When Zeke Cohen and Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer decided to run for the 1st and 5th District seats on the Baltimore City Council this past election, they saw it as a calling.
Never mind that, if successful, it would be the first time two Jewish councilmembers served simultaneously since 1987.
Cohen and Schleifer felt the majority of people in their districts were looking to them for steady guidance and leadership.
Now, at 27 and 31, respectively, Schleifer and Cohen are the two youngest members of the new council, which was officially sworn in along with Mayor Catherine Pugh on Dec. 8.
Whatever political experience they lack, Schleifer and Cohen say they make up for it with what they feel is a full-fledged commitment to understanding the identity of Baltimore at its core.
“Ultimately, we want to sell Baltimore as a city that is safe, has a world-class school system, world-class public transit and where people want to live,” Cohen said. “That means we need to have an eye toward the future.”
With eight Democratic freshmen councilmembers, including Cohen and Schleifer, and a new mayor in Pugh, the city government has undergone a massive makeover, replacing more than 125 years of experience.
At a time when Baltimore continues to combat an enduring number of social, economic and political issues, Cohen and Schleifer feel they can help provide the hope and change Baltimore residents crave.
And the issues are big, with the councilmen highlighting enduring poverty, high unemployment numbers, low public high school graduation rates, high crime levels and accusations of police misconduct. Joining Cohen and Schleifer in this fight are freshman councilmembers Ryan Dorsey in the 3rd District, Leon Pinkett III in the 7th District, Kristerfer Burnett in the 8th District, John Bullock in the 9th District, Robert Stokes Jr. in the 12th District and Shannon Sneed in the 13th District.
“I like to think we all complement each other by dealing with these broad-range issues in the city that affect everyone,” Schleifer said. “As a side note, [Cohen] and I just happen to be Jewish and understand the concerns and needs of the community as a whole.”
Together, with City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young leading the charge, Cohen and Schleifer believe brokering deals with leaders and organizations from the public and private sectors is the best way to proceed.
While the job of a councilmember is regarded as part time, Cohen and Schleifer are treating their positions as full time. The pair, whose offices are next to one another on the fifth floor of City Hall, have hit the ground running during their first month in office.
Their early commitment to putting constituent service at the forefront is something that has already resonated with many veteran councilmembers, creating an energetic atmosphere inside City Hall.
“It’s a joy to walk into the Hall,” said 14th District Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who became the longest-serving member of the council after the retirement of former 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. “There’s all this work going on, positive energy and great optimism for change. I just love the environment with this council; it makes my heart happy.”
In a prepared statement, Pugh, Baltimore’s 50th mayor, told the JT she has “been very impressed by the experiences, ideas and energy both Cohen and Schleifer bring to the council.” She is also “looking forward to partnering with them and working together to move Baltimore forward.”
Schleifer’s Top Issues
Before considering major legislation, Schleifer says he wants to address everyday problems.
A lifelong resident of the 5th District, which includes both traditionally African-American and Jewish neighborhoods such as Cheswolde and Glen in Northwest Baltimore, Schleifer is focused on affordable housing and taxes, bringing the city up to date technologically, improving the lives of seniors and improving public safety, which is his No. 1 priority.
“For as long as I can remember, public safety, preserving and protecting the basic safeties of residents, has been something I take very seriously,” Schleifer said.
The 72nd City Council was sworn into office more than 20 months after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, which set off unrest in various parts of the city.
On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest ever in the city. That year’s 344 homicides was second only to the record of 353 in 1993, when Baltimore had about 100,000 more residents.
While the number of homicides dropped to 318 last year, Schleifer wants to ramp up his public safety efforts. He said he was pleased that Police Commissioner Kevin Davis reinstituted officers to patrol smaller areas in the Northwest last year rather than allowing them to roam larger areas.
Schleifer, a member of the council’s Public Safety Committee, wants to see more initiatives like that throughout the city. He said rebuilding trust between the police and those they serve are pivotal to community relations and can be accomplished through more community walks with officers.
“This is an issue I have been very passionate about for a while,” Schleifer said. “We have first responders who will get to you in two minutes, so I say to everyone, if you’re going to have a heart attack, do it in the 5th District.”
Nathan Willner, president of the Cheswolde Neighborhood Association, has seen firsthand the emphasis Schleifer, former vice president of the association, has placed on making the streets of Baltimore a safer place for all.
“No one has a better pulse on what is going on at all times in the community than Yitzy does,” Willner said. “Not only does he represent the Jewish community, but he has continued to bridge the gap and embrace the diversity we have in our African-American and Muslim communities.”
In addition to his emphasis on public safety, Schleifer is determined to once again fill the city’s vacant homes and neighborhoods.
As the newly appointed vice chairman of the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he will work hand in hand with committee chairman John Bullock to take on that task.
Although Bullock and Schleifer have yet to formally come up with an agenda, Bullock said they plan to push for legislation to create more affordable housing.
“I have known Yitzy for a while, and we both seem to be coming at this committee assignment from a very similar place,” Bullock said. “Working together, I am looking forward to it, because we will come at the issues that persist with our housing [and do] what’s right for the city.”
In an interview with the JT, City Council President Young said he has laid out plans with leaders from the nonprofit and private sectors to improve the quality of life for Baltimoreans, starting with housing.
For instance, Young said, he is working on a deal with Details Deconstruction, a nonprofit that puts people to work deconstructing vacant houses. If completed, the partnership would create six to eight times more jobs than a demolition project, Young said.
Schleifer is also bullish on pushing to make expenses such as water and housing bills more affordable for seniors, given the growth of that population in the Northwest specifically.
In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey, the last comprehensive study of the community, there were an estimated 3,900 Jewish seniors in Baltimore older than age 85, an increase of 166 percent from 1999.
