Seven years ago, I was approached by a group of friends with an unexpected request. Would I be interested in running for trustee of my local public school district?
I had no political experience and only a hazy understanding of the Nassau County, Long Island public schools. I was told our district covered roughly half of the Five Towns, and that it was a large operation with over a thousand employees. I was further told that seven trustees were elected to set policy and to oversee a budget that ran close to $100 million. And many of those policies touched yeshiva children directly, particularly in the areas of transportation and special education.
The one thing I knew on my own was that the political climate in our district had grown extremely contentious. Tax revolt had swept across Nassau County, and the local board decided to “punish” the frum community for its lack of support by, among other things, cutting special education services to yeshiva students.
I’ll spare you the details of how we won the election. Suffice it to say we restored those services, and others as well. Of almost equal importance, we introduced fiscal discipline. When we took power, the school district budget was almost identical to the neighboring district that is responsible for the other half of the Five Towns. Today our budget is $25 million less.
And this is when you begin to understand just how important these local elections are. How much of that $25 million is paid by the frum community? No one is keeping track, but the figure probably falls somewhere between $12 million and $15 million. Think for a moment of what we would have to do to raise that kind of money in the frum community. Think of countless Chinese auctions, raffles, dinners, appeals – and still we couldn’t do it.
But we do it every year now – and all because people went to the polls and voted.
Before we took power, there were dozens of frum families that didn’t receive school busing. For the people affected, this was anything but trivial. A private company charges about $2,500 after tax dollars to transport a child for a school year. And many working families simply don’t have the ability to car pool. Well, these people receive busing now. And all because people went down to the polls and voted.
Most important of all are the frum families with special-needs children that were denied reimbursement because they wanted to place their children in frum programs. This denial cost each of those families tens of thousands of dollars every year. A law has been proposed in Albany to end this injustice – one that has received the overwhelming support of both the State Assembly and State Senate – but for now Governor Cuomo has vetoed it. In our district, these families now receive reimbursement. And all because people went to the polls and voted.
“All politics are local,” Tip O’Neill used to say, but you’d never know it from voter turnout. We’ll raise millions of dollars for frum special education, but we won’t go to the polls to vote for officials who support frum special education.
People line up to vote for president, but they rarely take the time to vote for anything else. In our school board elections, we rarely get turnout of more than twenty percent.
This is the great paradox of American politics. The elections people ignore are the ones that have the greatest impact on their day-to-day lives. An election for sanitation commissioner or small town mayor lacks the panache of an election for president or senator. But while the president is arm-wrestling with Congress over Iraq, global warming or a new farm bill, these lower officials are the ones that determine whether you get school busing, when and how often your trash gets picked up and how much you’ll pay in property taxes.
And those are the elections where your vote really matters. In a presidential election, you are .00000001 percent of the electorate, or about a hundred millionth of the total. Moreover, if you live in the tri-state area, your vote is truly meaningless because New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are almost never battleground states (though you should still vote anyway; see below).
My two contested school board elections were each decided by fewer than 200 votes. In other words, but for 200 voters, dozens of frum families would not be getting reimbursement for special education and every homeowner in Lawrence would be paying $5,000-$10,000 more each year in property taxes.
On a different front, a local official in my community recently helped a frum tzedakah obtain a variance that saved it millions of dollars. As a school board trustee, I am at the very bottom of the political food chain. It is a volunteer position I had never even heard of before I ran. Yet even we are capable of delivering tens of millions of dollars of benefit to our community each year.
All of this before you get to the issue of patronage. We all know someone out of work. In these difficult times, every government job draws dozens of resumes. It is true that political parties may no longer hand out jobs to supporters. The days of Tammany Hall are long behind us. But there are things political parties can legally and legitimately do to help people land public sector jobs. There is nothing “corrupt” about this. There is nothing wrong with an organization that rewards its supporters, opposes its opponents and ignores those who ignore it back. It’s called democracy.
Which is not to say that elections for higher office aren’t important as well. Forget about Bush v. Gore, which was a once-in-a-century fluke. Every vote matters in races decided by wide margins too. Politicians pay attention to communities that pay attention to politics. A wise historian said the Roosevelt administration did so little to save the Jews of Europe because at the time there were no Jewish senators and only one Jewish congressman (New York’s Manny Celler).
The value of every vote can be seen by the actions of the politicians themselves. When Hillary Clinton ran for Senate in 2000, and won by a landslide, one community voted for her by a margin of 1,359 to 10. Four members of that community were then in jail, serving long sentences for defrauding the government. By a singular coincidence, following the election President Bill Clinton pardoned all four of them, despite the fact that there was no question as to their guilt.
Needless to say, it is a crime for a president to trade pardons for votes. But there was no hard evidence of any wrongdoing – with the Clintons there never is – and so a criminal investigation was later dropped. The point is that, even casting it in a favorable light, the most powerful man in the world was willing to put his reputation and even his freedom at risk to reward a tiny community in a state with more than 10 million registered voters.
