THE UNKNOWN JEW: Up against a Kennedy and a Pritzker, State Sen. Daniel Biss, grandson of an Auschwitz survivor, makes his pitch for the Democratic nomination for governor

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Daniel Biss wants to midwife a “movement” to reform Illinois politics, which he says now works only for a select few.

The Evanston state senator, one of two Jewish candidates in a crowded Democratic gubernatorial race going into 2018, also knows about movements of the cultural kind. Biss’ parents, Paul Biss and Miriam Fried, were musicians, and he himself was a pianist.

Then he ran the numbers, literally, as an academic. Before entering state government as a north suburban state representative six years ago, Biss was a math professor.

”I’m someone with a great deal of curiosity,” he said.  “I love to read. I love to think. I love to learn new ideas. I love to meet new people. I love to get to understand the way people think about things.

“They say an introvert is someone who finds it tiring to be around people.  An extrovert is someone who gets energy from being around people. In that sense I’m an extrovert.”

The collective talents of two generations advanced the family’s sense of peace and sense of well-being in Middle America after his maternal grandmother survived Auschwitz before moving to Israel.

The Biss multi-layered personality he’d like disseminated statewide has not yet been shown via a mass-media platform like well-funded billionaire opponent J.B. Pritzker’s ubiquitous TV ad campaign. Perhaps the commercials will come closer to the election. Until then, the in-depth concept of why Biss, just 39, wants to be governor is largely confined to conversations such as one recently on a quiet Sunday morning at his Evanston campaign headquarters.

Illinois State Senator Daniel Biss talks with MacArthur Alexander, owner of MacArthur’s restaurant, in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago IL on Friday June 23, 2017 in Chicago, IL. Photo: Christopher Dilts

“Our state government is remote for most of us,” Biss said. “People don’t have a sense we have an opportunity to transform it, don’t have a sense that it’s responsive.

“In practice, there are a few people who have influence, whether it’s a particular lobbyist or a particular campaign donor or someone who’s got a connection to a particular part of the political machine. Their voices are heard very loud and clear. If a big corporation has a problem, they can hire a fancy lobbyist and get it fixed. If a new small business has a problem, they just fester.

“That results in policies that are really unfair. It’s also a political problem about who has a voice, who is listened to, who is ignored and why.”

Biss said the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois offer contrasts in their effects on the average citizen.

“City government touches you via your sidewalk and your garbage collection,” he said. “State government is physically more remote (200 miles away in Springfield), but also more remote at an abstract level. I saw a state government that was not responsive. It was helping a few and harming the many. I felt the only way to fix that was not just run, but to include people in a real way in the process of governing.”

The motivations for jumping into the frantic fray to challenge incumbent Bruce Rauner – now at a time the long-delayed quest for a state budget has ended – start for Biss with his own close attachment to family (he and his wife Karin have two young sons).

Illinois State Senator Daniel Biss talks with voters at Medici’s in Normal, IL on Monday, March 20, 2017. Biss announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for Governor earlier in the day. Photographer: Christopher Dilts /

The family Biss grew up in always encouraged creative activity, making their own entertainment. His father’s family originally settled in DeKalb when the community 65 miles west of Chicago was much smaller before the growth of Northern Illinois University. His grandfather was a physician. Eventually Paul Biss moved to Bloomington, Ind., where his son grew up in the shadow of Indiana University.

Always, they encouraged new activity for young Biss.

“For my bar mitzvah, my grandmother (Raya Garbousova) gave me three beanbags, and I became a passionate juggler of all things,” he said. “It came with a book that taught me how to juggle.”

Both of Biss’ parents are violinists and teachers. The Transylvanian-born Miriam Fried, who moved to the U.S. from Israel at 18 for music education, has performed all over the world.

“All my grandparents were born in Europe,” Biss said. “My (mother’s parents) were ethnic Hungarians. They survived the Holocaust. My grandmother (Lili Fried) was in Auschwitz. She told the story of getting off the train and getting sorted. Her parents went one way and she never saw them again.

