BOSTON – The state treasurer, the founder of an airline, a doctor who served in the Obama administration and a medical services executive who started an independent party make up the unprecedented field of four Jewish candidates running for governor in Massachusetts.
There has never been a Jewish governor here and it still the early days for the 2014 race, but some 200 years after the first Jew was elected to public office in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - as Boston Fire Warden in 1805 - the state has a Jewish community deeply active in its civic affairs.
“This moment comes as our community is actively, even disproportionately, participating across the public square,” said Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “It is hardly a surprise that while we are a small community, given how passionate we are about the great issues affecting our society, that we have produced many leaders.”
One in four members of the state senate are Jewish or have Jewish spouses and families, and Massachusetts Jews took a prominent role as part of interfaith efforts to bring about the state’s groundbreaking affordable healthcare act. The Jewish community in Massachusetts has also been highly visible on issues of marriage equality, investment in education, curtailing gun violence, and caring for the disabled.
“If this moment - with four declared candidates for governor - says anything, it says that those who proudly identify with the Jewish community are also strongly and equally passionate about the great debates in our society, and about their visions for the future of our state,” Burton added.
The most prominent of the four Jewish candidates in state politics and Jewish communal life is Steve Grossman, 67, currently the state treasurer and a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who also served as national chairman of AIPAC. He’s also raised more money than any of the five candidates, all Democrats except for Evan Falchuk, who is running as an independent. The two best known possible contenders have yet to say if they are joining the race: On the Democratic side, Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, and for the Republicans it is speculated that former U.S. Senator Scott Brown may run.
Grossman’s political roots in the state run deep. His grandfather helped canvas for the reelection of John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald - John F. Kennedy’s maternal grandfather - as mayor of Boston back in 1910.
The connections between the families have endured. Grossman’s parents supported Kennedy in his run for president and later helped fundraise and drum up support in the Jewish community for his brother, Robert F. Kennedy. Grossman was on the campaign trail for him in California the same week he was assassinated. Grossman and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy were close friends and he recently advised Joseph Kennedy III about Israel ahead of his election as a Massachusetts congressman.
Grossman’s gateway into state and Democratic party politics was his long involvement in the Boston Jewish community, which began as part of a young leadership cohort called “Acharei,” Hebrew for “Follow Me.” He went on to hold several positions in Boston’s Jewish federation, including the chair of its Israel committee, where he fought against local divestment efforts.
In an interview he said he sees “an unbroken line” between his years of Jewish community involvement and political work, now focused on a second run for governor, in which his message is economic empowerment.
“We are commanded to leave no one behind, to provide an opportunity to people who need those opportunities and the role of government is to offer common sense solutions to lift people up,” he said, citing one of his favorite passages by his favorite prophet, Isaiah, whom he quotes often.
Donald Berwick, 66, a physician who was an administrator of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs during Obama’s first term, reportedly raised the most money last month among all declared candidates, although Grossman is still in the overall lead for fundraising.
Berwick said it was his grandchildren who motivated him to get into public life.
“I want to make sure we have a sustainable and successful Commonwealth to pass along to them, and I’m worried about the failure to realize progressive issues I care about: healthcare as a human right, poverty and justice. These issues are under siege in America,” Berwick said.
“The ethical foundations of Judaism speak to me about being proper stewards of society and the world, so yes, it affects my views and reminds us all we are in this together and really have to help each other,” he said.
Dan Wolf, 55, is already in state politics. A state senator from the Cape Cod area, he is an entrepreneur who founded Cape Air, a regional airline.
He has been a visible supporter of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s advocacy work on employment issues, including his support of a recent welfare bill connecting people to jobs.
In describing his motivation to move from business to public life, he invoked the Jewish concept of tikun olam, repairing the world.
“I have had a very successful business and I love aviation, but I believe our life is divided into thirds,” he said, and the final third, “is about giving back and repairing the world in ways that are meaningful.”
He describes his campaign, which is being run by the Boston political consulting firm that ran the recent successful election of Elizabeth Warren for U.S. senate, as a bold, grassroots movement focused on better education and increased investment in transportation, infrastructure, energy and technology.
Evan Falchuk, 43, is running as the candidate of the United Independent movement, which he founded earlier this year to answer what he saw as a need for an Independent party in the state, one which fuses socially progressive ideas and what he calls fiscally sensible solutions. According to Falchuk, an executive of the online referral and consultation site Best Doctors, it reflects the outlook of many voters in the state who, he said, are frustrated with the polarized debates between the Democrats and Republicans.
Falchuk, whose mother is Nancy Falchuk, a former national president of Hadassah, said, “People have not found an avenue to engage and the reason I wanted to do this, to create UI, is to restore that level of confidence, and we cannot achieve that until we have people’s confidence in the government,” said Falchuk.
He said he was influenced to make a difference by the example set by his mother. Growing up he was also deeply affected by the story of his his paternal grandfather, who fled Russia at 14 alone after his family was attacked in a pogrom, and who made a life for himself in Venezuela
“What I’m doing here as an independent is drawing in people from across the political spectrum. This is not just a Massachusetts phenomenon, it’s what Americans want,” said Falchuk.
Tacitly acknowledging the tough campaign road ahead, he cited Israel as an example of making the improbable happen.
“Israel is the ultimate example of how you can build something when other people don’t think it’s possible to do,” he said. “Israelis said, ‘We want to stand for something and we’ll create it.’”