* * * * *
Chazal teach us that the requirement of giving ma’aser extends not only to giving ten percent of our money but to giving ten percent of our time as well. It doesn’t take ten percent of our time to register and vote. It doesn’t even take one tenth of one percent of our time. Registering is about as difficult as filling out a postcard and mailing it. And voting itself usually takes less than ten minutes.
There are people in our community who need government services. When we fail to vote, we fail them.
There are people in our community who need government jobs. When we fail to vote, we fail them.
And of course while we live here in safety and comfort, there are members of Klal Yisrael living in great peril in Israel. When we fail to vote, we fail them.
And so I would like to suggest the following:
Register to Vote. It may be too late for most non-registered readers to register for next month’s elections, but it is vitally important that they do so for future elections. In politics, if you aren’t registered you don’t exist. A non-registered tree that falls in a non-registered forest isn’t heard because there was no tree and no forest. In the age of the Internet, registering takes less than five minutes. All you have to do is go to the Board of Elections website in your county, download the form, fill it out and mail it in.
The excuse I always hear from those who refuse to register is that doing so places them on a list for performing jury duty. I must concede that there is a tiny kernel of truth in this. The commissioner of jurors does indeed check the voter rolls to find potential jurors. The trouble is that the commissioner also works off of a database that checks drivers licenses, social security records, tax returns and a half dozen other public lists you can’t avoid. You could lock yourself in a closet and they’d still find you. And anyway, what’s so terrible about jury duty? I’ve been called down three times, actually served on a jury once (we found him guilty, in case you were wondering), and I never found any of it a hardship. When you fail to register, the only thing you accomplish is eliminating any hope of influencing anyone. There’s no upside in that.
Register for One of the Major Parties. If you register as an independent, or for one of the minor parties, you are significantly reducing the value of your vote. You gain nothing by disqualifying yourself from voting in primaries. To the contrary, primaries are often the most important elections of all. This is because the major parties look at them as the ultimate test of their organization. In a primary, the candidates are usually similar ideologically. The parties therefore view these elections as the acid test of their effectiveness. They know their organization is strong if their candidates win, and they know the opposite is true if their candidates lose. Vote any way you like in the general election. But make sure to vote in the primary. The parties will pay more attention to you if you do.
Always Vote, Even if Your Candidate Has No Hope of Winning. This might be the most important rule of all. Win or lose, once the election is over the politicians and the professionals pour over the numbers to see who showed up to vote. Showing your willingness to vote for a loser can have a more powerful effect than voting for a winner because it shows dedication. These are the voters politicians pay attention to.
Not Everyone Can Donate Money, But Everyone Can Donate Time. If you are one of the lucky people in a position to give tzedakah, politics is not a bad place to put at least some of it. The $80 million AIPAC collects each year gets leveraged up to over $3 billion of foreign aid given to Israel annually. But even if you can’t donate money, you can always donate time. I’m not even talking about the things that require a major commitment like handing out fliers or sticking up signs. It can be as easy as showing up for a rally or just putting your signature on a petition.
Don’t Worry About Your Shul Losing Its Charitable Status. This really gets under my skin – asking an executive director of a shul for an e-mail list and being told he can’t release it because it might jeopardize the shul’s tax-free status. One has only to look at how effectively and brilliantly the African-American community has used its churches as sources of political power to understand how nonsensical this fear is. I have never heard of an attempt to deny a shul, a church or a mosque its tax-free status for engaging in political activity. The IRS can’t even deny 501(c)(3) status to the Church of Scientology. I have enough respect for the intelligence of shul leaders to understand what they are really saying is, “This politics stuff is a real pain in the neck, so could you please just leave us all alone?”
A few months ago, the New York State Republican Party held its primary. None of the elections generated any excitement, because all the candidates will face an uphill battle in November. In Lawrence, we’ll get about 2,500 voters to turn out for a contested school board election. Only 75 people showed up for the primary. It was a real missed opportunity. If thousands, or even hundreds, of people had shown up, Republicans and Democrats alike would have gotten a strong message that this is not a community they can afford to ignore.
We’ve already seen the power of our voices being heard. The entire tone of the Obama administration toward Israel shifted after Bob Turner won the special election for Anthony Weiner’s congressional seat. It didn’t matter that the seat was soon lost to redistricting. The Orthodox community voted Republican and people took notice. Small events carry a ripple effect that travels all the way to the top.
As someone active in this area I can confirm that politics is indeed a colossal pain in the neck. But it makes no sense to write a check to a frum charity and then fail to vote for a candidate who will help advance the goals of that charity. Especially when the candidate, and the organization standing behind the candidate, can do far more than anything we can do on our own. Give charity. But give some of your time as well.
Uri Kaufman is a trustee of the Lawrence Public School District and the executive leader of the Lawrence Republican Club.
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