By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Yehiel “Mark” Kalish is so new to his job that the “Louis Lang State Representative” sign was still painted on the front window of Kalish’s Oakton Street office in Skokie when he arrived for business on a recent Sunday morning.
And Lang, former three-decade occupier of one of the safest legislative seats in the country, will continue to cast a shadow. Kalish would be foolish not to consult with Lang, now a lobbyist. But he is no puppet or raw, wide-eyed rookie. Or a mere gimmick, given his status as the only ordained rabbi to serve as a legislator in the United States.
Kalish, 43, is a well-seasoned operator in the political arena, having served as national director of government affairs of Agudath Israel of America, a national haredi Orthodox advocacy and community organization. Later, Kalish established the S4 Group, a government affairs and business development firm working for private businesses in their dealings with the General Assembly.
And what Kalish does not yet know about the legislative process, he will learn quickly. When he is not taking Lang’s counsel, Kalish merely has to call or text his sister, Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a second-term member of the Colorado House of Representatives. Adding to his unique rabbi-as-rep status, Kalish and Jenet are the only brother-sister combination serving as state legislators in the country.
The proof of Kalish as his own man is, while having a conservative Orthodox background, he is a progressive on many social and economic issues. Although an estimated 30 percent of the 16th District are Orthodox Jews, Kalish knows he represents a huge cross section of ethnic and religious groups in a swath ranging from West Rogers Park, where he lives, to Morton Grove.
Sometimes fate and opportunity combine to form an individual’s new path. Lang had long served as assistant Democratic majority leader and was as entrenched as anyone in Illinois politics. But he had to resign the leadership post in 2018 when he was accused of sexual harassment by Maryann Loncar, an advocate for medical marijuana. Acting General Assembly inspector general Julie Porter said in September there was not enough proof to the claim, adding that Loncar did not cooperate in the investigation.
The charge hardly dented Lang at all. Typically running without opposition, Lang was re-elected in November. But just before the new General Assembly and incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker were seated in January, Lang abruptly resigned. No public explanation was offered, and Kalish does not profess to know the reason. One theory has Lang opting not to come back to Springfield if he’d be bypassed for a leadership post.
“I did not want to be a state legislator,” Kalish admitted, albeit until Lang abdicated, there would have been no near-term opportunity to do so.
“Not only did I not want to be a state legislator, I did not want to be an elected official,” he added. “I always liked my side of the desk. I spoke their language. I understood what was necessary to get certain things done. I loved working in that world. I always assumed I’d be safe working on that side of the desk. The only reason I’m in this position now is Lang is a legend. When he announced his retirement, it shocked me to my core.”
One day, soon after Lang’s announcement, Kalish was in the process of boarding a flight to New York to see a client when he received a call from a friend. He was asked to consider putting forth his qualifications. On a dime, Kalish did a 180 in his mind about public service.
“I said to him on the spot I can win,” he said. “I understood what Lou meant to the community. I understood my contacts in the Jewish world. And knowing the legislative process, I knew what was necessary to get the appointment.
“A couple of other (candidates) tried to present their credentials as soon as possible. My pitch (to Lang and the two other committeemen, Ira Silverstein and Pat O’Connor) was it would be a seamless transition between Lou and me. The district would be well-served with someone coming in two weeks after the legislative session started.
“I said I am going to work hard. I know my way around. I said I would make sure I’d be re-elected. Lou was concerned about his legacy. If it was someone who didn’t know where the bathrooms were, it would be a lost year, and maybe a lost two years.”
A childhood goal started him on the way to preparing for a legislative life.
“From the time I was 11, I wanted to work for Agudath Israel,” Kalish said. “For some reason, my mother ended up on a subscription list, and we’d receive materials from Agudath Israel at home. It was a modern Orthodox home, not a typical haredi home. I would read the materials, and I thought to myself, I could do this.
“I was a fundraiser from the time I could talk. I have an inability to speak publicly without asking for money. When I was a little kid, I was in a play and we had to sell tickets. A typical child sold two tickets to his parents and two tickets to his grandparents. I sold 70 tickets. My father (Alan) was a salesman and my grandfather (Hymie) was a salesman.”
Although he had a keen mind for salesmanship and business, Kalish knew being an ordained rabbi would be a necessity at Agudath Israel. So he obtained his degree in 1999 from the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. After studying Jewish texts at the Cincinnati Community Kollel for three years, Kalish landed his dream job at Agudath Israel and moved back to Chicago. Kalish went from Midwest director to national director of government affairs in just three years.
“I raised $50 million for the organization,” Kalish said.
