Leading and Legislating in Local Politics
The following profiles, in addition to the ones we are sharing in the articles Women Who Serve—in the Statehouse and Making a Difference as Elected Officials, introduce some of the Jewish women transforming American cities and states as leaders in their state legislatures. These elected officials, primarily Democrats, often cite tikkun olam as inspiration, and obligation, to serve.
‘MOMMY LEGISLATOR’ ADVOCATES FOR CHILDREN
Dafna Michaelson Jenet calls herself a “mommy legislator.” The mother of two says this in reference to a law she sponsored to replace reduced-cost lunches with free ones when she learned that impoverished children still couldn’t afford to eat at school. “As a Jewish mother, it was my duty to make sure they could eat,” she said of the law that passed the Colorado General Assembly last year.
But what triggered her run for the Colorado House of Representatives in 2016 was a battle to save her own son. At the age of 9, he attempted suicide at school, and Michaelson Jenet was exasperated from pressing the school for accommodations he wasn’t getting. In office, she could—and would—put enough social workers in elementary schools to support the mental health challenges of kids like her son. Indeed, she is especially proud of the passage this year of a bill she sponsored to lower the age, from 15 to 12, when a young person can access counseling without the consent of parents. According to Michaelson Jenet, Colorado ranks third in the nation for teen suicide.
Born in Israel and raised in an Orthodox family in Cincinnati, Michaelson Jenet, 46, moved to Denver in 1995 to join her fiancé after graduating from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York City. About 10 years later, as president of Denver Hadassah, newly divorced and having shed much of her Orthodox practice, she considered running for office. But a 2006 meeting of Denver Democrats left her feeling alienated by what she sensed was the group’s anti-Israel sentiment, and she needed time to recover from her divorce. It took another decade before she would run. In the meantime, Michaelson Jenet traveled to all 50 states and chronicled stories of her yearlong mission to meet activists empowering their communities in her book, It Takes a Little Crazy to Make a Difference.
Remarried in 2011, she and her husband, who is not Jewish, run a nonprofit that developed from her book and focuses on leadership training and community engagement.
Now entering her fourth year in office as a Democrat representing an area northeast of Denver, she focuses on issues of mental health, equality, medical research and school safety. As deputy caucus chair of the Colorado House Democrats, she said she still experiences “a fair amount of lack of support for Israel” but sees herself as an educator about Israel and Jews within the party.
One notable opportunity arose during her first year in office, when a speaker at a memorial service for a former evangelical assemblyman led the chamber in chants of “Jesus” and passed out buttons imprinted with “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” that half the legislators pinned to their lapels. “I am sitting in my chair not quite sure what the hell was going on,” she recalled. When the session resumed, she addressed the floor in Hebrew, citing the biblical passage to “love your neighbor as yourself” and registered her discomfort. Ever since, she has worked to build bridges by joining the Tuesday morning Bible study group at the State Capitol.
“I believe that good laws are written with the understanding of the people you represent, and I know that my values are firmly rooted in Judaism,” she said. “I wanted to understand their values.”
TEACHES HER LOCAL CONSTITUENTS:
‘BE YOUR OWN LOBBYIST’
A crusader against corruption and a longtime Jewish communal advocate, Amy Handlin, 63, grew up in Monmouth County, the coastal area she represents as deputy Republican leader in the New Jersey General Assembly, the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature.
As a young mother of two in Middletown, Monmouth’s largest city, Handlin honed her political skills through grassroots activism, tackling issues such as overdevelopment and water pollution. But she realized she could best direct change in public office. First elected 30 years ago as deputy mayor of Middletown, Handlin then served as a county commissioner, which in New Jersey is called a freeholder, for 15 years. Elected to the state legislature in 2006, Handlin has served as deputy Republican leader since 2008. She is retiring at the end of her term in January.
Throughout her public service, Handlin, a member of Hadassah, has focused on cleaning up New Jersey politics, pushing for transparency within the parties, fighting political patronage, working to streamline government and trying to reform campaign finance laws to reduce political spending. One of her favorite examples: As a county freeholder, Handlin secured a voter referendum on a proposal to construct a toxic garbage incinerator. The only freeholder opposed to the project, she said, she helped citizen groups defeat the proposal.
A recently retired marketing professor at Monmouth University, Handlin has written several books detailing government corruption and coaching readers on self-advocacy. In recent years, she has shared her expertise with the Jewish community. With a burgeoning population of Satmar Hasidim in a nearby district—sometimes causing friction with longtime locals—Handlin has helped both sides navigate barriers. She helped enable an eruv, which officials considered “this weird trapeze kind of thing that they were going to string from tree to tree,” she said. In a 2012 article for the Orthodox Union magazine, Jewish Action, entitled “Be Your Own Lobbyist: How To Speak Up for Your Community,” Handlin advised observant readers to meet their local officials, learn who handles which issues, stay positive and courteous—and vote.
Although Handlin’s Republican affiliation sets her apart from most Jewish politicians, it’s an issue that neither arouses curiosity nor is relevant, she said, especially when it comes to Jewish concerns. “When I approach issues that matter to the Jewish community, partisanship is 100 percent irrelevant,” she said, adding, “When Jews are targeted, nobody asks whether they’re Republican or Democrat. They’re just Jews.”