Because many people are living longer lives, Schleifer, a former Edward A. Myerberg Center board member, said it’s imperative to find the right solutions for those people sooner rather than later.
“I am very passionate about the aging population, because it makes up a very large portion of the constituent base,” Schleifer said. “I’ve always wanted to help people age in place and have made sure we’ve had enough senior housing for our aging population. I am pushing hard for something like this because that can be an immediate fix.”
Cohen’s Focus on the Youth
A Canton resident, Cohen is steadfast in his desire to focus on public transportation, improve the Baltimore City Public School system, increase wages for workers and create jobs for youth.
As chairman of the Youth and Education committee, he said one of the first things he plans to push is locally owned businesses hiring from within the area.
Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, a nonprofit that has helped more than 30 high school students earn college scholarships, understands that training students for such skills starts in the classroom.
“There is value to be had in hiring locally, and we know the benefit of hiring a workforce that is local, approximate and already knows the area,” said Cohen, whose district stretches from Harbor East to the city-county line in Dundalk and includes Southeast Baltimore. “What that requires is that our school system and government step up and deliver a better quality education and that our business sector steps up and makes that investment in our youth.”
Clarke was originally selected by Young to serve as chairwoman of the Youth and Education Committee but deferred to Cohen “because he has a passion for working with and helping young people.”
Young said he hopes Cohen works closely with Pugh to assume greater local control of the city school system, which has received increasing state oversight — and funding — since 1997.
“Because Zeke is the chair of the Youth and Education Committee, I want to see him hold the school system to the fire on budget issues,” Young said. “It’s imperative our children perform at a high level, and I want our schools to be held to the highest standards possible.”
Patterson Park resident Robbyn Lewis, who met Cohen when he started his council campaign two years ago, said Cohen’s background in racial, educational and socioeconomic issues make him an ideal person to do just that.
“The first thing I noticed about Zeke when we met was his sincerity, kindness and thoughtfulness,” Lewis said. “He’s a person you want to know, and he is a mensch in every sense of the word. Zeke lives what he preaches.”
Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and a resident of Patterson Park in Cohen’s district, said he is confident Cohen will make good on his promise to fight for youth, among other things.
“What we are all looking for Zeke to bring is the same type of zeal, enthusiasm and tenacious advocacy that he brought to his campaign and nonprofit work in the city,” Conner said. “When people think about Zeke, they think about how hard he fights for the things he’s very passionate about and [how he listens to] their concerns and what changes they want to see.”
The City Balloons and Deflates
No matter how Cohen and Schleifer plan to carry out their initiatives, the effects will certainly have a great impact on the city’s growing Jewish population.
The number of Jewish households in the city, particularly in the Orthodox community, have increased in recent years.
In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Survey, more than three in 10 Jews identified as Orthodox, a percentage that more than doubles what Pew Research Center found at the national level. Additionally, the Greater Baltimore Jewish Community survey found that the number of Jews living in Baltimore County between 1999 and 2010 declined by 5,900 but increased by 7,800 in the city.
That’s a stark contrast to the trend of the city, where the population has experienced a steady decline. Baltimore was the nation’s sixth-largest city in 1950, home to about 950,000 people. During the succeeding six decades, though, it has lost nearly a third of the population and leveled off at a little more than 600,000 residents this past year.
Given the increase of Jewish Orthodox families in his district, specifically the Park Heights corridor, Schleifer — the first Orthodox Jew on the council in decades — is regarded as the face of that community.
“He’s really trying to unite the diverse community members in the district to work together to make the district as good as it can be,” Willner said.
In the 1st District, there has also been rapid growth.
Whereas Schleifer’s district has seen an increase of many Jewish families, Cohen’s district is seen as a hub where many young working professionals settle.
Nate Pretl, 33, who lives on Patterson Park Avenue at Fleet Street on the border of Canton and Fells Point, said he feels Cohen is focused foremost on the needs of the city.
“Even though the 1st District is one of the wealthiest in the city, if not the wealthiest, Zeke doesn’t think about just the needs of his district specifically, but every district,” Pretl said. “Things that are going to help his constituents are really things that are going to help everyone in the city.”
On some controversial issues, such as $15-per-hour minimum wage proposal, Cohen has pledged to take a more progressive approach than his predecessor, Jim Kraft, who voted against the bill in August.
Clarke, the bill’s lead sponsor, said she plans to introduce this month a proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 by January 2022. After that point, it would continue to rise with the cost of living. Her legislation would also call for increased pay for tipped workers, who currently earn $3.63 per hour.
Cohen said he backs the measure — with an exemption for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income — asserting that it would help increase the wages of the working poor.
This past August, Clarke’s legislation, first introduced last April, failed to generate enough votes needed for passage from the council, which instead voted 8-6 with one abstention to return the bill to committee.
“We need to have a robust conversation about wages and labor and what is appropriate,” Cohen said. “People from labor, residents, City Hall and businesses all need a seat at the table. We need to do this in a way that doesn’t harm small local businesses and doesn’t make Baltimore uncompetitive with local jurisdictions.”
Schleifer, on the other hand, said he would not comment on any pending legislation until it is brought up for a vote.
For his part, Schleifer said he would like to see term limits for councilmembers, a measure that was supported by several members of the previous council before ultimately falling short at a hearing.
Schleifer said he would be in favor of limits of either three or four four-year terms.
By enacting term limits, Schleifer feels it would breed new generations of political leaders who otherwise may not be as engaged in the political process.
“I want to live every day like it’s our last day in office,” Schleifer said. “That’s why I want to encourage our youth to take our positions one day, and I want to encourage them to be engaged and be part of the political process. I want to show them that if they are as involved in the community as I am, they can be the leaders of their generation.”