WASHINGTON — When Jamie Raskin first entered politics as a candidate for the Maryland State Senate, in 2006, he ran on an agenda that seemed to many out of reach. He wanted to abolish the state’s death penalty, restore voting rights to those with felony convictions, impose a ban on military-style assault weapons and legalize same-sex marriage.
A longtime constitutional law professor at American University, he first laid out those goals in a campaign announcement rally. After finishing what would become his stump speech, a woman approached him and said, “Jamie, I loved your speech, but take out everything you’ve got in there about gay marriage, because it’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. Even the gay candidates don’t talk about it, and it makes you sound like you’re really extreme, like you’re not in the political center.”
Raskin said he “swallowed hard” at that moment, not wanting to offend one of his new and, at that time, few supporters. Nevertheless, he still maintained some level of polite defiance. “Thank you for telling me that,” he told her, “because it makes me realize it’s not my ambition to be in the political center, it’s my ambition to be in the moral center.”
Now, as a freshmen member of Congress and after 10 years in Maryland’s General Assembly — where he achieved all of the aforementioned policy goals, including same-sex marriage (three years before the Supreme Court ruled it a constitutional right) — the Democratic lawmaker says that moment reflects what he believes to be the meaning of progressive politics.
“That’s why I call myself a progressive,” he told The Times of Israel. “I want to try to find what’s right and plant my flag there, and then it’s our job to bring the political center to us, because the political center is something that moves around. It doesn’t exist all in one place.”
‘It’s not my ambition to be in the political center, it’s my ambition to be in the moral center’
Sitting in his palatial new office in the Cannon House Office Building last week, Raskin described his response to the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country, the plight of US-Israel relations in the age of Trump, and his ideas for opposing Trump’s presidency and rebuilding the Democratic Party after it suffered a disastrous 2016 election.
Drawing from his first campaign, the curly-haired 54-year-old recalled a pundit saying when he entered the race his chances of victory were “considered impossible.” Nine months later, after he won with 67 percent of the vote, another pundit told The Washington Post his victory “was inevitable.”
“So I went from impossible to inevitable,” he said. “For me, it was a great lesson in politics, because nothing’s impossible, nothing’s inevitable. It’s only possible through the democratic arts of organizing, mobilizing and educating people for change.”
Politics in his blood
Raskin grew up with politics in his blood. His maternal grandfather, Samuel Bellman, a member of the left-wing Farmer-Labor Party in the 1930s, was the first Jewish person ever elected to the Minnesota state legislature. And his father, Marcus Raskin, was a concert pianist who eventually moved to Washington to work on Capitol Hill. He went on to serve in the John F. Kennedy administration, before he founded the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank.
While Raskin grew up in a political environment, he became obsessed with the law and enrolled in Harvard Law School. He then taught constitutional law for 25 years.
“I’ve been a real academic,” he said. “You know, some of these politicians were law professors for about 45 minutes, like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But I’m more like Elizabeth Warren. I was a real professor. I got tenure. I was a dean for a while. I’ve been deeply enmeshed in the academic world.”
When he was elected to the Maryland State Senate, in 2006, he could maintain both jobs, as the bicameral legislature is made up of “citizen legislators” who are only in session for a portion of the year.
When he was elected to Congress last November, however, he had to leave behind his position at American University.
That came after a historic election to replace then Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who successfully ran for the Senate. Raskin managed to defeat a high-profile television personality in Kathleen Matthews — the wife of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews — and an immensely wealthy businessman David Trone, who owns the largest retailer of fine wine in the United States, Total Wine & More.
Between Matthews spending nearly $3 million on her bid and Trone spending roughly $16 million, the race to replace Van Hollen became the most expensive Congressional primary in US history. Raskin won with $1.2 million and 33% of the vote.
And in Maryland’s liberal 8th Congressional District, which rests just outside the nation’s capital, he went on to easily clinch the general election with 60% of the vote.
Anti-Semitism and Trump
As one of the 30 Jewish lawmakers in the 115th Congress, Raskin has been positioning himself to make an impact amid an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country.
Since January, there have been seven waves of bomb threats to Jewish community centers and other institutions, forcing multiple evacuations and prompting some parents to withdraw their kids from JCC school programs, repeated desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and Nazi-themed graffiti sprayed at various buildings and schools nationwide.
“I’m organizing a trip with some Republicans to the Holocaust Museum next month,” he said. “I’m hoping that we will be able to recall our common bipartisan roots in the last century, which was the mobilization of America against fascism and Nazism.”
Raskin was not reluctant to say why he thinks such a trip is necessary in this political moment. The seeming resurgence of widespread anti-Semitism in the United States, he indicated, was linked to the influence of the man occupying the White House.
“There’s no doubt the extreme right has attached itself to the Trump movement and has channels of access through [Trump’s chief strategist] Steve Bannon, the alt-right and Breitbart,” he said. “This is not a conservative administration that draws a hard line on the right. Their position really seems to be that there are no enemies on the right. They’ve got a very large tent going all the way out to David Duke and beyond.”
