The Shtetl Politician

BRUCE L. BORTZ

October 20, 1993|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

When State Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, suggested last week that Gov. William Donald Schaefer ''doesn't seem to like people'' from her home district of Pikesville, the insinuation of anti-Semitism seemed clear. But Mrs. Hollinger now says she didn't mean it that way.

Mrs. Hollinger's comment came in response to the governor's announced support for State Sen. Janice Piccinini, her Democratic re-election opponent in the 11th Legislative District of northwest Baltimore County. Mr. Schaefer assuredly doesn't like Mrs. Hollinger, and she has little respect for him. She opposed his controversial 1992 budget, applying the hated ''tax and spender'' label. Over his legislative redistricting plan, she sued him, alleging sex discrimination. In the space of three legislative sessions (1990-1992), he vetoed 13 of her bills -- a staggeringly high number by Annapolis standards. The Schaefer-Hollinger run-ins are too numerous to detail in full.

But any suggestion that these disagreements constitute anti-Semitism is ridiculous, given the governor's long history of political loyalty to the Jewish community. A better response to the latest Schaefer rebuff, Mrs. Hollinger now acknowledges, might have been, ''I guess he doesn't like politicians from Pikesville.''

The incident fits a pattern of Hollinger pronouncements:

* In April 1991, Mrs. Hollinger publicly discounted Lt. Gov. Melvin (Mickey) Steinberg's chances of winning the '94 gubernatorial race. Maryland wasn't ''ready for another Jewish governor,'' she explained to the Baltimore Jewish Times.

* During the reapportionment battle, she and 11th District colleague Del. Richard Rynd repeatedly invoked religion in seeking to expand their district into Jewish communities north and west of their Pikesville power base. Jews would be ''safer'' with Jewish representation, they said, citing, among other things, alleged instances of anti-Semitism in the chambers of the Maryland General Assembly.

* When Ms. Piccinini referred to her as ''the senator from Pikesville,'' Mrs. Hollinger took it as a coded anti-Semitic remark -- even though she insists that her own suggestion that the governor ''doesn't like people from Pikesville'' was not a coded accusation of anti-Semitism. So far, Mrs. Hollinger has been allowed to have it both ways.

* In an already divisive state fight over abortion rights, Mrs. Hollinger made anti-Semitism an acrimonious side issue, leveling the accusation at State Sen. John Cade, R-Anne Arundel, and others because of their ''pro-life'' positions.

* Mrs. Hollinger's allegations of anti-Semitism helped bring down the judicial candidacy of Baltimore County Del. Lou DePazzo, although simultaneous cries of racism by county blacks certainly contributed.

* In the controversy surrounding the Baltimore County school system, Mrs. Hollinger, crying anti-Semitism again, has mounted a spirited defense of the embattled superintendent, Stuart Berger and former school board president Rosalie Hellman. Both, she has noted, are Jews.

Mrs. Hollinger has been a champion of Jewish interests in Annapolis. She has educated -- and at times cajoled -- gentile colleagues into voting with her on issues of conscience. But her Jewish advocacy appears riddled with ironies and inconsistencies. Jews worthy of her protection seem very narrowly defined. She fought to protect Pikesville Jews during legislative redistricting, but suggested a map- redrawing that would have submerged northwest Baltimore city Jews into a decidedly non-Jewish northeast Baltimore district. Organized Jewish leaders recoiled, taking sides against her for what they called the good of the entire Jewish community.

As the Jewish community continues to gain acceptance into the mainstream of Maryland government, Mrs. Hollinger's religiously motivated politics increasingly appear anachronistic. Jews, about 4 percent of the state's population, make up 12 percent of the Maryland legislature and hold leadership positions on several important committees. As a 15-year legislative veteran, Mrs. Hollinger herself has staked out a prominent position on health-care issues, achieved some success on them, and gained a second-tier committee co-chairmanship.

Unlike her, Mrs. Hollinger's Jewish colleagues in the legislature don't wear religion as a sign on their sleeves, much less as a chip on their shoulders. Judaism is but one of many things that make up their politics and personalities. And it doesn't dilute their effectiveness in espousing Jewish interests. Witness State Sen. Ida Ruben (D-Montgomery), whose championship of state resettlement and retraining money for Soviet Jewish immigrants has saved it several times from the ax of budget analysts.

There's no doubt that anti-Semitism continues to be a malevolent force in Maryland, and Maryland politics. But by invoking the goblins of religious racism, Paula Hollinger sets herself up as one of the last of the state's shtetl politicians. Leaders in the Jewish community have begun to say -- for the first time -- that Mrs. Hollinger may have cried anti-Semitism one too many times for her own political good, or theirs.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and the Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics. His deputy editor, Jay Lechtman, contributed to this article.

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