By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The professional divorce between Lou Lang and Rabbi Yehiel “Mark” Kalish may be one of the most bizarre in Illinois’ byzantine political history.
The concept of longtime legislative powerhouse Lang dropping support of Kalish, his hand-picked successor as 16th District Illinois state representative, after only six months, appears nearly unprecedented. So much so that both Kalish and Denyse Wang Stoneback — Lang’s replacement challenger to Kalish in next year’s Democratic primary — are circumspect, at best, in commenting on the astounding split.
“It is an unusual situation,” was Stoneback’s only comment on the very odd series of events.
Kalish’s mostly public silence on the process stands in stark contrast to a torrent of criticism that has descended upon him.
Kalish said he did not want to engage in a “Jew vs. Jew” verbal war of “he said-he said” with 16th District Democratic committeeman Lang. And yet the only rabbi to serve in any legislative body in the country has apparently not answered to anyone’s satisfaction why he declined to vote “yes” on the Reproductive Health Act, Illinois’ answer to strict anti-abortion bills recently enacted in red states like Alabama. Lang was pro-choice for his entire career, and expected his handpicked successor to follow that philosophy on votes.
Back stories of Lang’s and Kalish’s past relationships, Kalish’s lobbyist history, a sexual harassment charge against Lang that was dropped for insufficient evidence, backstage efforts of pressure groups and odd contradictions underlay the issue.
The Lang-Kalish affair has gotten comparatively little media attention taking place in a district encompassing two outlying Chicago wards, along with Skokie, Lincolnwood and a slice of Morton Grove. Had it occurred in a fashionable or news making part of Chicago, the tussle would have generated more heat in the downtown dailies and the city’s broadcast outlets.
Kalish backed a generally progressive legislative agenda. But Lang cites Kalish’s “present” vote on the reproductive rights bill, and his tabling of a gun-control bill on carrying weapons into houses of worship, as the cornerstones for his turning to Stoneback to support in 2020.
Lang said Kalish bowed to right wingers and the National Rifle Association for his quick hook of the gun bill. Constituent critics have torn into Kalish’s Orthodox Jewish beliefs stated as his reason for voting “present” as failing to adhere to support for the separation of church and state.
In response, Kalish has said he is pro-choice and regards the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion ruling as “settled law,” same as Justice Brett Kavanagh did during his contentious confirmation hearings. Kalish also said he hopes the NRA gives him an “F” in its rating of legislators.
At times, Kalish dealing with the fallout of his votes has gotten truly bizarre.
At a Kalish town hall meeting at the Lincolnwood Public Library, five protestors appeared in the front row dressed in the17th-century-style red robes and white headdresses of the ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ a popular TV series about a future dystopian theocratic Christian America in which fertile women are subjugated. Such protestors have been a common site at the statehouses where attempted abortion rollbacks have taken place, but never at an event where a Jew has been the featured speaker.
Looking toward next year’s primary, Kalish said he will employ his past fund-raising skills to go up against Lang’s Democratic organization. He brands the effort “David vs. Goliath.”
Interestingly, Lang projects Kalish will get the support of the state’s most powerful Democrat – House Speaker Michael Madigan. “He always supports incumbents,” said Lang.
The story of Lang to Kalish to Stoneback began when Lang won yet another term last November to the state legislature, where he had been assistant Democratic leader. After 32 years, no Republican dared oppose him, with Lang’s name the only candidate for whom constituents could cast votes. He had one of the safest seats in the country at the state or federal level.
But just two months after the election, with a new legislative session looming, Lang abruptly resigned to join a Chicago lobbying firm with, oddly, some Republican clients. Lang branded his departure a “retirement.” The decision came after he had to vacate his House leadership role while the harassment charges were being investigated. Only Lang knows if that incident played a role in his fast departure — if he sensed he would not be restored to his old leadership job.
Illinois law does not provide for special elections to fill a sudden legislative opening, as at the federal level. So the district committeemen have the power to fill an opening once a term starts. Lang cooperated in the task with former State Sen. Ira Silverstein, the 50th Ward Democratic committeeman, and counterpart Pat O’Connor of the 40th Ward. But with the district’s votes weighted in favor of Lang, he had the loudest voice in the choice of his successor.
