By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
While it sometimes feels like nothing escapes politics in Illinois, especially government, the two Jews running for the Democratic party nomination for Attorney General both say they are aiming high, while no doubt privately acknowledging life’s realities.
Aaron Goldstein and Nancy Rotering, the two Jewish candidates in a crowded field, profess more noble motivations for taking their long shots at the job longtime incumbent Lisa Madigan is vacating voluntarily.
Goldstein, a West Rogers Park native, and Rotering, possessing Hyde Park family roots but growing up in the city she now serves as mayor – Highland Park – both say elements of their Jewish upbringing frame their campaigning passions. Both are trying to come from behind for a November ballot spot for which former Gov. Pat Quinn and State Sen. Kwame Raoul are the leading candidates.
“I think the great history of Judaism and being a Jew is commitment to service,” Goldstein said in a quiet moment at a campaign fund-raiser in Ravenswood Manor. “Deuteronomy 16:20 says ‘Justice justice thou shall pursue.’ And I think one the most proud things I have in being Jewish is the long tradition of people who stood up for civil rights, for justice. And they fought, not just for Jews, but for other people.”
Goldstein put some of these core values to work as a longtime Cook County public defender. He learned politics at the grassroots, almost bare-knuckles, level in 2016 by unseating 40-year incumbent Richard Mell, head of a royal Chicago political family, for 33rd. Ward Democratic committeeman.
“The long Jewish tradition includes a lot of lawyers, the commitment to the law,” Goldstein said. “If you look at the tradition of rabbis, they’re really lawyers. They’re interpreting text, following text, negotiating. Using that (tradition) for good to represent the people who are dispossessed.
“When I graduated from (University of Iowa) law school in 2000, the economy was good and there were a lot of opportunities in corporate law. So I was not competing with a lot of people when I applied to be public defender. I was laughed at quite frankly – why would you want to do that work? It was because of a true belief – here we had so many lawyers, but we don’t have enough lawyers to represent people who need lawyers.
“I tried nearly 40 jury trials. I tried hundreds of cases in federal and state courts. I have that experience.”
Although once employed at General Motors and working in private practice since coming out of Northwestern Law School, Rotering moved into community service via her part-time mayor’s position, service on civic boards and founding the Highland Park/Highwood Legal Aid Clinic. The clinic provides free legal services in the areas of immigration – focusing on Dreamers and their families, domestic violence, and housing.
“My parents (Hank and Maggie Rodkin) raised me to be an advocate,” Rotering said in a downtown Highland Park coffee shop. “Right from the (activism) of the Sixties. I was writing letters to corporations as a kid. I was 6 when I wrote a letter to Delta Air Lines that their food was lousy. I got very focused on environmentalism in the Seventies.
“But, more to the point of standing up for things. In the sixth grade, somebody bullied a classmate. I stood up, even though I was shy. So standing up to somebody took a lot, but it was the right thing to do.”
Rotering said the concept of tikkun olam governed her parents’ actions, and in turn, hers.
“I instilled the same in my four children, and all of them have taken ownership in repairing the world, no question,” she said. “I’ve created things out of the box (like the legal aid clinic) separate and apart from things you’d expect from a mayor.”
Both Goldstein and Rotering must fight their way through the forest of candidates to get their messages heard.
In the home stretch to the March 20 primary, Quinn and Raoul have launched a TV blitz of ads. They were joined in the quantity of broadcast messages by Rotering’s fellow Highland Parker, State Rep. Scott Drury. Rotering countered with her own TV spot questioning Quinn’s record on gun control.
Other attorney general primary candidates are Jesse Ruiz, Chicago Park District board president, and former federal prosecutors Sharon Farley and Renato Mariotti.
Now an Albany Park resident, married and the father of two, Goldstein obviously was energized by Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. He mentioned Sanders and accompanying political stances frequently in his campaign pitch while denouncing President Donald Trump. In one recent speech to a largely African-American gathering, Goldstein compared Trump to a Nazi and a Klansman. His avowed goal is joining what he termed 20 activist state attorneys general in countering Trump’s policies.
Goldstein wants a more aggressive stance from the office than Madigan has so far displayed.
“My assessment of Lisa Madigan as attorney general is competent, but cautious,” he said. “There haven’t been enough bold steps. Why is that? Is it because of connections to her father (Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan) and the political elite? Or is it just she wanted to do what she thought she could achieve? Make sure everything’s perfect – she didn’t want to have any losses.
“I understand that. It’s a conservative approach. You get a lot accomplished. But you’re not taking on those bold cases. You got to be willing to be bold and courageous, and take on those tough cases. You’re not going to win everything, but you will have a lot of success and expose a lot of the problems going on.”
Rotering said a number of people contacted her to run when Madigan announced she was not running for re-election.
