Because I Like the Guy
by D. Katz
“All politics is local; all politics is personal.” Such was the judgment of that famous Irish Democrat, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. And he was right. I know, because I have experienced it. I am voting for Ehrlich. Here’s why.
Like some others in the Jewish community, I have a child with what they euphemistically call “special needs.” In plain English, my daughter Elisheva, 15, has Down’s Syndrome. There are many others in our community, more than you’d guess. Well, one of the challenges in raising such a child is chinuch. What does one do? As expensive as day school tuition is for children without special needs, the price of educating a child who does have special needs in a school other than a public school is astronomical, well beyond what most parents can afford. But do frum parents want to educate their child at a public school?
We didn’t. Every child who has the ability to benefit from it deserves a Jewish upbringing, a good Torah education of one sort or another. At least that’s how we feel. For a Jewish girl growing up in Baltimore, there is nothing that can replace the atmosphere of a Bais Yaakov. There is no substitute for the sights and sounds, the smells and ru’ach, and, above all, for the social interaction with peers. At least that’s how we feel. And we’re right.
How do I know? Personal experience. Elisheva is far from the average Bais Yaakov girl, but not far from the typical Bais Yaakov girl. She may not win the Chumash contest, but she is second to none in her ability to enjoy Shabbos, davening, delivering a dvar Torah, the ru’ach, the singing and dancing of a school weekend or party. And she has learned a lot, kefi madregasa, more than I once dared hope. And she LOVES school. Loves the kids. Loves her teachers. How many of your kids cry on snow days?
I didn’t say everything has been smooth and easy. I’ve never done this before, and I don’t think Bais Yaakov ever had a student with Down’s Syndrome before Elisheva. But they were willing to try. G-d bless them, they were willing to try…and still are. And they deserve all the credit in the world for acting as a true community school in the widest and most generous sense of the word “community.”
One of the hardest parts of the whole thing is getting the public-school system to go along with your plans for a day school education. If one is the parent of such a child, it means fighting endless battles with the public-school educational bureaucrats to keep your child in a Jewish school, even when she is doing remarkably well, far beyond what the bureaucrats dogmatically assert are her “limits.” It means making the case again and again that she deserves the necessary educational services to enable the program to work. It means endless anguish trying to follow the rules (ever read the thick rule book?) and writing letters and asking for favors and making phone calls and attending meeting after meeting and clearing up misunderstandings and fighting and arguing and losing…and winning…and losing…and winning.
It’s not fun. But if you win in the end, it’s worth it.
For many years, as we shepherded Elisheva through the elementary school years, we fought and won every year – thanks to this factor or that, this person or that. In other words, siyata d’shmaya. If you are really interested, I will show which of my gray hairs dates from which battle.
Two years ago, we stopped winning. I won’t go into details, but the City officials decided enough is enough; they were going to play hardball. They insisted we had to send our daughter, who was in the middle of a successful and happy school career at BY, to a Baltimore City public school. Or else we would have to pay for a special-needs program at BY, which they know few can afford. Take it or leave it. It’s not a tough game…when you hold all the cards, as they did.
What to do? Fight in court? They dared us. And I found out why. Parents usually lose.
Well, how about our elected officials? You know, the ones who call themselves “public servants,” who are supposed to serve the public? Those who are passionately committed to constituent service, as they earnestly assure us every election year? Who proclaim that ours is the City That Cares, the State That Feels, the Nation That Bleeds. What about them?
Forget it. We went from elected official to elected official, from the lowest to the highest. Nothing. To be more exact, some would not give us the time of day, tough luck to you, and that’s all there was to it. Exactly one official tried to help. She didn’t succeed; it didn’t amount to anything, but at least she tried. Another elected official responded obnoxiously and rudely, warning us that we had better not rock the boat or things would be even worse. Can you imagine the chutzpa, to threaten me, to threaten us?! She works for me, not the other way around! I cannot wait to vote against this “servant of the republic.” (Don’t try to figure out who it is; you will probably be wrong. Then again, what do I care? Go ahead and try and figure out who it is, if you wish.). To sum up, it was a very disappointing, even painful, experience.
Then we went to Governor Ehrlich, even though he’s way at the top, beyond small matters like ours. But we figured it’s worth a try. And you know what? Big shot that he is, he actually got back to us (through his people), said he’d look into it. Well, we figured, at least that’s something, especially after dealing with the other elected officials, who can be divided into the Cool and Disengaged and the Obnoxious.