Kalish was a Philadelphia native who spent his high school years in Skokie and most recently has lived in West Rogers Park. He headed fundraising efforts for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox lobbying group, and then headed his own firm, S4 Group LLC, which established relationships in the state legislature to advance clients’ interests.
Kalish and Lang were no strangers when the former threw his hat, along with community activist Stoneback, into the ring among 23 candidates for Lang’s job in January. Winning out among the big field, Kalish described Lang as his “mentor.”
Lang recalled the interview process that he conducted, along with Silverstein, for Kalish and all the other candidates.
“We grilled them very hard,” he said. “We asked them all sorts of questions about issues, their background in the Democratic party and public service. We got them all to commit that they were going to support gun-safety legislation, be pro-choice, be interested in the fair tax and be pro-infrastructure. They’d have a voting record that looked like mine. I had represented the district for 32 years and my legacy was important to me.”
In the end, Lang said he felt Kalish was the best candidate, considering his support of Lang’s core issues. Lang sat down with Kalish a second time. From the start, though, Kalish’s status as an Orthodox rabbi needed to be discussed more.
“I was the senior elected Jewish legislator, if not the top Jewish official in the state,” Lang said. “I wanted him to understand the separation of church and state. He gave me that assurance. I in turn gave Silverstein and my organization that assurance.”
“Many in my organization and in pro-choice and education groups were concerned about that appointment. But I convinced them because of (Kalish’s) promises to me that they had nothing to worry about.”
Kalish then went to Springfield generally supporting the progressive causes in which Lang believed. “His voting record was good,” Lang said. A month into his service, he introduced House Bill 3023, which would add places of worship to where guns would be banned under the state’s Concealed Carry Act. Reports had circulated for a while that some Orthodox worshippers had brought side arms into synagogues in the wake of synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego, and the rise of white nationalism.
Two weeks later, Kalish moved to table HB 3023, and the House concurred.
“There was pushback,” Lang said. “It looked like a cave to right wingers and the NRA in a district that’s 85 percent pro-gun safety.”
Although Kalish would not comment on the gun bill, other than to say he wishes he would flunk an NRA endorsement, a source said the legislator felt he had filed the bill incorrectly. The actual intent was to bar concealed weapons from houses of worship — unless the congregation head granted permission.
Before Kalish took a mostly “no-comment” approach to the hot-button issue, he explained why he tabled the bill to WSIL-TV, the ABC affiliate for the Carbondale market in southern Illinois.
“The goal is safety and not to take away guns. That’s not my goal. That’s not who I am,” Kalish told the TV station. He said he got help from the Legislative Reference Bureau, a legal agency that assists legislators to craft their bills.
“There is a very important phrase that the Legislative Reference Bureau left out,” Kalish said. “The key language is, ‘…unless the presiding official or officials allow concealed weapons.'”
Kalish’s tabled gun bill attracted some attention, but nothing compared to the reaction he received after he first said he would back the Reproductive Health Act, then voted “present” as one of 10 Democrats to not vote “yes.”
Community outrage from the predominately liberal, Democratic voters of the 16th District descended on Kalish’s communication channels. His office shut off his phone and Twitter feed.
“It’s the most politically-charged issue in the district,” Lang said of reaction to Kalish’s vote in the wake of the more restrictive anti-abortion bills in red states. “People in the district and the (Democratic organization) were outraged. They thought I sanctioned this. But I am not responsible for his votes.”
Kalish publicly said that as the vote for the RHA approached, his Orthodox conscience took over and he could not cast a “yes” vote. Although he has said he is still “pro-choice,” a source said Kalish does not back a blanket right to an abortion.
The source also said Kalish was upset that of the 10 Democrats who did not back the bill, he was the only one who was singled out by pro-choice advocacy groups. The implication was his religious beliefs were the reason for the criticism.
“I had to make a decision what to do about this,” Lang said. “My decision was that I could no longer automatically support him. In response, I put together a process in my organization to determine who we would support in the district in the 2020 election. I did not announce we were not for Kalish.
“What I did was put together a transparent process: a committee in the organization to vet candidates.”
So the bizarre nature of the Kalish-Lang split played out further – another group of candidates making their sales pitch, just a half-year after the original set of interviews.
