Vouchers - a Jewish Story




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by Avraham Makofsky

Henry was at his desk studying the bill.. He picked up the phone as it rang.

Doris, his secretary, said Mr. Levy wanted to see him for a few minutes. Henry groaned at the prospect of talking to the back-slapping, voluble president of the synagogue board, but got up from the seat to greet his visitor..

“I know you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you from your work,” Levy said.

“I came to talk to you about the voucher thing. I was disappointed how you voted in the committee. You and Gittel belong to our synagogue-how can you be against the bill when it will help us bring more children to our Community School?”

“Yankel, if people want to send their children to our synagogue school, that‘s fine with me. I don‘t think tax money should pay their tuition.”

”But you don’t have to stop the bill from passing, “Levy protested. “Just don’t vote!”

“Even politicians can have principles,” Henry replied. “Vouchers hurt public education and I will vote against them.”

“All I know is that you are hurting us, and I ‘ll remember that,” Levy said, rising from his chair He walked out without another word.

Henry leaned back on his chair and smiled at some passing thoughts. He could have asked me why I belong to the synagogue and help pay for the school but won’t enroll my child there. Mr. Cohen, don‘t you believe in a solid Jewish education? Yes, but… Doris knocked, opened the door , and spoke quickly, “Jim Carey’s coming pronto to see you.”

No sooner said than Carey was in the room. The majority whip, once Henry’s close friend but now somewhat distant, pulled a chair close to the desk.

“Henry, you’ve got to stop this crap. The party wants the voucher bill but you voted against it in committee and you rounded up people to defeat it. Well, we got it to the floor anyhow. So vote against it, but why do you have to line up people to vote your way?”

They were really once buddy-buddy, Henry thought. He remembered Joe as a youthful, cheerful, dyed-in -the-wool liberal, and now Joe seemed driven, anxious. “Well, you know my principles, Joe. I’m stuck with them and I’ll fight for them.”

“You could be in the leadership too, Henry. You’re smart, you have a following, but the guys up front don’t trust you. You’re unreliable.”

Henry laughed. “I think you know better, Joe. You can predict the kind of bill I will support and the kind I will be against. And if it’s important enough I will work to have the chamber vote my way.”

Joe shook his head, almost sadly. “So, they’ll play hardball. And it will hurt.”

That’s the second threat in one afternoon, he thought. They must be having trouble getting their commitments. He reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and took out a sheet of paper . There were three names on the list, all of whom had so far said they were undecided.. He had talked with them two days ago and they still maintained their status of uncertainty. Maybe they were looking for better offers from Carey. Anyhow the vote was scheduled for tomorrow and he’d better talk with them right away. He picked Jake Foster for his first chat; Jake was conservative on most things, but Jake’s daughter was teaching in a city school and she was a union member..

He dialed the number and Jake’s secretary laughed when he asked to talk to her boss. She said that Mr. Carey was talking to Jake but she would tell him I called. In a few minutes there was a return call from Jake.

“Carey’s offering me a judgeship,” Jake said. “ I think I prefer my daughter’s respect. And you’re a good guy, Henry. So I’m officially still undecided.”

That sounded like a safe vote. Henry said, “Let’s get together when the vote’s over with. We can go to a ball game, listen to music, whatever…”

Bob Zwerling was next on his list. The guy was a political scientist on leave from his university, and he belonged to an Orthodox congregation that had a day school where his wife taught. This was Zwerling’s first term as a legislator and when the voucher issue first emerged in the Education Committee where both Bob and Henry were members, Joe Carey took him out to dinner several times.

Henry thought he had a better plan for explaining his views to the new member; he asked Gittel to invite Mrs. Zwerling and her husband for dinner. Of course Gittel kept a kosher kitchen, and was known as a gourmet cook. The Zwerlings accepted the invitation and the two women were now close friends. In any event, Henry got Bob to vote his way when the Committee acted on the voucher bill.

But party whips have to be indefatigable and Henry was sure that Carey would not concede a single vote. Also, the whip had perks to offer and Zwerling clearly hoped to be a rising star. Bob was in his office and even picked up the phone when Henry called. “Joe‘s been here,” Zwerling said. “He says he can get me on the Higher Education subcommittee, maybe even make me chairman. My university president would love that. But I‘m still undecided, really.”. Henry understood that the odds might be against him in getting Bob’s vote but he liked his colleague’s openness.

His last choice for this day’s lobbying was Marta Garcia, a second- term delegate representing a poor Latino-populated area of the city. Marta-- or Marty as everyone called her--had grown up in the same district, attended the public schools of that area, and worked her way through college and law school. Once, over lunch, Henry had mentioned some pending legislative issues and asked Marty her opinion on these matters, Marty told him she had one standard: “Is it good for my people?” Henry was tempted to ask how she found out what was good for her people, but decided that this might sound insulting Henry called Marty‘s office.