Within a short time, Ehrlich did get back to us. He fixed the problem. Just like that. All of a sudden, the clouds went away. It was too good to be true. But it was true. Politicians are notorious for doing well; Ehrlich did good. Thanks to his intervention, Elisheva had a wonderful career in Bais Yaakov Middle School, from which she just graduated. Ehrlich didn’t talk, he acted.
After hearing the good news ( I didn’t thank him or anything, he didn’t know me) and digesting and enjoying it, I began to wonder: Why? Why did he help Elisheva? What’s she to him? It was most unusual. Most welcome, but unusual. Politicians, in my experience, do not just do things for people.
I dug around and found out that Ehrich has a soft spot (personal interest, whatever they call it) for kids with special needs. I do not know why. Maybe he has a relative or a friend with…whatever. Maybe there is some other reason. Someone told me he is passionate about certain causes. Churchill said that the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the statesman feels passionately on a few but important subjects.
A year later, I had occasion to be at a meeting of a group that was addressed by Ehrlich. I figured I ought to say something publicly by way of hakaras hatov (appreciation). I am sure I do not have to explain to readers of the Where What When, as I write these words in Elul, the importance of hakaras hatov. Now, I had told Elisheva and her teacher, Mrs. Mindy Cohen, that I was going to see the Governor. So they decided that Elisheva would write him a thank you card; that would be her project in computer class. They wrote and decorated a card on which Elisheva wrote,
Dear Governor Ehrlich. Thank you for helping me to stay at Bais Yaakov. I love my school. I learn math. I learn Chumash. I learn computers. I love gym. I love my friends. Thank you for being my friend. Your friend, Elisheva Katz
Well, there I was at this meeting, and after the Governor finished his speech, he opened the floor to questions. I got up and said, “I don’t usually praise politicians, but I am making an exception today, because when I was in a tight situation, he came through for me in action, not words.” I proceeded to tell the story and concluded, “Governor, I told my daughter that I would be seeing you today, and she and her teacher wrote you a little thank you note in her computer class and asked that I give it to you. Here it is.”
Well, everyone in the room stood up and applauded vociferously as I made my way to the Governor to hand him the card. It was like a scene in one of those Frank Capra movies from 70 years ago. He thanked me, of course, and put the card in his pocket. “No!” I shouted above the din. “Read it!” As I sat down, I saw him open it and read it. He got emotional, got a lump in his throat, misty-eyed, bit his lip. I saw it; it was real…
As he left, he came over to me and said, “I want to meet her. Bring her to the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis.” As he said that, an aide stuck a card in my hand with the information about whom to call to arrange an appointment.
And so it was that not long afterwards I made my first trip ever to Annapolis – I’ve lived in Baltimore all my life, never been to Annapolis – with Elisheva, her teacher Mrs. Cohen, and my son the driver. After checking out the historic State House building, we were brought into the fancy-shmancy Governor’s office, where I introduced everyone. Ehrlich asked Elisheva what were her favorite subjects. She replied (doubtless prepped by Mrs. Cohen), “I like math, Hebrew, Chumash, computers, and gym.”
The Governor replied, “Well, I am glad you like gym. That’s the only subject I passed in high school.” Altogether, he was very nice to her, I must say. A photographer came in, positioned us all, the Governor standing behind Elisheva, hands on her shoulders. He took one of those photos that are a staple of official visits, and Elisheva has a proud momento to show off to friends.
On the drive home I asked Elisheva how she liked her big trip; after all, not too many girls get to visit with the Governor! Elisheva replied, “I like him, but ugh, why did he put his hands on my shoulder? It’s not tzniyus!”
I was surprised, though I should not have been. I mean, hey, eight years of Bais Yaakov!
Throughout all this, I discovered that Ehrlich also has a soft spot, a liking, for Jews and Jewish causes, not excluding Orthodox Jews, in spite of coming from a completely different background and cultural milieu. I had not known this. Frankly, I was a little surprised to hear that he was rated the number one pro-Israel governor by AIPAC, and had been at the top when he was a congressman in Washington. Now, baruch Hashem, we have nothing to complain about in Maryland regarding our Senators and Congressmen when it comes to Israel. We should be grateful for this, and I think we are. I am; I have voted for Senators and Congressmen based on their pro-Israel record even when I have disagreed with some of their stands on other issues. That is what our political system is all about, you balance the good against the bad, and you decide which outweighs which. Rarely do you get a politician with whom you agree all the time. I cannot remember more than one or two in my lifetime. Can you?
