Agudah Representatives Assess Post-Midterm Map

NEW YORK -

The recent midterm elections have ushered in many new faces to the political scene presently waiting in the wings to take power, not only in Congress but in many governor’s mansions and some state houses around the country. As the last of several contested races was called, analysts began to settle into the task of sizing up what the next two years of American politics could hold.

Hamodia spoke with representatives of the Agudath Israel of America stationed throughout the nation to help gauge the opportunities and challenges they see on the horizon and what they see as advocacy priorities for the Orthodox community.

Now that the much-spoken-about “blue wave” has swept Democrats into power in the House of Representatives, the question on many constituents’ minds has been whether a split Congress will be able to produce anything other than even more gridlock and inaction than the country has seen over the last two years of sole Republican control.

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudah’s Vice President for Federal Affairs, said that the amount that can be accomplished will have a lot to do with how the incoming House majority feels voters will view their actions.

“If anything is going to happen over the next two years it will be based on what they think its value will be in the 2020 election,” he told Hamodia.

In keeping with the election rhetoric of many new Democratic representatives, Rabbi Cohen said that “there is no question that they are looking to challenge the White House and undermine the GOP’s gains.” Yet he did not feel that all hope of accomplishment was lost.

“Since no Congress wants to be called a ‘do-nothing Congress,’ which is a real bugaboo in election years, they might think it’s important to go home with some kind of record, and to do that they’ll have to find a way to compromise with the Republicans in the Senate,” said Rabbi Cohen. He added that in the past the deal-cutting necessary to advance legislation in closely divided chambers has sometimes been advantageous to advancing various items on Agudah’s list. The same dynamic could be present in the 116th Congress. But Rabbi Cohen hedged this too with the realities of the present era of American politics, where grandstanding often supersedes working for real results.

“The other wild card, if they are focused on elections, is how much both parties will dig into their ideological dogma and try to rally their bases. Behind this whole picture is how much the House will be focused on legislation and how much on investigation. That won’t stop bills from being passed, but no one can deny that it will be a distraction from Congress’ business,” he said.

When faced with a similar situation after midterm elections, former President Barack Obama’s agenda items also hit roadblocks in the Republican Congress, leading the administration to liberally and controversially use the power of executive orders. At that time the move was roundly criticized by Republicans, who saw the move as upending constitutional boundaries. Should the Trump administration take a similar road, that too could change lobbying dynamics.

“It might make advocacy more focused on the White House if that is where we see more can be accomplished,” said Rabbi Cohen.

Some major policy issues that have typically enjoyed bipartisan support, such as security funding, Rabbi Cohen felt would be little affected by the election. Support for Israel, despite the election of a handful of outspokenly pro-Palestinian Democrats, was something that has not wavered among the leaders of the incoming majority, Rabbi Cohen said.

One policy area that the Orthodox community and other communities had hoped would materialize was President Donald Trump’s intention to pass major school choice legislation. While no such bill came to be in the last Congress, solidly controlled by the GOP, with a power split between the chambers Rabbi Cohen feels that the prospects of such legislation in the future have become even more endangered.

“The president’s plans for a major school choice bill will definitely be affected. It could still happen, but it will certainly be less ambitious,” he said.

In addition to the nationally-watched scene in Washington, power shifts in many states present new horizons and possibly battles for community advocates as well.

In Ohio — where former GOP presidential primary candidate Governor John Kasich will soon be replaced by another Republican, state Attorney General and former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine — there seems to be little cause to expect substantive policy changes in the near future. Given the state’s relatively strong private school scholarship programs, Rabbi Yitz Frank, Agudah’s state director, sees this continuity as most welcome.

“I don’t think there’s any question that DeWine is supportive of school choice and will do what he can to support the programs that exist, and hopefully improve them. He has a history of helping empower families and we have every reason to think that will continue,” he said.

As for opportunities, Rabbi Frank was hopeful that the new administration and a GOP supermajority in the legislature could open new possibilities. He stressed that Agudath Israel has strong relationships with both parties, although on some areas like school choice Republicans have recently been more supportive of our objectives.

“DeWine has a relationship with the Jewish community, as does Governor Kasich. I don’t see a lot of daylight between them on policy, but one big change is the reality that while Kasich did a lot of good for Ohio, it can’t be denied that he was somewhat focused on running for higher office and, consequently, the hands-on leadership we saw in his first term was not there in the second. A fresh start with a new governor could open a few more doors,” he said. “Additionally, it could be that the Republicans in the legislature could see their win as a mandate as well and could build on it to be a little more ambitious. Overall, we’re pretty optimistic.”

