funds for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a candidate for governor that year. O’Malley, who won re-election and went on to win the governor’s mansion in 2006, sits far behind Clinton in the Democratic presidential race.

Scott Sokol, co-chair of Baltimore County’s Hillary for President Chapter, said he feels the campaign is going “amazingly well.”


“We’ve been all over the county going to various clubs and taking part in activities,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any area of the Democratic populace that we’re not very strong in.”

Sokol has worked in a number of campaigns over the years, including President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and primary victory over Clinton, which he said was not a matter of disliking the former first lady, but becoming swept up in Obama’s message of change.

In this year’s contest, Clinton has been criticized for her use of a private email server to conduct official business as secretary of state as well as her ties to Wall Street and big business. Sokol thinks much of the criticism is from “people looking for ways to knock her down.”

“She has explained what has happened in a truthful manner, and people are out to get her,” he said regarding the email scandal, which Clinton attributed to unclear policies at the State Department about the use of private email for official business.

Sokol added that he does not believe Clinton is being supported by corporations any more than individual donors.
“A significant amount of donations are from people like me and you,” he said in a statement that is disputed by supporters of O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Jewish self-described “democratic socialist” who sits at second place in the Democratic race.

Asked about the other campaigns, Sokol said he respects O’Malley and has supported him for governor in the past, but feels his national appeal is lacking.

“Right now, I don’t think he has the force to run a presidential campaign here in Maryland,” he said.

To be sure, O’Malley has received little attention in the race, a fact that surprises Izzy Patoka, who served as executive director of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives during O’Malley’s eight years in office. He also worked for O’Malley from 2001 to 2007 when the presidential candidate was mayor of Baltimore.

“To me, it’s baffling that those are his poll numbers because I can tell you he’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met and extremely thoughtful on issues that are important,” said Patoka.

Patoka said O’Malley had an “outstanding” relationship with the Jewish community during his time as governor. O’Malley allotted $26 million for Jewish community facility improvements and maintained dialogue with organizations such as the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

O’Malley has visited Israel on three occasions and formed a close bond with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when both were mayors. He has also spoken out on issues such as the Gaza war in 2008, when he condemned Hamas for its attacks on Israel, and he supported the Iran nuclear deal reached in the fall. (Clinton has also visited Israel and criticized Hamas and supported the Iran deal.)

O’Malley has received both praise and criticism from the local community for his leadership as mayor, a tenure that saw an overall reduction in crime but an increase in the number of arrests due to “zero tolerance” policing tactics that some believe have contributed to the racial and economic disparities in the city.

“I don’t think it’s fair to tie what’s occurring currently in Baltimore to the policies Martin O’Malley instituted during his time as mayor,” Patoka said. “In fact, what I saw was during the 1990s, Baltimore was averaging over 300 homicides per year.”

Sokol said he understands the split in the party that has seen younger, more progressive Democrats support Sanders. He said Sanders’ campaign reminds him of George McGovern’s presidential run in 1972, which he supported as a young man.
“It is sort of their way of looking toward the future and grasping on to that, and they feel Bernie has been able to reach that,” Sokol said.

Despite serving in Congress for the last 25 years, Sanders, the only Jewish candidate running for a major party nomination — Jill Stein is running for the presidency on the Green Party ticket — was not particularly well known to the public until his campaign launched last summer. Leah Miller, an IT consultant in Washington who is working as a grassroots organizer for Sanders’ campaign, said she first got to know the senator at a town hall meeting at Howard University in February. She was one of only 15 attendees.

At 32, Miller is like many millennials who have become encouraged by Sanders’ focus on economic inequality and his decision to not accept any funding from the loosely regulated groups known as super PACs.

“I think Bernie’s been a candidate who’s spoken to me and made me really want to get involved,” she said. “I think he has a great social media presence, and that really is where I have learned a lot about what he is doing.”
Part of the enthusiasm behind Sanders’ campaign comes from his proposals to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and make college tuition free. Miller said she thinks this is realistic.

“He’s broken down the funding to what that would cost and how much we’re spending on other things, such as [the] military,” she said.