He’d stay at Agudath Israel until 2014, when he founded the S4 Group. Kalish also participates in Achiezer, a group that provides aid to struggling members of the Orthodox community. He headed up its relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
His first legislative accomplishment at Agudath Israel took place after the 2002 “Spotlight” investigation touched off the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Kalish wanted to boost protections for afflicted children instead of legislative wrath focusing just on clergy.
“It takes 20-plus years for a child who is attacked to be able to come to grips with it,” he said.
A certain amount of schmoozing is necessary in any lobbying and campaign effort. But to Kalish, the first and foremost quality is “honesty.”
“If you are not honest, your career is over. It’s just over and nobody will trust you. The seal of G-d is truth. If you are truthful, it doesn’t matter if you are suave or capable of delivering eloquent speeches or politically astute, you’ll be listened to and you’ll be successful in this realm.”
So why does the public believe a big chunk of elected officials are crooks? After all, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, two consecutive Illinois governors, went to federal prison. Chicago City Council icon Edward Burke was indicted.
“If it bleeds, it leads,” said Kalish. “Why do 99.9 percent of elected officials not get thrown into jail? The vast majority of lobbyists, the vast majority of elected officials, the vast majority of appointed officials are honest, good people. If I hear of someone who does not have an honest reputation, it’s stay away from that guy.”
Even before he could make any mark in the legislature, Kalish has received brickbats from a cynical public.
“I can’t tell you how much garbage I’ve taken (in less than two months),” he said. “People yelling at you, people calling you names, people sending nasty e-mails. I introduced a piece of legislation and it was mistakenly filed. People who know me attacked. Nasty stuff.
“I came out for an anti-gun measure and the Second Amendment people just came, ‘woooff.’ To them, guns are more important than anything else.”
The solution to gun violence? Kalish resorted to a baseball analogy of a poor team looking at what the best in the game does. “If we’re the worst (in gun violence and regulation), let’s look at what the best does, and do that. It’s not rocket science. Why don’t we look at what states with less gun violence are doing and copy them?”
Kalish is working on establishing a state ombudsman, based on his sister’s advocacy in Colorado, to help better fund mental health processes, particularly as they affect children. Lowering prescription drug prices and health costs overall is also central to his agenda.
“Insulin is one of the highest-cost drugs, and it’s a huge deal with me that people are able to afford their medications,” he said.
Overall, Kalish said he can reconcile his personal religious beliefs with his public advocacies.
“I feel no conflicts,” he said. “I will not do anything against my faith. But nothing I’m advocating is against my faith.”
Judaism’s tenets guide two members of his family promoting the same progressive agenda 1,000 miles apart.
“I love my sister,” he said. “The way we like to say it is I’m older, but she was born first.”
Kalish and Jenet have grown out of a youthful sibling rivalry.
“Massive, massive” he said with a huge laugh.
“She is so beyond helpful. She is amazing. We talk regularly. She has been exceedingly helpful to integrate me into a more broad society, something I had basically kept myself away from. She has always been a little bit more out there than I have.
“She was always involved in Jewish and youth groups. She always took mission over money. I think she has the ability to (move to higher office) and I’m going to support her in that. My path will likely be different. I want to be the state representative for the 16th district. You can really do a lot of good for people in this position.”
Now as a working legislator, Kalish can become more active in Democratic politics and analyze the entire national landscape.
Even as an Orthodox Jew, he is not particularly put off by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recently perceived anti-Semitic comments. Kalish said he would not equate Omar’s comments with those in the past by the likes of Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.
“Because of Twitter, we think she’s the worst of the Democratic Party,” he said. “By nature, the Democratic Party is a big tent. You can have Ilhan Omar, Al Sharpton and Yehiel Kalish as part of the same party. This is America. We’re not always going to agree on core principles.”
Although Kalish wants to “see the Democratic Party succeed and get rid of this guy,” he throws up flashing warning lights on the re-election chances of President Donald Trump.
“If you don’t vote or stay home, we get what we deserve,” he said. “I was very public in my support for Hillary Clinton in the last election. I was vilified for it. I said you can’t have a crazy guy running this country.
“But I think the Democratic Party as a whole has gone very far to the left, and that’s a problem for many Orthodox people. Had (Michael) Bloomberg entered the race, he would have received a lot of support from the community.”
Kalish discounts Trump’s consistently underwater approval ratings. His conclusions are sure to generate more angry e-mails.
“I believe he’s going to get re-elected,” he said. “Right now, he wins. Look at the Chicago (mayoral) election. How’d that work out? Twenty people running. The top two got less than 18 percent. Incumbency will help. The economy’s good.
“There’s only one guy who could beat Trump and that’s Bloomberg. And he’s out. I would love if he would re-consider. I don’t think (Joe) Biden can do it this time.
“This has nothing to do with Ilhan Omar and has everything to do with the fractious nature of the Democratic Party.”