Still, there are differences among them. Some elected officials go through the motions. They vote the right way, they do what is necessary, and that is great. But they do it without any passion or feeling, at least none that communicates itself to me. I have watched such people all my life. It is usually a matter of political calculation, and that’s okay, as long as the political map of Maryland does not change. After all, that is what we hope our political efforts as a Jewish community are all about. We know there are others out there, the bad guys, who use their political clout against Israel, against causes near and dear to us, and we know that we must counterbalance them with our own efforts. So if a Congressman or Senator votes the right way and does the right things, for whatever reasons, I am delighted.
But once in a while, you get someone who conveys the impression that he really believes in the cause, that he’s not just doing it for the votes. Such types are not so common. Those are the ones you vote for because you want to, not because you feel you have to. I get the impression that Bob Ehrlich is one of those. Very up front on Israel; went there during the Intifada, when too many of us stayed away; set up all these joint business-cooperation deals, these university-cooperation deals, these hospital-cooperation deals (Sinai in Baltimore and the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon), whose purpose is to help both Maryland and Israel, which is the way it should be. You can find out the details yourself; it is all public information. Ehrlich isn’t hiding his efforts for Israel – quite the opposite!
In other words, he’s gone beyond the usual, and I like that. Though it makes me ask the question, why? After all, Bob Ehrlich is not from around here. He did not grow up in Park Heights or even Forest Park. He grew up in Arbutus, a totally non-Jewish neighborhood, and I’ll bet most readers of the Where What When do not even know where Arbutus is. On the other hand, I heard him tell someone, “My connection with Jews goes back a long way. You see, my godfather is Jewish.”
Well, I did a little research. Governor Ehrlich was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Far from it. It turns out that his father was a car salesman at Archway Ford. You know, they used to be on Reisterstown Road near Glen Avenue. Before that they were downtown somewhere, I forget exactly where. Anyway, his father was a salesman for almost 40 years. From what I hear, he was not the greatest car salesman of all time. Maybe he was too honest in telling customers to hold on to their cars, I don’t know. But the people at the business complained he wasn’t carrying his weight in sales, and they wanted to fire him. However, the owner, Alan Abramson (I think he’s the follow who donated the patrol car to the NWCP) would not hear of it. “This guy,” Alan said of the beleaguered salesman, “is a veteran of the Korean war. While the rest of you were warming your seats over here and having a good time, this guy was freezing and sacrificing and risking his life for his country. I am not letting him go. Period.”
And that was the way it stayed for decades. Not only did Abramson stick up for him, he took a personal interest in Ehrlich and his family, including their only child, Bob, who apparently was good in sports. At the father’s invitation, Alan would sometimes go to Arbutus to watch the boy play football.
One day, a customer came into the store looking for a car. Ehrlich was assigned to deal with him. At some point Alan Abramson came out and saw the two of them. He went over and said to Ehrlich, “Do you know who this man is? He is the head athletic director at the Gilman School, the fancy (and expensive) ivy-league prep school in Baltimore. Did you tell him about your son?” Turning to the coach, Alan said, “You should see this kid. He’s something special, has big sports potential. I’m telling you this is the type of kid you need to enhance your team over the next couple of years. You should give him a sports scholarship to Gilman.”
When the coach hemmed and hawed, probably cursing himself for coming to Archway, Alan Abramson turned on the hard sell. “I’m telling you, you want to see this kid play. You’ll thank me, you’ll see. Do it!”
And so the coach did go to watch the 13- or 14-year-old kid play football. He was indeed impressed, and got him a scholarship to Gillman, and so changed his life. As a kid in a public school in the working-class area of Arbutus, Bob Ehrlich would have had a much more constricted set of future possibilities than he was afforded by going to Gillman, from where he went on to Princeton – I guess he passed more subjects than he let on to my daughter – then to law school at Wake Forest, and then to a successful career in politics. Alan Abramson did him a real favor, and apparently Bob Ehrlich has not forgotten. And that is why he refers to him as his godfather.
Ehrlich’s image of Jews and the Jewish community has understandably been affected by these experiences. I think that is why he has been very good on terrorism issues as they affect the Jewish communities in the State of Maryland. I happen to know that on the very day when that parent saw those Arabs observing Bais Yaakov a couple of years ago, Ehrlich was leaving on a trip to Israel, but he ordered his staff to get on top of it immediately. In Israel, he discussed terrorism issues with the Israelis, who unfortunately have had to become the world’s experts on the matter. Maryland under Ehrlich has a lot of contact with Israel concerning these issues.