“Anyone interested needed to submit themselves,” said Lang. “Kalish did not submit himself to the process.“ Stoneback was one of 14 candidates this time, and won the endorsement.
“I did have a lot of people encouraging me,” Stoneback said. “Right now, I’m very pleased to get Lang’s support. I can say he thinks I can do a good job representing the district.”
Meanwhile, Kalish believed, as the incumbent, that he should not have to go through another vetting session.
“It’s unprecedented as far as I know,” Lang said of the quick hook on an incumbent. “Why his change of heart? He has given different answers to different people. He told me he intended to keep his word to me, but then couldn’t.
“His (religious) conscience got to him. I have great respect for his Orthodox training and conscience. The premise on his appointment was he would support (Lang’s philosophies). If he had said to me, I can’t vote for pro-choice bills, then I could have decided not to appoint him. Yehiel and I are friends, and will continue to be friends win or lose. But you can’t tell people (in the 16th District) you aren’t pro-choice.
“If it was just his personal commitment to me, it’s one thing. But he also made a commitment to 108,000 people (in the district). It’s not my personal anger that’s at play. He made a public commitment to all those people and to the173 people in the House Democratic Caucus.”
Kalish probably did not do himself any favors in his upcoming primary battle against Stoneback with his handling of the town hall meeting in Lincolnwood.
A volley of questions from the audience in the standing-room-only meeting area centered around Kalish going against the church vs. state separation and his trustworthiness in switching positions on the RHA.
“You have to decide whether you are serving your constituents or serving your religion,” was the most pointed audience member’s comment. “If you have a crisis of faith, consider resignation.”
Another commenter was equally upset: “You were pro-choice. You were unwilling to go against the wishes of a small minority. I feel betrayed and lied to.”
In response, Kalish declined to specifically say what parts of the RHA prompted him to vote present. He urged those in attendance to arrange a one-on-one appointment with him for the explanation.
“It became clear to me that my Orthodox Jewish values were not aligned with core parts of the bill,” Kalish told the gathering. “In the end I voted ‘present.’ I did not vote ‘against’ the bill. It was a religious conscience (decision). Some feel upset and angry. My biggest mistake with the RHA was not being in touch with my true position on the bill from the start and I am sorry.”
During the town hall, Kalish did not acknowledge the quintet of protestors in the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ outfits just feet away. The protesters appeared to bow their heads during the hour-plus meeting while not interacting with anyone.
Kalish also drew criticism for past political contributions to Republicans like former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam. In response, Kalish said he has backed far many more Democrats than Republicans.
Left out of the charged discussion was Kalish’s tabling of the gun bill. No one knows how the audience would have reacted had he repeated an opinion given to Chicago Jewish News in a wide-ranging interview earlier this year: that President Donald Trump has a decent chance of re-election. Kalish said many Orthodox Jews were given good reports on Trump from Jews who had dealt with Trump on business and other matters prior to his 2016 election.
Lang agreed about Trump’s reelection chances, but little else.
“Anyone who thinks Donald Trump is doing a good job as president is smoking what we just legalized,” he said. “He is racist, xenophobic and provides a terrible image for our country.
“But Donald Trump may well win a second term because the Democratic Party seems divided with more than 20 candidates for president. The party seems polarized. Unless it gets its act together, it’s leaving the door open (for Trump’s re-election). A second term means one or more (new Supreme Court justices) and he’ll wreck the country for years to come.”
Despite Lang’s passion about national politics, his main focus is getting Skokie resident Stoneback, a non-Jew who is an independent contractor working in educational publishing, over the top in the primary. She has her own gun-safety activist base, “People for a Safer Society,” which Kalish may not be able to duplicate. And judging from the reaction at the town hall, his non-vote for the RHA may follow him in every public appearance on the stump.
Stoneback is not concerned if Madigan decides to back Kalish. A Southwest Sider, Madigan does not appear to have a huge pull in the near north suburbs.
“The people of the 16th District need to decide this election,” Stoneback said.
Now opposing a man with whom he has had a long and harmonious relationship, Lang does not walk around clouded in second thoughts about his original decision to pick Kalish.
“Frankly, we did everything right,” Lang said. “We picked a candidate who had to wrestle with a few issues in his head. His conscience won out over his commitments. Some say why can’t he be forgiven for this? Because he made a commitment.”