The secretary said her boss was out, was expected back soon and she would ask her to return the call. He busied himself with various matters and got absorbed thinking about an education bill he intended to introduce. When he checked the time, he found that over an hour had passed since he called Marty. He thought about that for a few moments and decided there was no point in phoning again. She would know about Henry’s message; failing to respond could well be her way of saying she would vote for vouchers.

He told Doris he was going home and would be there the rest of the evening.

Driving, he felt depressed and guilty, depressed because it looked like he was going to lose, and guilty because a little more campaigning might have turned the tide But then he forgot about vouchers and guilt; he rejoiced that he was on his way home. As soon as he parked the car in the garage, his spirits lifted. He was home. Gitttel would be ready with a delicious meal and they and their 15 year old son would be laughing and swapping stories about their day.

After dinner he read the paper, watched the ball game on TV with his son, and then went into the study to think about his agenda for the morrow.

At 10pm, the phone rang. It was Doris. She was as involved as he in this battle, as she was in all of his campaigns. She wanted him to know that Marty hadn’t called back, and maybe he ought to try her at home. No, he said. Marty understands what we want and there was no point in pestering colleagues. It looked like Joe had apparently rounded up a majority and if that‘s how it is, then so be it.

Henry came to his office early the next day to put together a draft of a bill that would define the state’s responsibilities in local programs dealing with special education. About twenty minutes before the scheduled opening of the session he put his papers away, walked to the House chamber, greeted friends among the delegates and took his seat. He looked around to see if his three undecided were in their seats, and they were.

He looked up in the Visitor’s Gallery and every seat seemed to be taken. Maybe Gittel would be there. He assumed that union people would be part of the crowd , but there would also be faithful followers of the religious right. He was certain that it was the latter group that had persuaded his party leadership to support a bill which they often in the past rejected.

In a little while the Speaker gaveled for order. The Chaplain gave the invocation and then the Clerk announced the next order of business--a vote by the Delegate Assembly on a bill that would allow vouchers to be given to parents who wished to enroll their school-age children in accredited private schools. Delegates’ names would be called alphabetically and the delegate would vote electronically by means of a device on each desk where three buttons: green for “yes’, red for “no” and white to abstain. The vote and the tally summing up the pro and con totals after each vote would be recorded on a giant tote board visible to all members of the Assembly.

Henry experienced the usual butterfly-in-stomach sensation when he was engaged in an issue about which he had strong feelings. He always hoped for a strong start in his favor, but this time it was the other way around; the first three votes were for the bill. He felt a twinge of disappointment. When they got around to “Cohen” he pressed hard on the red button. At that point the totals were somewhat discouraging, 14 in favor and 11 opposed. The Clerk’s droning call reached “Foster” and Henry smiled with pleasure as Jake’s “no” was recorded; that brought his side one vote closer, 29 for and 27 against. Henry’s roving eye saw Joe Carey walk to Marty’s desk and engage her in conversation. He could not see her reaction. A few minutes later Marty’s’s name was sounded and Henry moved to the edge of his seat. He leaped with joy when “no” was listed.

He promised himself that he would forever be indebted to that young colleague, and he noted that the totals now were 41 in favor, 40 opposed. Henry remained at the edge of his seat as names were called and the lead changed from one side to the other . There was an air of great excitement in the Chamber, and some people in the gallery began to cheer as votes were announced. The Speaker warned the visitors that cheering was prohibited. Zwerling was the last name to be called and before he voted the tally was 70 against and 70 in favor.

The final vote would be climactic. Bob made his choice and Harry leaped from his seat again when the board said his answer was “no”; the final count was 71 against and 70 for. The Speaker announced the defeat of the school voucher bill. A huge throng of delegates streamed toward Harry, wanting to congratulate him. He responded with handshakes and thank you, hoping all the while to get to the three friends who saved the day for him. Finally the mass in front of him dispersed and he hurried to his office, hugged Doris, and told her to call the three and ask them to see him after lunch.

When they were all seated he pulled bottles of Scotch and wine out of a file cabinet, found glasses in his desk and, Marty included, toasted their success. After a few sips and some chatter, Henry spoke.

“I want to give each of you a gift of whatever you want for the gutsy stand you took today. You understand , I mean something reasonable and within my power to offer. Who wants to claim what?”

“I know what I want,” Bob said, “Invite my wife and me to dinner at your home.” Then , turning to his colleagues, ”If you have never eaten food prepared by Gittel then you do not know how food will taste in the garden of eden,”

“Henry promised to take me to a ball game,“ Jake said, “but I think Mrs. Foster and I would like to see what a taste of heaven would be like“ “Since I’m hoping the wedding bells will ring for me soon,” Marty interjected, “I could learn a lot at that dinner party. I won’t bring my intended though; he might regret his choice if I can’t match what Mrs. Cohen prepares.”

“Great, and Gittel will be in touch with all of you to pick a date,“ Henry said ,“but we can’t be satisfied with one little victory. Now, how about co-sponsoring my bill on special education?”

The author is a retired professor of social work and anthropology who writes stories dealing with social issues.


from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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