Miller, who supported Obama in 2008, added that if Clinton wins the nomination, she will get behind her.
Sanders’ campaign came under scrutiny on Dec. 17 when staffer Josh Uretsky was fired for accessing data from Clinton’s campaign that is part of a database provided by the Democratic National Committee and serviced by an outside organization.

“That behavior is unacceptable to the Sanders campaign, and we fired the staffer immediately and made certain that any information obtained was not utilized,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a press release.

The DNC initially locked the Sanders campaign out of the database, which it typically uses for its own voter outreach. After Sanders’ team threatened to sue, the DNC relented.

“That was a terrible setback to the campaign. I cannot believe [the DNC] did that,” said Dan Segal of North Potomac. “Every hour is critical.”

Segal, who is an active member of MoCo4Bernie, a Montgomery County grassroots organization, describes Sanders as a “near-perfect example as to what a good Jew is, which is to be a good human being.

“It’s not so much as going into a synagogue to pray as to living the right way and making the right decision when presented with certain choices,” said Segal, who attends Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. “Bernie Sanders is one of the most sensitive people there [is] and has been a champion for the people, for workers.”

Segal has been a Sanders fan for quite some time. In 2014, he set up a Facebook page with the goal of drafting Sanders to run in this election.

Though Clinton and her ex-president husband have “incredible connections,” as well as the backing of major unions, Segal still likes Sanders’ odds.

“Although Hillary and Bill have incredible connections with the banks doesn’t mean they’re going to get the employees of those banks. It doesn’t mean that because Hillary has the large union leaders, so to speak, in her pocket [that the union members will vote her way],” said Segal.

Locally, Segal sees support for Sanders growing. At the Montgomery County Fair this summer, he estimated that a couple hundred supporters signed up to volunteer for the campaign, including Republicans. Segal believes Sanders’ fight against income inequality is what has attracted volunteers from all walks of life.

Sanders’ personal story mirrors Segal’s story, too. Segal’s parents spent six years in displaced persons camps in Germany before immigrating to the United States. Sanders’ father’s family perished in the Holocaust.

“Having a president who understands the struggle that people go through to get here, to me, is a very Jewish experience,” said Segal. “There’s not one person here who takes the hard road in order to get here who is not at a loss. They had to leave family members behind. In some cases, they’re coming here merely to find a job at the lowest end of the economy and better their families. And what’s more Jewish than that? It’s called being a mensch.”

Overall, Democratic support from the Jewish community has typically been strong, but according to a Gallup poll taken last year, the percentage of Jews who identify as Democrats had fallen from 71 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2014.
Rudy Stoler, a member of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said he thinks the increasing number of Republican Jews can be attributed to Obama’s stances on U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly the nuclear deal with Iran that conservatives have criticized as anti-Israel.

“Just looking at the way the votes have gone since 2010 in Pikesville, the numbers for Republican candidates have boomed,” said Stoler.

Baltimore County traditionally has been a Democratic stronghold; Obama won 57 percent of the vote there in 2012. But in the gubernatorial race two years later, the numbers flipped with Republican Larry Hogan winning almost 60 percent of the vote.

Stoler grew up in Baltimore and attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School before earning a degree in international relations from Goucher College, where he served as chair of Goucher Republicans and Libertarians. He has worked on several campaigns, including Hogan’s in 2014, and ran unsuccessfully for the Baltimore County Council’s 2nd District seat that year.

Stoler said he will support whichever candidate receives the Republican nomination, but he is watching Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Dr. Ben Carson. He said his political ideology is rooted in what he calls “conservative constitutional Torah,” or a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

“I would like to see less regulations in government. I would like to see a candidate who has upheld the Constitution,” he said. “I see it as quite similar as why we need to maintain the Torah.”

Carson, a former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, has made controversial comments in the past, including one in October when he suggested the Holocaust could have been avoided had the victims been armed with guns. Stoler said he disagreed with Carson’s comparison of gun control to Nazi Germany, but defended his assertion that restrictions on firearms are symptomatic of a totalitarian state.

“The Second Amendment is designed in part to protect the American people from totalitarianism, to enable us to defend ourselves against tyrants,” he said. “‘Bear arms’ is a privilege that has not been granted to Jews many times throughout history other than in our own state. The fact that it is a civil right in the USA is a point of liberation for American Jewry.”