“Anybody who has any doubt about that just has to go back and replay Donald Trump’s final TV commercial in the campaign,” he added, referring to an advertisement in which Trump speaks of “levers of power in Washington” and “global special interests” who hurt ordinary Americans, while philanthropist investor George Soros, Federal Reserve head Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, all of whom are Jewish, appear onscreen.
“I mean, that ad came as close to being anti-Semitic propaganda as anything seen in mainstream American politics in many decades,” Raskin said. “It trafficked in the basest anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
The Maryland legislator also cited Trump’s exchange with a Hasidic reporter, Jake Turx of Ami Magazine, at a press conference last month. After Turx asked the president how he planned to address anti-Semitic attacks in the US, Trump lashed out at him and accused him of being dishonest.
“When you go back and look at the press conference when a Jewish reporter asked him a very mild and softball question about anti-Semitism, Trump exploded at him and tried to embarrass and humiliate him,” Raskin said. “I thought it was a mortifying exchange — and that was probably reflective of his real feelings.”
“But Donald Trump’s real feelings are, to me, of marginal utility at this point,” he went on. “The psyche of that man cannot be the standard by which we judge public actions. His psyche is his psyche.”
Raskin said he wanted the Trump administration to authorize an investigation into the ongoing trend of anti-Semitic episodes, which he argued was far more necessary than the new office within the Department of Homeland Security Trump was establishing to investigate crimes committed by people in the country illegally.
“Trump announced to us at the joint address that he was going to set up a special unit to collect information on crimes committed by immigrants,” he said. “Why not a special unit to collect evidence of crimes against minorities?”
In addition to threats and attacks against Jews, at least four mosques have been burned since January.
The Iran deal and the Israel question
While Raskin does not serve on a foreign policy committee, he said he has a solicitude for Israel and its predicament. Some of his “favorite cousins” live in Israel, and he stayed with them in Kfar Hess during his last visit in December 2015.
As a supporter of the two-state solution and of the Iran nuclear deal, he was greeted warmly by the liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street during his congressional campaign, listed as one of their “on the street” candidates. The designation does not constitute an endorsement but acknowledges the candidates each support the basic platform of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and the preferred use of diplomacy over force.
“I took a few days off from the campaign trail to study the Iran agreement and came to the conclusion that it was definitely in the best interests of the US and of Israel and of the rest of the world,” he said. “We needed to tame the Iranian nuclear peril.”
On the other hand, one of his fist votes in Congress diverged from the J Street line. He voted for the House resolution repudiating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace. “I voted for that resolution just because I thought the UN resolution was imbalanced and did not sufficiently identify the provocations and incitement against Israel,” he said.
Raskin is emphatic to note that while he received support from J Street, he also had backers as a candidate more aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, also known as AIPAC.
‘If we can’t make peace between J Street and AIPAC, what are our hopes of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians?’
“I definitely had a lot of J Street support, but I also had support from people who were on the AIPAC side and I hope that we will be able to maintain a sense of civility and solidarity within the Jewish community,” he said. “Look, if we can’t make peace between J Street and AIPAC, what are our hopes of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians?”
As Trump works to forge “the ultimate deal” — as he’s called it — of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Raskin is skeptical of his ability to strike an agreement, but believes in giving the president a chance to try.
“I think he fashions himself as someone who could make a breakthrough in the Middle East, and if he could do it, more power to him,” he said. “If he could figure out a way to arrive at a real two-state solution that respects the security, needs, and the rights and aspirations of everybody, then that would be a great breakthrough.”
While Trump has not explicitly withdrawn US support for a two-state solution, he has not yet insisted on it as the only way to resolve the conflict. (Although he reportedly told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call Friday that he favors two states.)
Raskin also said that confirming Trump’s longtime friend and bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman — a financial and vocal supporter of the settlement movement and opponent the two-state framework — to be US ambassador to Israel would be “bad news.”
Israel, Raskin insisted, needed to prioritize disentangling itself from the millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank, something he argued was necessary for the sustainability of the Zionist ideal.
“I’m troubled by the apparent ease with which some people want to abandon the two-state solution commitment,” he said. “And I just don’t know what a one-state solution means. There’s certainly a lot of terrorist groups that favor a one-state solution, like Hamas. You know, they would wipe Israel to the sea and create a Palestinian state instead.”
But “if Israel were simply to annex all of the territories,” he continued, “how long could it remain a majority Jewish state? How long could it be a democratic state? Would it be a democratic state or would it be something that would be an illiberal regime, based on principles that are not found in a modern constitutional democracy?”
For that reason, Raskin said it’s incumbent on him to try and advance the two-state solution from his new perch in Congress.
“We don’t want to be reliving the same conflicts and agonies 25 years or 50 years from now,” he said. “I hope that we will be part of a generation that hands off something better to our children and grandchildren.”