April 29, 2020


There is a difference between overdoing and undoing, as appointed state Representative Yehiel Mark Kalish (D-16) learned to his immense chagrin on March 17.

Kalish, an ordained rabbi, lost to Denyse Wang Stoneback by 1,950 votes, despite raising a whopping $734,397 during 2019-20. What Kalish overdid in fund-raising was offset by what Kalish undid by his 2019 vote on the Illinois Reproductive Health Act, which codified abortion rights.

Kalish voted "present" - an "act of conscience," he said - and Senate Bill 25 got 64 House votes, four more than needed for passage. "My vote was irrelevant," said Kalish. "It passed anyway."

But it was very relevant back in Kalish's Illinois 16th House District, which includes 45 precincts in Chicago, 39 in the West Rogers Park 50th Ward, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population, with more than a dozen synagogues in the southwest of the ward, including Kalish's Congregation Shaarei Tzedek Mishkan Yair at Touhy-California, where he is the Cantor. And 5 more precincts in the southeastern 40th Ward. Suburban Niles Township has 32 precincts, including all of Lincolnwood and most of Skokie, both of which have sizeable Jewish populations and also many Asians, along with Asian Indians, Muslims and Hispanics.

"My voting record is identical to that of (district state senator) Ram Villivalam (D-8), a 'progressive' hero, except for one 'present' vote," lamented Kalish, who chose to be politically incorrect just once on the wrong issue at the wrong time.

Beware those who let "conscience" interfere with correctness.

That vote infuriated a whole bunch of Democrats, including 32-year predecessor Lou Lang, who called it a "violation of his commitment" to be pro-choice, it being understood that (Kalish) would "share my values" in Springfield and "have a voting record just like mine." In short, be an ideological puppet with no deviation allowed. Others disparaged him as a "liar." Stoneback said he "can't be trusted to keep his word." All indicated mega-regret over his appointment to Lang's seat, which was at that time heralded as a TRIUMPH OF DIVERSITY: The first rabbi ever in the Illinois House.

Lang, then deputy majority leader, resigned Jan. 19, 2019 after unfounded #MeToo allegations arose, but he remained as township Democratic committeeperson - and engineered Kalish's pick.

Lang, the day after May 28's vote, promptly began un-engineering it. He tasked a township "search committee" to find a 2020 Kalish primary foe, and the choice was Stoneback, an Asian-American woman from Skokie who is a social media consultant and founder of an anti-gun group. The March 17 vote was 7,749 (41.1 percent) for Stoneback and 5,799 (31.1 percent) for Kalish, with 4,407 votes for Kevin Olickal, a protŽgŽ of Villivalam. "I would have gotten most of" Olickal's vote, said Kalish.

That's ridiculous. The primary was a plebiscite on Kalish, and the anti- or non-Kalish vote was 68.9 percent in a turnout of 18,583.

Kalish, however, did well in his Orthodox Jewish base, getting 44.9 percent of the Chicago vote and carrying his home 50th Ward 4,962-3,158-1,610, or 45.7 percent. Kalish won 20 of the ward's 39 precincts, carrying 14 with percentages of 60-plus (8), 70-plus (2), 80-plus (3) and 90-plus (1). But Stoneback did reasonably well, winning a majority in six, and a plurality over Kalish in 13 more. Stoneback came out of Chicago down 822 votes in 45 precincts, in a 9,264 turnout.

But Niles Township's 32 precincts, with a 9,319 turnout, changed the game.

The suburban vote was 4,416-2,631-1,644, or 50.8-30.3-18.9 percent, with Kalish last. Stoneback won 27 precincts with a majority or plurality. Kalish won 3 with a majority, all being in east Lincolnwood where Mayor Barry Bass had endorsed him. Stoneback came out of the suburbs up 2,772 votes. Overall, Stoneback raised $315,977, and Olickal $213,481 - amounts dwarfed by Kalish's $734,397. But money is not an eraser.

Lang early promised to "do whatever it takes" to beat Kalish, and he, Speaker Mike Madigan and pro-choice groups did precisely that. Kalish learned some hard lessons.