Businessman Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican field with 28 percent of likely voters nationally, but Cruz is not far behind with 24 percent in a Dec. 22 New York Times poll. Many of Trump’s supporters, including Pikesville’s Ruth Goetz, feel that his knack for stirring the pot makes him an ideal candidate and a good alternative to the political establishment.

“I think he’s brilliant because he’s always in the news,” she said. “They keep trying to take him down, and he’s staying on top.”

Of Trump’s many proposals, the one receiving the most heat is his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country in response to the San Bernardino shootings on Dec. 2, in which 14 people were killed. Several candidates, including Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, condemned the comments during the Republican debate on Dec. 15. Cruz said he understood the sentiment but said the focus should be on “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Goetz has worked with the Carson and Cruz campaigns, but said she plans to support Trump if he is the nominee. She feels it is important to “keep a Judeo-Christian culture at the forefront,” and that Trump is correct in calling for the ban because she is concerned about “civilization jihad” in addition to “violent jihad.”

“The job of the president is to protect our country,” she said. “He said it would be temporary, and currently there is a lot of Muslim terrorism around the world.”

Goetz, who also sits on the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee, said examples of “civilization jihad” can be seen at both the local and the national level.

“We’ve seen it in Montgomery County,” she said. “They demanded from the school board to have a day off for a Muslim holiday. And now the school board has given in to the Muslims.”

(The school board voted in November to rearrange its calendar so that Montgomery County Public Schools will be closed the day after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in 2016, but teachers will have a professional day. This went against the recommendation of Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers, who wrote in a memo that the absentee rates for staff and students during this year’s Eid Al-Adha observance “was not significantly different than absentee rates on other school days.”)

Goetz said has lived in Baltimore for more than 25 years and grew up in Prince George’s County. She became involved in politics in 2000 when she began working for the Zionist Organization of America during the Second Intifada in Israel. She said national security and immigration are the issues most important to her in the election. She agreed with Stoler’s assessment that the number of Jewish Republicans is on the rise.

“Jewish Republicans are definitely growing, and as I talk with people, more and more people are saying ‘I’m registering as a Democrat but I vote Republican,’” she said.

Pikesville native Melanie Harris, who chairs the Baltimore Area Young Republicans Club and supports Cruz, said foreign policy is also the most important issue for her in the election.

“It does seem that the biggest part of the debate is how to get [the Islamic State] under control,” she said. “I’m extremely upset about it. When I meet Jews who don’t seem to be concerned about what’s going on it really bothers me. I don’t understand that.”

Unlike the others, Harris said she does not believe the number of Republican Jews is growing and pointed out that her synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, is mostly Democratic.

She said, “With them, I’m especially outnumbered.”

That’s in line with the findings of the National Jewish Democratic Committee. Before the Republican Jewish Coalition’s presidential candidate forum earlier this month, the NJDC released a statement from its chair, Greg Rosenbaum of Bethesda, touting American Jews’ liberal leanings.

Said Rosenbaum, “For generations, Jews have been drawn to the Democratic Party’s message of inclusion. We already knew that 70 percent of American Jews favor the Democratic Party and a mere 22 percent identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. The Republican candidates for president have proven to be largely treif to the Jewish community.”
Harold Diamond of Rockville, who represents the 19th state legislative district on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, said that the prospects of the Democratic nominee winning were “excellent.”

“The policy of the [Democratic] Party is significantly better for the population and for the Jewish people, as well, overall,” he said. “There’s been an openness in the Democratic Party for minorities. … If you look at what the Republicans are trying to repeal, all the civil rights priorities have been pushed by Democrats.”

Though he leans toward Sanders, as a self-described “party Democrat” he plans to vote for the party’s nominee. Still, Diamond would like to see all three Democratic candidates stay in the race through the convention this summer.

“I don’t think the Republicans should de facto pick the Democratic Party’s nominee and take pot shots at Hillary,” said Diamond. “The better debate is between Hillary, Sanders and O’Malley.”

[email protected]

Political Reporter Melissa Apter
contributed to this report.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here