In increasingly liberal California, many policy priorities for the Orthodox community have traveled a different path than in Ohio. Yet for many years now, state Agudah Chairman Dr. Irving Lebovics has maintained close ties with the state’s governors and looks forward to continuing to do so with Governor-elect Gavin Newsom.

“I did develop a relationship with him during the campaign. We met twice and exchanged a few emails, and I did broach the issue of expanding funding for yeshivos with him,” he told Hamodia. “He was very willing to sit with us and listen to what we had to say and seems open to working with us on some of our proposals.”

Dr. Lebovics said that in general, the ruling Democratic party has been very helpful on religious freedom issues that they see as civil rights causes, such as allowing religious objections to autopsies or providing kosher meals for prisoners. He hoped for such initiatives to continue to find traction.

One new challenge might be a referendum that passed this last election to allow the Legislature to extend daylight savings time into the winter months in the state. While it is unknown if the Legislature will act on the measure, doing so could present a major inconvenience to the Orthodox community making it impossible to daven Shacharis until mid-morning for part of the winter.

A contact that Dr. Lebovics was hopeful could prove a valuable ally came from a race that the community had not followed very carefully. California’s incoming Lieutenant Governor is Eleni Kounalakis, who served as ambassador to Greece during the Obama administration. Despite having very little prior connection to Jewish communities, a set of controversies regarding the rhetoric of some ultra-nationalist elements in Hungary made anti-Semitism a hot topic during her tenure there.

“What happened was that something that was not really an issue in her life before became one, and she became an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism,” said Dr. Lebovics. “She may very well be an up-and-coming person in the state and her experience has made her very passionate about this subject. Hopefully we will be able to work with her in the future.”

In Illinois, a campaign promise of incoming Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker — to do away with the state’s newly-launched private school scholarship program for low-income children — definitely raises flags for Agudah’s state director, Rabbi Shlomo Soroka. Nevertheless, he said that a fight to save the program was far from lost.

“If you think this program is dead in the water, I would say that’s false, and we are very hopeful that with siyatta diShmayah we will be able to preserve it,” he told Hamodia. “The reality is that it’s not so easy to do away with a program that is in place and helping real kids who would not have these opportunities otherwise. It’s important that we put a human face to it. Historically, a program has never been repealed legislatively, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and we are definitely working on building some new relationships and strategizing to protect the scholarship program.”

Illinois’ Orthodox community, mostly centered around Chicago, is unique in that busing to its schools isn’t provided by the state to all nonpublic schools but is a direct grant to the Agudah made on a year by year basis. Tight funds have endangered and even eliminated the appropriation more than once, but Rabbi Soroka did not feel that there was reason to fear the incoming administration would look specifically to end the arrangement.

Among areas of opportunity that he hoped to explore with the Pritzker administration were programs for early childhood education — a campaign theme; and increased security funding — a common talking point for Jewish communities around the country in the wake of the Pittsburgh mass shooting.

Similar challenges seem to be on the horizon in Wisconsin, where incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers vowed repeatedly on the campaign trail to roll back the state’s long-standing private school voucher program. The initiative, one of the first of its kind, is widely used by the state’s Jewish community.

Rabbi Frank, though based in Ohio, is a Milwaukee native who remains in touch with the local community and engaged in advocacy issues there. He said that the program remains popular in the legislature and should not be counted out.

“We’ve been in touch with coalition partners in the state and local community members in order to prepare to defend this program,” he said. “The general assembly is strongly supportive of the program and we don’t expect it to go away, but we must not take it for granted and [must] work proactively to protect it. We are hopeful that Governor-elect Evers will recognize the opportunities that this program provides for tens of thousands of students.”

Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudah’s national director of state relations, told Hamodia that each election cycle brings its own opportunities and challenges and that 2018 was no different. The role of those in the advocacy line is to find ways to advance the community’s needs with whoever the winners might be.

“Elections have consequences. Some issues that are important to our community will be difficult or impossible to achieve depending on who is in power. When you lose a friendly voice in Congress or a state legislature, that voice and their vote is lost. Yet every situation can be an opportunity,” he said. “Every year we look at the map and see where the winning party’s agendas could match up with some of ours. In cases where a candidate has taken a position that does not match our goals, we need to keep reaching out to our friends in government and making our case. We’ve done our best to build relationships with whoever is in power and as always, over the coming months those relationships will be tested.”