“Her parents were murdered, and a lot of her family was murdered. She made her home in Israel after she survived. What was so beautiful about her was that at the end of her life, she told us how she was a lucky person with a good life.”

“That to me was really the lesson – she went to hell and back, and built a new life. And at the end of her days, she just talked about what a good life she had. There’s an optimism and resilience that we can stand in awe of.”

The Biss family typically visited Lili Fried every summer. Biss said he speaks a passable Hebrew, “well enough to get around” on the streets of Tel Aviv.

“I would say the Jewish values of compassion, study and intellectual openness infused the household my parents made for us, much more than focus on ritual,” he said. “My grandmother came to visit us one fall,” he said. “We’re fasting for Yom Kippur. My grandmother laughed at me: ‘Why would you do that?’ The way the Jewish kind of ethos affects me the most is the combination of compassion and caring for those who have less, and most importantly probing intellectual curiosity and openness.”

The latter quality surfaced immediately as Biss got his undergrad degree at Harvard and a PhD in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At 25, he joined the math faculty at the University of Chicago.

Biss insisted he was far from an old-school math professor. The subject should never be just a set of equations.

“The thing about teaching is you need to be thinking about what’s in the minds of the people in the room with you,” he said. “It’s not about what you think. It’s about what they can learn from it. Otherwise you’re just a guy in the front of the room talking impersonally.

“If you’re just learning by rote, you’re not learning much. The goal is to think about math as a mechanism for understanding how the world is put together and how abstract ideas are put together. It’s harder at first, but it sticks with you much longer.

Overall Jewish sensibilities were debated verbally at the dinner tables of Biss’ parents in Bloomington and grandparents in DeKalb and Israel.

“The question of politics, public policy and making the world better was never far away,” he said. “I always thought it was our job to talk about it, but someone else’s job to do. We’d talk, we’d have opinions, we’d vote and we’d volunteer. But then it was someone else’s job to get in the arena and do.”

By the late 2000s, when Biss first ran unsuccessfully for state representative in the north suburbs, he realized he needed to move into the “doer” category.

“What hit me was the realization that nobody was going to fix the world for us,” he said. “I had to get involved.”

On his second try in 2010, Biss was elected to the Statehouse. He then ran successfully for the state Senate in 2012 in the 9th District, covering Evanston, part of Skokie and other northern suburbs. Fellow Jewish teacher Laura Fine, who has passed several groundbreaking health-coverage bills, immediately succeeded Biss in his old representative’s seat.

Biss believes only a mass involvement of citizens can reform politics. A governor alone, he believes, cannot accomplish such goals.

“If it’s one man vs. the world, that man will lose. It has to be a movement,” he said.

“I see this as a unique moment to build a political movement to transform state government. That’s why I decided to run. I didn’t decide to run just because of the problems. I see an opportunity to build the kind of movement we’ll need for a fundamentally more responsive and inclusive government that actually functions for the rest of us.”

Ah, but if the entrenched interests – see House Speaker Michael Madigan – have roots like deep cement supports in the ground, how can Biss’ envisioned movement bend them to allow the hoi polloi into the state decision-making process?

“I’m a big believer in incentives,” he said. “What we’ve seen is a system where the public is so beaten down by ineffective government that we’re scared to demand more. If we can actually build a movement that’s prepared to stand up and say, ‘No, we need a fair tax system. We need to fund schools properly. We need a system of social services and health care that’s adequate.’ I think the politicians will follow regardless of the machine or all the money in our system. Once the public is prepared to demand something, they’re going to get it.”

But the public may only demand it once they can trust the state legislature. The 2 ½-year budget deadlock between Rauner and legislators was not just one-sided on the executive-branch side. Biss said he and his colleagues need to take their share of responsibility for the cash crisis that nearly crippled state-funded colleges and universities along with social services, while leaving countless vendors with billions of receivables long overdue from the state.

“Rauner tries to lay it all on the Democrats; some Democrats try to lay it on Rauner. I think that’s shameful,” said Biss.

“You’ll never catch me saying that. I can’t sleep at night because of what’s happened in the legislature. I think anyone who thinks they have done everything they could is fooling themselves. If you don’t learn from your own mistakes and try to do better the next time, you’re doomed to failure.”

