WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (JTA) — In an election year that already defies the dictum that “all politics are local,” U.S. Jewish groups are urging their voters to help decide national issues through a decidedly local means: the ballot initiative. The message a number of national groups have sent to members is that the future of issues as diverse as abortion access, gay-partner rights, the death penalty, affirmative action and stem-cell research will play out Nov. 7 in local ballot initiatives. The initiatives add more “big issue” layers to 2006 midterm elections that already are unusually focused on national issues, particularly the Iraq war. Jewish officials say successful ballot initiatives in one state often presage national trends, no matter how isolated or far-flung the locale. For example, gay-marriage-ban initiatives in Hawaii and Alaska in 1998 have since ballooned into constitutional bans in 20 states, with eight more on the ballot this year. With such successes fueling the popularity of ballot initiatives in recent decades, deciding which ones to focus on becomes a challenge, a senior official of one national Jewish organization said. “These things are spreading like a malignant tumor,” the official said. That snowball effect makes it crucial for voters to understand what’s on a ballot, and many state branches of Jewish groups host forums on whether or not they’re endorsing or opposing an initiative. “Our branches are presenting information about ballot initiatives, even those we don’t have a stake in,” said Sammie Moshenberg, Washington director of the National Council of Jewish Women. Tax laws that prohibit nonprofits from campaigning for candidates do not apply to ballot initiatives, which means that the Jewish voice has been especially robust on the various propositions. In addition to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and NCJW, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Hadassah: Women’s Zionist Organization of America and local Jewish community relations councils have been active supporting and opposing initiatives. Orthodox Jewish groups, which in the past have taken opposing views on many of the domestic issues backed by other Jewish groups, are staying out of this year’s ballot battles to conserve resources. Here’s a selection of ballot initiatives that have caught the attention of national Jewish groups: • Death penalty: A number of Jewish groups, including the Reform movement and the AJCommittee, have joined a coalition of opponents to a ballot initiative that would restore the death penalty in Wisconsin, which banned it in the 1850s. The initiative comes as support for capital punishment is receding, the result of DNA evidence and the role it has played in releasing dozens of death row inmates throughout the 38 states where the death penalty is still available. Keeping the death penalty off Wisconsin’s books would lend momentum to national efforts to suspend capital punishment. • Abortion: Chapters of national Jewish groups like the AJCommittee and the NCJW in California and Oregon are active in pushing against parental-notification initiatives in those states, but perhaps the most critical ballot initiative is in South Dakota, where the Jewish community is minuscule. The South Dakota initiative would overturn legislation passed earlier this year that banned abortion in all cases except when a woman’s life is at risk. Believed to be the broadest existing criminalization of abortion, the legislation makes it a crime to abort a fetus even in cases of rape or incest. Despite its tiny membership, Hadassah’s South Dakota chapter has played an active role in rallying support for the ballot. “It’s a scary situation in South Dakota, and the rest of the United States should be paying attention,” said Carol Rosenthal, Hadassah’s regional director for the upper Midwest. Rosenthal said the Sioux Falls chapter numbers about 45, and about 20 of these are women who kept their chapter membership after moving to points south. Still, the group has been active, making get-out-the-vote phone calls, planting campaign signs and bringing in senior Hadassah officials to campaign. • Affirmative action: Michigan voters will consider an affirmative action ban so broad it has earned the opposition of Jewish groups that in the past have hedged in their support for selecting candidates based on race or ethnic origin, like ADL and AJCommittee. The initiative, which would “ban affirmative action programs that give preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin for public employment, education or contracting purposes,” would kill worthy programs in scattershot fashion, Jewish officials say. Detroit’s NCJW chapter has led opposition, Moshenberg said. • Stem-cell research. Hadassah’s St. Louis chapter and the local JCRC have taken the lead in stumping for a ballot initiative that would ban government interference in embryonic stem-cell research, except for human cloning. The issue has been a Missouri focus in recent years because evangelical Christian groups have pressed the legislature to ban the research because it violates their definition of life. Hadassah has taken a national lead in promoting the research because hospitals it funds in Israel have been on the cutting edge in using stem cells in developing a number of cures for cancer and other mutative diseases. The national organization flew St. Louis activists to a national conference in 2003 that explained the science behind the research. Galvanized, the activists returned to St. Louis and became founding members of the Missouri Coalition for Life-Saving Cures, which is backing the proposition. “We want to make sure the work being done in Israel by Hadassah is able to be accessed here in the United States,” said Cheryl Adelstein, who leads advocacy for the issue in Hadassah’s St. Louis chapter. The proposition has become a hot-button issue in the tight U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Jim Talent and Democrat Claire McCaskill, the state auditor. Polling shows that Talent’s opposition to the initiative has hurt his chances with independents and moderate Republicans. In other state initiatives: • The AJCommittee, NCJW and the Reform movement oppose eight ballot initiatives that would ban gay marriage. • The ADL and Tucson’s Jewish Community Relations Council oppose Arizona initiatives that would ban childcare, bail and legal damages for illegal immigrants. • The Reform movement supports initiatives in six states to raise the minimum wage. • NCJW is opposing a “taxpayer’s bill of rights” in Oregon. Such initiatives have severely limited state funding for social and educational programs. Several local initiatives also are being monitored: • The ADL is opposing two ballot initiatives in the Massachusetts electoral district that includes the town of Somerville, which has seen Israel divestment issues in the past. One initiative promotes divestment and another backs the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. • In Boise, Idaho, the AJCommittee is monitoring an initiative that would allow public display of the Ten Commandments. • In Denver, the ADL is monitoring an initiative that would steer local funds to religious preschools.
ADVERTISEMENT: Looking for a Jewish camp? Visit OneHappyCamper.org and see if your child qualifies for $1000 of their first summer or introductory rates through BunkConnect, programs of Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.