While it wasn’t a clean sweep for Jewish candidates in the May 16 primaries, the overall showing was a strong one.
Former 43-year state Rep. Mark Cohen, Vikki Kristiansson and Zac Shaffer were among the nine victorious Democrats in the 27-person Court of Common Pleas First Judicial District race.
Meantime, Rebecca Rhynhart upset incumbent Alan Butkovitz for city controller, while Ellen Ceisler topped six candidates vying for two openings on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
Finally, the Democratic battle to replace embattled Seth Williams as Philadelphia’s district attorney went to Larry Krasner, the son of a secular Jew, who defeated, among others, Michael Untermeyer. He’ll be opposed in November by Republican Beth Grossman, who ran unchallenged.
While none of the winners can take office until January 2018 — following expected victories in the November election — that will likely prove a formality in heavily Democratic Philadelphia. The only Republican on the Court of Common Pleas ballot, Vincent Furlong, also won the Democratic bid, while Rhynhart figures to be a heavy favorite over Republican Mike Tomlinson.
In fact, the only competitive race to emerge from the primaries will likely center on the Krasner-Grossman contest. The powerful Fraternal Order of Police chastised Krasner’s campaign after his supporters were caught on camera chanting anti-police slogans at his primary victory party. The union held out the possibility that it might back Grossman.
In her statewide race, Ceisler’s taking nothing for granted, vowing to make visits throughout Pennsylvania to increase her recognition.
“I really have to keep working,” said the Mount Airy resident, who led the crowded field with 24 percent of the vote, followed by Pittsburgh’s Irene McLaughlin Clark at 20 percent. “There were some places I didn’t get to I want to visit now.
“I had tremendous support in all counties in Southeast Pennsylvania,” added Ceisler. “And there was a greater turnout of Democrats because of what happened last November. I’ve found people know they can no longer afford to be complacent.”
She said serving on Commonwealth Court, an appellate level body that hears cases concerning state government agencies, would give her a unique opportunity to make a difference.
“The role of Commonwealth Court insures that individuals’ civil rights are protected,” said Ceisler, who’ll face Republicans Paul Lalley and Christine Fizzano Cannon in November. “It’s the only state court like it that handles nothing but government policy issues.”
Meanwhile, Rhynhart, an Abington native who became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, is eager to handle Philadelphia’s finances. Mayor Michael Nutter’s former budget director — and later Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief administrative officer — said she can save the city money that could instead fund the needs of children and the less affluent.
“A minimum of $10 million could be found and put toward our schools and rec centers and other needs of the community and yet not have the next tax increase,” Rhynhart said. “Government needs to operate more effectively. We owe that to the people of the city.”
She said that mentality comes from her Jewish upbringing.
“The idea of mitzvah and doing good is important,” said Rhynhart, whose mother is Jewish. “It really resonates with me every day. I look at Philadelphia as a city where there’s so much vibrancy and divergence. We need to make sure government works for everyone.”
That’s the same way Kristiansson and Cohen want the judicial system to operate.
“If we’re going to have judges who are good at their jobs, they need to understand the law and the community they’re serving.” said Kristiansson, who works for AEquitas, which helps prosecutors work with women and children victimized by violent crime. “An important part of that is listening and taking in information and making adjustments accordingly.
“The idea of ‘loving thy neighbor’ has always stayed with me.”
For Cohen, going to Harrisburg as a state representative was the constant in his life since the 1970s until he was defeated in a bitter 2016 race by Jared Solomon.
“Obviously, being judge is a different job than state legislature and a more intense job,” said Cohen, a longtime member of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. “I don’t have to run all over the city and the state any more, but it’s more challenging and intellectually stimulating.”
A spot on the bench, should he win in November, will always remind Cohen of his Jewish identity.
“Judaism is about justice — about understanding people’s role in the world created by God,” he explained. “Following Jewish teaching gives one valuable experience, which can help make a good public official.”
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