Test balloons are for popping

Rabbi Jonah Pesner said he may be interested in running for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat in the special election. Some believe he should jump in with both feet, up to his neck, and go for it with the belief of a zealot. This is a bad idea.

If the report in The Boston Phoenix about this run was a test balloon, I hope this blog post at least starts a leak.

Rabbi Pesner—for all his political maneuvering in the Jewish world—is not a politician. He is a community organizer sure, but a politician with national chops he is not. Blah blah, President Obama, blah, blah. These two men should not and cannot be compared in the same breath. Now that this is out of the way, we will get into the meat of this disastrous move.

For a special election primary Rabbi Pesner will need to be bigger, faster, stronger, and most importantly, better funded by establishment types to beat liberal stalwart Congressman Ed Markey. Currently Markey, who has spent a generation in Congress, has the support of everyone who matters, including the Kennedys and John Kerry, and a war chest ready to go. There are others  who said they might make a run in a primary. They may or may not be as liberal as Rabbi Pesner. Assuming Rabbi Pesner was a serious candidate, the only impact he could have in this race is to split the liberal base of Markey’s power in his home district and among the Jews in the state.

Anyone not paying attention to Massachusetts politics over the past few years may forget that Teddy Kennedy’s seat was lost to a pretty conservative Republican and that a significant portion of that state is not so liberal. Splitting the liberal vote in a primary will lead to a conservative Democrat winning the primary and losing the general to Scott Brown.

Splitting the liberal Democratic vote in Massachusetts will take a seat away from the Democratic Party in the Senate. That is bad.

Not for nothing but Rabbi Pesner said he would lead a revolution in Reform Jewish youth engagement that would take about ten years to implement. During his speech at the last URJ Biennial he told the assembled leaders that he would help usher the organization through this process right before he passed the Resolution creating the Campaign for Youth Engagement (without providing time for debate or dissenting votes).

Ensuring the success of this project—in whatever form—is imperative for the future of the Reform Jewish community, my community. Without this change, we will lose any chance of cultivating a new generation of leaders within the Reform movement and thus the Reform movement will go the way of Whig Party. And from what I hear, there hasn’t been much of a revolution across the board, just a lot of talking about it. By floating this run, he clearly isn’t invested in seeing this through when there are more interesting personal opportunities for him to pursue.

Rabbi Pesner also said he would revolutionize social action programs in Reform Jewish congregations in his last post as head of Just Congregations. Last time I checked, he didn’t accomplish that either. A vast majority of congregations around the country continue to engage in direct action and advocacy above Faith-Based Community Organizing for any number of reasons, one of them being the fact that the guy running the program took another more visible and prestigious job.

Prior to that, Rabbi Pesner served as a congregational rabbi. I did not see him in this role but it is the most relevant line on his resume for his current aspiration. (If you have ever sat through a congregational board meeting you know what I am talking about.)

Rabbi Pesner’s work with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and that he co-chaired its campaign for health care reform, leading to the landmark state law, gave him a taste of campaigning but not for office or for himself. A personal political campaign is completely different than issue based advocacy.  Reporters and opposition researchers will dig into him personally and they might even find this blog post.  What they will find for sure is every detail about his life. These facts, good, bad, or irrelevant, will become part of the public record. While I have no reason to assume anything out of line with him, do we really want another Native American controversy to deal with?

So let’s review:

  1. He doesn’t have the chops or fundraising capabilities ready to go.
  2. He has an important job to do but it is clear he isn’t really interested in doing it. And this isn’t the first time.
  3. He has no experience that makes him a good candidate nor has he ever been vetted.
  4. Most importantly he will split the liberal vote and lose the seat to the Republicans.

These seem like four good reasons not to have Rabbi Jonah Pesner on the ballot for Senate.

10 Responses to “Test balloons are for popping”

  1. Completely disagree. I don’t know if you live in MA, but Jonah has already inspired an entire generation of young people here both through his work at Temple Israel and through his leadership in the Jewish Organizing Initiative. If you go across the state, you can find alums in Boston, Lawrence, Lynn, Lowell, Springfield, New Bedford, Fall River, Worcester, to name a few. They run unions and non profits, political campaigns and organizing shops. Now, I don’t have as much a stake in the URJ succeeding. I have more of a stake in my state politics. Ed Markey has got the organization and the establishment.He’s also got a solid track record. That should be what the conversation is about. But Jonah is young, charismatic, politically astute, and has the ingredients for a strong organization and you’re underestimating how much that counts for on the trail. Finally, once a primary is over, the party will unite behind a candidate so you don’t have to worry about splitting the vote. That’s what primaries are for.