ADVANCING WOMEN’S RIGHTS SINCER HER BAT MITZVAH
California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson started to pave the way for women’s rights as an adolescent. One of the first girls to have her bat mitzvah ceremony on a Saturday morning at her family’s Reform synagogue, Temple Israel in Boston, Jackson, 69, recalls her rabbi urging her to pursue public service in his sermon that day. Now chair of California’s Senate Judiciary Committee, Jackson, a member of Hadassah, has strived “to serve justice,” she said, by fighting for equality.
She’s known for advancing women’s rights, especially her authorship of the 2015 California Fair Pay Act, considered the strongest equal pay law in the country. To combat sexual violence, Jackson also has written legislation requiring sexual consent education at California’s colleges and high schools. Last year saw the passage of a historic bill she co-sponsored, requiring publicly held companies to include women on their board of directors, making California the first state to do so. Her leadership in this realm, she said, stems from what she has witnessed in her life along with her own experience, such as “not being able to play Little League even though I was the best guy on the team.”
Prior to her political career, Jackson, a Democrat, practiced law in Santa Barbara, the area she represents and where she also helped start the city’s first domestic violence shelter, first women’s lawyers association, first coalition against gun violence and first committee to elect more women.
The mother of one daughter and two stepchildren and grandmother of six was elected in 1998 to the California State Assembly, the state legislature’s lower house, where she served for six years. In 2012, she was elected to the state Senate. Along with women’s rights, Jackson has fought for environmental safeguards, gun control and protections for immigrants in the wake of the current crackdown on illegal entrants. Other accomplishments she cites are the 2015 California Fair Pay Act, followed closely by her bill requiring publicly traded corporations to include women on their boards.
“As a Jew and as the granddaughter of immigrants who escaped pogroms in Russia,” Jackson said, she’s guided by the principle that “America is the land of opportunity. If you work hard, play by the rules and do your best, anything is possible.”
Jackson is a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, which this summer wrote a letter protesting a proposed statewide high school curriculum on ethnic studies for its “anti-Jewish bias” because it omits anti-Semitism, promotes the BDS movement and singles out Israel for rebuke. The curriculum, which is generating significant controversy, will be re-evaluated, Jackson said. The caucus has also met with university presidents in California to ensure the safety of Jewish students in light of the BDS movement on campus.
PIONEERED STATE DISABILITIES LAWS
Recently elected as the first woman and first Jew to serve as Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, Eileen Filler-Corn traces her political path to her Jewish upbringing and, specifically, the values of tikkun olam. “You may not be able to solve all the problems, but you can make a difference in this one person’s life,” she told Hadassah Magazine in a recent interview.
Elected by her fellow Democrats last year as party leader, Filler-Corn, 55, became the first woman to lead either party in the body’s 400-year history. And she played a key role in galvanizing support for the Nov. 5 Democratic sweep of Virginia’s House and Senate that positions her as the next likely speaker of the Virginia House when the transition takes place in January.
Similarly, she was instrumental in recruiting the 15 Democrats who flipped Republican seats in 2017, narrowing the GOP’s House majority to 51-49. Among them were 11 women and several breakthrough candidates including the state’s first transgender woman, first two Latina women, first two refugees and first two Asian members. “We now have communities that have a voice that never had a voice before,” she said. “We all think differently, and we all need to be represented.”
Filler-Corn, a mother of two grown children in their 20s who calls herself “proudly Jewish,” brings her Jewish values and experience to her office. She’s a past board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington as well as of her synagogue, Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, Va., where both her daughter and son became bat and bar mitzvah.
A life member of Hadassah who has attended and spoken at many Hadassah events, she also currently serves on the boards of the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and the Virginia Israel Advisory Board. In 2013, she said, she introduced a bill marking Israel’s 65th anniversary with members of the JCRC and the Virginia Israel Advisory Board alongside her.
Her Jewish activism started early, through her involvement with the Young Judaea youth movement, through which she attended youth groups, summer camp and took part in Year Course—a gap year in Israel during which she fondly recalls waking at 4 a.m. to harvest melons on a moshav.
Although she says she never planned to run for office, Filler-Corn was long interested in politics. After college, she worked on a congressional campaign in her home state of New Jersey and landed an entry-level job on Capitol Hill after law school. She had settled in Fairfax County, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., when Virginia’s Democratic Caucus approached her to run for the legislature. After losing her first race in 1999, she worked for two Virginia governors as a liaison to the congressional delegation and governors’ associations.
When Filler-Corn ran again in 2010, she won by just 37 votes in the Fairfax County district she still represents. In office, she has championed such issues as education, the environment, gun control and disability rights.
She called Virginia’s move to expand Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians last year “the most consequential vote I’ve ever taken.”
Filler-Corn introduced the 2015 Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act to enable families of children with disabilities to open tax-free savings accounts for expenses, including housing, education and support services. Passage of the bill made Virginia one of the first states to follow federal legislation authorizing states to create ABLE laws.
Her work on disabilities legislation is inspired by some of her constituents and her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, as well as a brother-in-law with autism.
With so much of the country divided and with so much negativity and hate, she said, “I think it’s more important than ever that we come together and give back together and stand up for everybody and just recognize that our diversity is a strength.”
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, Md.