LESSON NUMBER ONE: "If you're explaining, you're losing," said Kalish. That's exactly what he had to do. The entire narrative of the campaign was Kalish's SB 25 non-vote. As Lang said and his allies repeated endlessly: "A 'present' vote is the same as a 'no' vote." Instead of using his cash and incumbency to early and quickly define himself, Kalish let himself BE DEFINED as anti-abortion, a Republican, and as a rabbi who should stick to religion, not politics.

Kalish tried a mea culpa, expressing at several public forums that he "made a mistake by not being in touch with my true position earlier." If you're BOTH explaining AND apologizing, then you're really, really losing.

A deluge of primary mailers ensued, the gist of which was that Kalish was (1) "opposed to women's reproductive rights" by not voting for SB 25, was (2) a Republican because his lobbying firm, the S4 Group, donated to a Republican congressman and governor, and was (3) unfit to be a legislator because he "voted his conscience" instead of "voting the district," based on the premise that Democratic primary voters in the 16th District are very liberal and pro-choice, and that he should vote at all times as they wish, not as he wishes.

"I expected him (Kalish) to carry on my legacy," said Lang, on issues like choice, guns, gay rights, labor and taxes. Maybe Lang should not have quit, or given his job to his daughter (which was rumored).

Still, money cannot erase a negative image and it can only muddy-up an opponent's image. "I refused to run a negative campaign," said Kalish. But, as newcomers, Stoneback and Olickal, had no public record to attack anyway. So Kalish's 15-plus mailers were all introductory. To try to explain his SB 25 vote would only compound the problem by making it better known.

LESSON NUMBER TWO: Once a Jewish seat is not forever a Jewish seat.

"It's a Jewish seat," said former state Senator Ira Silverstein, who lost to Villivalam in 2018, noting that Kalish's Jewish predecessors stretching back to the 1960s were Lang, Alan Greiman and Bernard Wolfe in the south Skokie/50th Ward area, and Calvin Sutker and Aaron Jaffe in the north Skokie area. The senators were Silverstein and Howard Carroll. "If Kalish loses, Jewish voters will have no Jewish legislator," said Silverstein.

Now they don't. Secularity and ideology trumped religious affiliation. And the demographic/political clout of Orthodox Jews in the district proved itself to be about Kalish's vote - 30 percent.

LESSON NUMBER THREE: Don't mess with Terry Cosgrove, president of PersonalPAC, the state's premier pro-choice fund-raising political action committee, and its powerful ally Planned Parenthood. Cosgrove "is the most unethical person" in Illinois politics, Kalish said. PersonalPAC has a huge pro-choice donor database, and can crank out tens of thousands of targeted mailers at will - which it did against Kalish. The mailings, which Kalish said numbered over a dozen, were filled with "lies and distortions." After the SB 25 vote, Cosgrove raged that Kalish had "lied" to all the pro-choice groups, plus himself and Lang, and "stood with Donald Trump."

Of Stoneback's $315,977, a total of $98,843 came from PersonalPAC and Men4Choice, $24,000 from Lang and the Niles Township Democrats, and $87,676 from teacher's union PACs.

LESSON NUMBER FOUR: Don't trust Mike Madigan. It is the speaker's longstanding policy to support ANY incumbent in ANY Democratic primary. The exception was Ken Dunkin. The near-exception is Kalish.

Madigan's fund-raising arm, the Fund for Democratic Majority (FDM), gave Kalish $14,250, which amounted to 1.9 percent of the $734,397 he raised. The FDM raised $4,085,706 during 2019-20, of which the Kalish donation was...negligible.

By comparison, Michelle Darbro brought in $320,051 in the Illinois 20th House District Democratic primary, in which she defeated Cary Capparelli 9,921-4,909. Of Darbro largesse, $203,755 came from Madigan sources (including $60,225 from FDM), $35,000 from teachers' and $22,500 from firefighters PACs, plus $39,077 from Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st). Darbro spent $85,305 on mailers that, according to Capparelli, numbered over 25.

LESSON NUMBER FIVE: Believe it or not, there are "friends" in politics. Really.

In Kalish's case, they were largely out-of-state lobbyists and Kalish's clients. Kalish got $90,237 from the Health Care Council-Illinois PAC, plus $174126 from 11 nursing home/ hospice management companies, and $32,000 from the Chicago Operators Joint Management PAC.

"I'm still a rabbi," Kalish said. "And I will go back to national lobbying." But the next time somebody muses about "voting my conscience," they should think about Mark Kalish.

And then vote the district.