By the time he returned, the Governor’s office had called the Department of Homeland Security to get them to allow him to give funds directly to Bais Yaakov and to the other schools and institutions in Baltimore, which enabled them to set up the security programs we all observe every day at carpools, carnivals, and conferences. May we never need them! But it is a fact we can appreciate that Ehrlich was the first governor to devise a way to get the cash directly to the schools, to the Agudah, and to the other institutions, each of which set up its own security arrangements tailored to its own situation. He even wrote a letter to the other 49 governors advising them of Maryland’s intiative, and as a result, many other states have followed suit.
You do not have to take my word for it. This past June, the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America (the “OU”) issued the following public commendation to Maryland’s governor:
Today, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization – commended Governor Bob Ehrlich of Maryland for his continued commitment to providing federal Homeland Security funds administered by the State to Jewish community institutions for the purpose of upgrading their physical security in the face of potential terrorist threats.
Yesterday, in Baltimore, Gov. Ehrlich announced $250,000 in new Homeland Security funding for 16 Jewish non-profit institutions in Maryland, in Baltimore, and the surrounding area including: Suburban Orthodox Congregation, the Mikvah of Baltimore, and several area schools and yeshivas.
Governor Ehrlich was first inspired to fund at-risk Jewish institutions after learning of a suspicious incident where a Saudi national was seen video taping the Bais Yaakov school in Baltimore during the Fall of 2003.
These funds, from Maryland’s federal Homeland Security funding, are available as a result of a successful effort mounted last year by the UOJCA and a coalition of non-profit organizations to have the U.S. Congress appropriate $25 million toward this specific purpose. Governor Ehrlich has previously awarded the State’s own funds as well to help secure at-risk non-profits, particularly Jewish non-profits.
Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union, stated: “The Jewish community is deeply appreciative of Gov. Ehrlich’s ongoing commitment to protecting our community’s institutions and people. Gov. Ehrlich, the trailblazer in this arena, was the first governor in the nation to make federal Homeland Security funds administered by a state available to secure the safety of Jewish institutions. Now he has shown his commitment and his leadership on this issue not just once or twice, but three times. We hope other state and local governments follow his example and provide funds to help secure their own at-risk Jewish institutions as well. We thank Gov. Ehrlich for his outstanding and continuing support.”
Don’t think this is universally popular. Someone told about a website where a lawyer named William Hughes last month attacked Ehrlich in an article entitled, “Public Security Funds for Jewish Groups are Wrong!” Along the same lines, a group called Jews in Peace for Palestine and Israel gave Ehrlich a failing grade of -3 for his “deplorable stance on the Middle East.” Huzzah! As was said of Grover Cleveland, “We love him for the enemies he has made.”
What can I say? These things resonate with me, even though I’m not a Republican and I do not agree with every single thing the man does. I’m definitely not crazy about slot-machines, for example, at least not in my neighborhood. But I do like the fact that he has kept the taxes from being raised, and that the State is now in better financial shape than it was at the time Glendenning left office, when Maryland faced grave fiscal difficulties indeed. No, I do not follow all the state issues closely; few do, and the only way to do that is to take the word of the Baltimore Sun, which I hesitate to do; I have experienced their “impartial” coverage of the Middle-East, thank you very much.
Oh, I have some friends who are rabid opponents of Ehrlich who send me lashon hara about his administration on a fairly steady basis. On the other hand, as I write these words, I am looking at the headlines of the Maryland section of the Baltimore Sun: “Work Goes to Law Firm With Tie to O’Malley – City Uses Law Office of Campaign Treasurer; Partners See No Conflict.”
I have been around long enough and probably know more Maryland political history than many, and I confidently state that there is always enough mud to sling at everyone in Maryland politics to keep political observers busy for a hundred years, though nothing, I trust, will ever again match my favorite line in the Nixon Watergate Tapes. Haldeman and Ehrlichman run into the Oval Office shouting to Nixon, “Mr. President! The news just came out on the radio that Vice-President Agnew, when he was Governor of Maryland, had been taking large cash bribes in his Governor’s office in Annapolis. These businessmen were bringing into his office Giant Supermarket bags full of twenties and fifties. It’s unbelievable.”