In a different branch of the legislature than Madigan, Biss is not directly influenced by the speaker’s dictums. But he believes Madigan is “way too powerful. I think that’s held the state back. And that’s held the Democratic Party back, too.

“If he had his way, I wouldn’t have been elected in the first place. He tried hard to stop that from happening. He wasn’t successful. If he has his way now, I won’t be elected governor. He’s not going to be successful with that either.”

But such a political chasm would not prevent Biss from working with Madigan if elected.

“When there is a shared vision or agreement with goals, I’d be able to work with him,” he said. “I think that’s the governor we need – someone who’s independent of him, who’s able to tell the truth about what’s wrong with (his positions),  but who also would be able to work with him on behalf of the people when there’s an opportunity to agree on something.

“What we need the governor to do with Madigan is to be independent of Madigan, to have his or her own vision for what the state needs, to fight hard for that vision and apply pressure on Madigan to get him to come along. But also to sit down and negotiate in good faith.

“My goal is to work with everybody. I think that is absolutely the job of the governor. I think it is shameful Gov. Rauner doesn’t see that as his job. He sees his job as picking and choosing which parts of the legislature to work with. Bruce Rauner has no understanding of democracy and separation of powers. He’s interested in running roughshod and telling people what to do. The tragedy is that if people don’t take his orders, he just shuts them out.”

Unafraid to voice his opinions poking at Madigan and Rauner, Biss also seems to be a David facing Goliaths in the Democratic race. The financially-robust Pritzker has staked the media high ground. Chris Kennedy, possessor of America’s royal family name, sports his own Illinois business background having run the Merchandise Mart, long associated with the Kennedys.

“If the Democratic primary electorate wants the richest guy, they’re not going to pick me,” he said. “But in this moment, with Donald Trump in the White House, the Republicans in control of Congress, with Bruce Rauner in the governor’s mansion and Republicans in control of governors mansions and legislatures across the country at historic levels, the Democratic Party has the responsibility of deciding whether to emulate the Republicans or will we try a bold, aspirational vision rooted in grassroots politics? I think that decision is a generationally-important decision for the party.

“When I travel the state, I feel such an intense hunger for that kind of progressive, aspirational vision for the Democratic Party. I don’t think this campaign will be decided by the number of TV commercials. We are humbled by the financial support that has (largely) come in small donations.

“This is July. The primary is (next) March. If the way to get elected is to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV every week for a whole year, then I’m not going to get elected, Kennedy is not going to get elected and Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth wouldn’t have gotten elected.  When I travel the state, I see people who have seen J.B.’s ads and they like his ads and they’re interested. But they don’t say, ‘I’ve seen J.B.’s ads, so I’ve made up my mind, sorry, don’t talk to me.’”

As for his policies, Biss said badly-needed job growth is linked to a “budget that is sustainable, so businesses can say I have a sense of where things will be in five, 10, 20 years.” He cites Minnesota, California and Massachusetts as states experiencing good job creation.

“Do you want to push wages down and attract bottom feeders – that’s the Rauner way?” he said. “Or do you want to push wages up, see the middle class grow and use that as a tool to increase spending in the local communities?”

Biss says he would also be active in improving health insurance choices. He said the lack of a state health-insurance exchange was “unconscionable…we need to do it now because that’s the vehicle that would be left if Obamacare is repealed.” Long-term, Biss endorses a single-payer health insurance system, a stance Pritzker also backs.  “We should do it at the state level,” he said.

Given all his positions, why should Jewish voters choose Daniel Biss over, say, a fellow Jew in Pritzker or a famous name in Kennedy?

“They shouldn’t vote for me just because I am Jewish,” he concluded. “The basic Jewish values of tikkun olam, of intellectual probing, of asking the hard questions even if powerful people don’t want you to ask the hard questions, of making government work for all of us…those to me are not just universal values, they’re particularly Jewish values.  They’re values rooted in the Jewish story and in the Jewish faith and the Jewish value system. It’s a unique opportunity to bring those values to the state of Illinois.”

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