“They said this really matches your profile,” she said. “It’s exactly what you do. It’s having the executive experience being a mayor, and knowing how to set priorities, pull together resources and bring people together to collaborate. It all fit together really well.
“I think for a lot of people there is the pent-up desire to do something in this environment, most particularly on the advocacy side,” she said. “So it speaks to a lot of us.”
Rotering cited one recent experience where she cooperated with Madigan to learn more about activist attorneys general. “I went with Lisa to Washington, D.C. for the Democratic attorneys general conference,” Rotering said. “I called her and I said is this worth the time, is this something I should do. A few of the other candidates went. It was a chance to meet some of the people who are suing Trump to stop some of this crazy stuff (Trump) is trying to promote. They’re reversing or halting some of these attacks on our civil rights. That is appealing. I’ve always gone up against the powers that be.”
As attorney general, both Goldstein and Rotering say they plan to go up against one very entrenched power – the gun lobby. They would seize on momentum started by survivors of the recent high school massacre of 17 students and teachers in Florida.
Interestingly, both have personal experience in the issue. Rotering passed an assault-weapons ban in Highland Park, fending off a National Rifle Association suit. While making a campaign video recently in the otherwise-quiet middle-class Ravenswood Manor neighborhood, Goldstein and associates were robbed. He had a gun to his back and surrendered valuables to his assailant. He otherwise was not hurt.
Goldstein has proposed the most radical solution – suing gun manufacturers. He claimed they have been flooding the market with assault weapons far above the actual demand by gun owners.
“There are many strategies,” he said. “What these kids in Florida are doing is so spectacular. They’re actually better than anti-Vietnam protesters in the late Sixties. These kids just saw their friends being murdered. Who would fault them if they’d say, ‘I want the entire year off (from school). I need psychiatric help. If something happened to my kid, I’d be in mourning.
“We never know what is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hopefully, this is it. So what are we seeing. Potential divestment from big corporations who don’t want to be affiliated with the NRA? I spoke to some activists about going after the gun manufacturers. I said absolutely, let’s sue them. They said ‘no!’ They agree with (the concept of lawsuits). But they said here’s what we’re trying to do – we’re going to invest in the gun manufacturers and take them over. So there is a movement of anti-gun, gun-regulation advocates to start purchasing stock.
“Tell me where the need is. Who is crying out, ‘I need an AR (15)’? You don’t use an automatic rifle for target practice. I have some good friends who are big gun (enthusiasts). They say an AR has no other reason than to kill people. These are hunters. I’m not going to hunt with an AR. It’s almost like cheating. It doesn’t have good aim. It’s not a very accurate weapon. It’s a military killing machine. Nothing else. There is no other need for it. Why are they producing these things?
“I’d look forward to (challenging the NRA).”
Rotering is a grizzled veteran of such bouts. Highland Park resident Arie Friedman wanted to keep his automatic weapons in 2013, when a concealed-carry weapons law came into effect over Quinn’s gubernatorial veto. The law gave Illinois municipalities a 10-day window to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
“We did it in Highland Park and we prevailed,” Rotering said.
“The guy who sued us had dozens of assault weapons in his house. He wanted to keep his guns. This wasn’t defending his house. He had been in the Israeli army and was a pediatrician. He also ran for the state Senate.
“We went to the district court and won. We went to the Seventh Circuit (appeals court), which said these were uncommon weapons and communities had this right (to ban the guns).”
The Supreme Court opted not to take the case. Rotering’s law was locked in to the books.
Since no other communities acted as quickly as Highland Park within the 10-day window, they could not structure a similar assault-weapons ban. Other mayors and officials called Rotering, but she gave them the bad news. However, she said she is not sitting on her laurels.
“Since the writ was denied at the Supreme Court, I’ve been working to change the law,” said Rotering. “Let the cities have the opportunity to have that conversation. “
Both candidates say they would also be aggressive on consumer and environmental protection. They also have been outspoken in extending more rights to the disabled. One of Rotering’s four sons was diagnosed with a disability at age 2 1/2, causing her family to be “baptized by fire and I became his advocate.
“We know that people with disabilities have challenges that come with their disabilities, but we also know that discrimination – whether on purpose or due to ignorance – can impact anyone’s ability to live their best life whether at work, at school, getting access to health care, even in our criminal system.
“I’ve been an advocate for people with disabilities as a parent. I’ve been an advocate as a volunteer at Lurie Children’s Hospital, teaching residents how to understand the impact of dealing with patients and families, the entire package.”
Goldstein worked for the Legal Assistance Foundation and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, helping advocate for the disabled.
“What I have seen as a criminal defense attorney, as a civil rights attorney, is the discrimination against people with disabilities,” he said. “I see the lack of mental health and rehabilitation services so that many of our jails and prisons are now housing people with mental health issues. I want to stop that. I want to fix that as attorney general.”