And then the listener to the tapes gets to hear Nixon’s reply: “Bob, you’ve just got to understand, that’s how they do business in Maryland.”
Ah, the bad old days…
Now, not all my friends agree with me. This is a Democratic state. Baltimore certainly has a strong one-party tradition. I myself am a Democrat, have been for decades. However, I do not believe in party loyalty. I vote by the candidate and have often switched. This, I believe, is what democracy is all about. That’s what the Founding Fathers envisioned, just read the Federalist Papers.
But for some reason, most of my friends and acquaintances are either “yellow-dog” Democrats or “yellow-dog” Republicans. I used to kid my very dear friend, the late Jerry Saffer, who was a “yellow-dog” Democrat if there ever was one, “Jerry, what would you do if Mordechai was the Republican candidate and Haman the Democrat?”
“Well,” Jerry would reply. “I just don’t know. I’d have to give the matter the most careful and thoughtful consideration.” And I can tell similar stories about Republican friends.
One “yellow-dog” Democrat friend was quite angry at me when he asked me for whom I was voting and I told him. “How can you do that?”
“He helped me when I needed it and when the others didn’t. And besides, I like the guy,” I responded.
“You like him? How can you say that? He’s terrible!”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so? You’re nogeia b’davar (biased)!”
“Well,” I retorted, “You are too. You’re in favor of whoever the Democrats put up.”
“Not true,” my friend retorted hotly. “I just think O’Malley is better.”
“I can prove to you that you are being moved by emotion and stupid hatred, not logic,” I said. “If O’Malley is a good mayor and you live in Baltimore City, why would you want to see him stop being mayor, which is what happens if he wins? If O’Malley wins, whoever comes after him will be much worse, and you, as a resident of Baltimore City, will suffer. Your logical self-interest as a resident of the City should move you not to vote for him to become governor. If in spite of this, you are determined to chop off your nose to spite your face, if you are determined to burn down the barn in order to kill the mosquito (in the words of R. Chaim Volozhiner), if you do not mind living under a worse municipal administration, as long as you knock out Ehrlich, then it is you who are an example of sin’ah mikalkeles es hashurah, hatred makes one act against his own interests!
He just hemmed and hawed…and snorted. Neither of us convinced the other. That’s how it is. The world is full of people who are wrong.
Of course, some people have a compelling logic of their own. Back in January, when I was on a trip to Israel, I got into a conversation with a young college-aged fellow from our community. He was singing the praises of the Mayor, quoting me statistics and everything. I asked him the same question, “If he is such a good mayor, and you and your parents live in the City, why do you want to replace him with a mayor who will be far worse. You will suffer the consequences. Why vote against your own self-interest?”
“Yes, I have heard that question before.”
“Well,” here he hesitated for a minute, “it’s true, but I hope for a position in the Mayor’s campaign and eventually a job in his administration if he is elected.”
“Okay,” I replied. “I can understand that. I like you. You remind me of Disraeli, who said of his opponent, “My honorable friend here is a man of principle. His first principle is self-advancement!”
In the end, though, my “yellow-dog” friend is correct, of course. I am nogeia b’davar. However, I like to think that although negius (bias) blinds, it also sensitizes. It is a big thing that Governor Ehrlich has pushed through funding for the PEN Project, which will help other children like Elisheva get an education in our day schools in their own framework; the whole project is being coordinated with the Vaad HoRabbonim. Ehrlich did not need to do this. He wanted to. For that matter, he did not need to try to get more money for textbooks for our day schools, especially when he knew it would be shot down by the State Legislature. But he wanted to try. It is a big thing to have a Governor whose actions and body language indicate his close sympathy for Jews, including religious Jews, and who has a record of acting on those sympathies.
So I ask myself, do I want a governor who genuinely cares about the issues that concern me and acts energetically on them? Do I want a governor whose “foreign policy” does not jive with that of the Baltimore Sun, who supports Israel, not Olmert? Do I want a governor who will be exquisitely sensitive to the unfortunate but real security threat I fear Jews in our state may face in the future, who will act without being prodded? Do I want a governor to whom I have access? In cold political terms, do I want a governor who looks upon the frum community as one of his most important potential political assets and who will accordingly try to maintain extra-good relations with us, and who can be counted on to willingly go the extra mile?
Yes, I do. That’s why I am voting for him.
And besides, I like the guy.
This article was first published in the Where What When, “Baltimore’s Jewish Family Magazine.”