Steinberg's move betrays Jewish Democrats in Md.

September 22, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In my family was the great-grandmother named Zlotte, born and raised in Russia, who arrived in America and thereafter tended to make all presidents Jewish. Thus, in Zlotte's glad pronunciation, Franklin D. Roosevelt was forever Franklin D. Rosenfeld. Harry S. Truman metamorphosed into someone named Harry Schuman. Even Dwight Eisenhower somehow became an honorary Eisenberg.

Grandma Zlotte felt a little funny about Ike, though. That he wasn't actually Jewish, she assuredly knew, but didn't hold it against him. What concerned her was that Eisenhower was inexplicably not a Democrat.

Which is why you can be sure that Great Grandma Zlotte, gone now nearly four decades, would have said political kaddish last week if she'd heard the news that Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg, lifelong Democrat as well as Jew, had bolted not only the party but his entire life experience to endorse Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's bid to be governor of Maryland.

Grandma Zlotte would have stood with those Jewish Democrats - the ones like state Sens. Paula C. Hollinger and Barbara A. Hoffman, and Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, and city Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector - who gathered in Pikesville when they heard the news and called a news conference to denounce the Steinberg announcement.

They did this on two lines of thought, each important in the game of politics and, most especially, the great American game of ethnic politics. For one, they said, they felt betrayed because Steinberg had been the highest-ranking Jewish state official in the years he was William Donald Schae fer's lieutenant governor, and often spoke for the Jewish community.

For another, putting Steinberg and Sauerbrey in the same philosophical bed is impossible. Steinberg is a political descendant of Franklin Rosenfeld and Harry Schuman. Which is to say, he comes from people who once felt like outsiders, who felt marginalized by American politics, until those such as Roosevelt and Truman began making the political game more inclusive to ethnic minorities of all kinds.

Steinberg's a guy who delighted in all of government's potential. Sauerbrey wants to cut government spending and drastically cut the taxes that support it. Steinberg's been a leading voice for choice on abortion; Sauerbrey's a longtime abortion opponent who's trying to say her history doesn't matter. Steinberg, taking a simple look at street violence, has urged sanity on the sale of guns; Sauerbrey's against gun control. Steinberg played a key role in winning state funding for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which probably saved baseball in Baltimore; Sauerbrey voted against stadium funding, and has ripped Gov. Parris N. Glendening for using state money for the Ravens football stadium.

But this goes deeper than politics. On some fundamental level, which these Jewish Democrats hinted at last week, and which Jews around the state talked about as they prepared for Rosh Hashana on Sunday night, was more about blood and tradition, and stories handed down through generations about labor unions and medical school quotas and restricted clubs, and one party finding a semblance of enlightenment 60 years ago while the other dragged its heels until admitting it needed more of a "big tent" feel.

The great-grandmothers like Zlotte figured this out decades ago, and watched it take hold. Roosevelt had Jewish advisers; Truman recognized Israel; John F. Kennedy had Jewish cabinet members; and Bill Clinton has surrounded himself with Jews.

(And none of this is limited to the Jews. Try substituting blacks or Italians, or Greeks or Irish, and the feeling isn't dissimilar. But, since we're talking about Jews, there's not a Democrat in captivity who'd be insensitive enough to urge releasing this Clinton sexual material, particularly involving Monica Lewinsky, on the Jewish high holidays - anymore than either party would do it on Christmas Day. Not even if it involved a Republican president.)

Clearly, some political alliances have changed over the years. Everybody's more sensitive to ethnic slights now. People switch parties. While still heavily Democratic, and still more liberal than much of the country, some Jews have shifted. Many voted for Nixon, and then for Reagan. Around here, many voted for Theodore Mc-Keldin over and over, and for Agnew as governor, and for Mac Mathias for U.S. Senate. And many still think Republican George Beall, the former U.S. attorney, would be the best governor of Maryland, if only he were interested.

But Steinberg's switching is something else. This was the No. 2 Democrat, a man who climbed the political ranks only because they'd been opened up years ago by a party which encouraged the inclusion of the formerly marginalized.

And, to switch for such a conservative as Sauerbrey, who denigrates the power of government, seems an act of petulance, a payback because Steinberg felt like an outsider his last four years with Schaefer, and then felt embarrassed when Democrats went for Glendening four years ago.

Steinberg says he doesn't trust Glendening. He trusts Sauerbrey, with her history? Those of Great-Grandmother Zlotte's generation would find his transformation pretty confusing.

In her language, Mickey wouldn't be Steinberg anymore. His name would be mud.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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