    CSS · January 8th, 2013 at 9:00 pm
  2. My gosh, can anyone say non-sequitur? This rant frankly borders on foolish. Whether or not Rabbi Pesner will succeed (indeed, whether he will even run) remains to be seen. However, to suggest that this trial balloon should be popped because: (1) Elizabeth Warren’s ethnic background has been questioned, (2) Just Congregations still has work to do, or (3) the Kennedys are supporting Ed Markey is to reveal one’s bias or, worse, ignorance. This is further confirmed in the blogger’s complete and utter musunderstanding of primary campaigns (split the liberal vote? what?). Bottom line: Ed Markey’s a good man and has done good work but he has no monopoly on either. Rabbi Pesner can lay at least equal claim to both and surely deserves as much serious consideration as anyone. Did n’t we learn anything from this past campaign? Can we please (please!) talk about the substance of the ideas?


    Thomas Paine · January 9th, 2013 at 11:57 am
  3. CSS – A field network is great, but it isn’t institutional support. Charisma, astute nature and youth are good for issue campaigns but leave him wide open for a huge personal attack. While it is great to have created an old school lefty network, last I checked those few hundred people, don’t represent the majority of young people who still don’t vote. And not for nothing, the young Jews running those orgs are still the Jews running those orgs. I have real questions about significant segments of the population of the Bay State voting for a Jew let alone a rabbi. Leaving the URJ investment aside, he said he would do something and now he is showing he doesn’t want to see it through.

    Rabbi Pesner should not run for Senate.


    dcc · January 9th, 2013 at 11:58 am
  4. Well those three things (a non-sequitur, foolishness, or ignorance) aren’t in this post.
    1. Warren’s issue is Pesner’s issue. We don’t know about his baggage. Tell me you do and I will put a strike line through it.
    2. He quit for a better gig. It isn’t about a Talmudic not needing to finish your work but to working toward it…it is about doing your job, one you say you believe in, when there are better more gratifying opportunities. Not to mention he said he would do it.
    3. Institutional support matters. Without it, you loose.
    4. Spitting the vote in the primary leads to a conservative winning in the primary. That is how primary votes work. In fact it is how all votes work.

    I don’t think he doesn’t deserve consideration. I think he shouldn’t run. That is my consideration.


    dcc · January 9th, 2013 at 12:09 pm
  5. 1. Honestly, do you not see the foolishness in your own post? “Warren’s issue is Pesner’s issue?” Because Warren had a problem, therefore Pesner will. Non-sequitur.

    “We don’t know about his baggage. Tell me you do and I will put a strike through it.” What does this mean? Nobody who hasn’t run should ever run? Are you serious? Foolish.

    2. Are you comfortable with Ed Markey quitting his job? I have no idea (perhaps you do?) why Rabbi Pesner might think the Senate would help him accomplish something either bigger or with higher certainty than would be the case in his current position but I’m willing to let him decide that. Have you ever left a job for something that you saw as better? Should Kerry not quit? Should Clinton not have quit as Governor?

    3. I will take your word that he has no institutional support. I don’t know whether he does or doesn’t. By this argument, though, we should sit back and let the Party tell us who our candidates should be. How did that work for Martha? Ignorance.

    4. Just plain wrong and silly. The Party, though, loves to hear this same ol’ song being played.


    Thomas Paine · January 9th, 2013 at 12:27 pm
  6. Well the logic is we didn’t know hers the Dems got hit. We don’t know his the Dems might get hit. Is it worth the risk. And if you want to use Latin phrases use the right one Tommy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is the flaw in the logic you present of my idea.

    Your logic is miss placed in the second point. Leaving your political post to take another political post is the job. Leaving your post two years into a commitment to a position you pushed to create for yourself to make major changes to said org is a window into his character.

    He doesn’t have the support. IF HE WON HE WOULD HAVE IT. But he won’t win.

    I would like to turn your attention to the Republican Presidential primary. While most of the right wing folks were nut bags, they canceled each other out and got Romney, who before he re-wrote his history, was more moderate or even a liberal Republican. So yeah, that could never happen in a Democratic primary.


    dcc · January 9th, 2013 at 12:36 pm
  7. Nope. non sequitur..I appreciate that you see other flaws in your logic but non sequitur is the correct characterization of this one.

    You’re confusing a position and an objective. You grant a senator the freedom to leave his post to be Sec of State as these are vaguely the same mission. Yet, you don’t allow someone who fights for social justice in one sphere to fight for it in a larger sphere? I see no character flaw there. You seem to take issue with his “push to create the position.” What do you mean by this?

    It would be helpful if the jewschool blog had a “CIRC” error like Excel does to point out circular logical errors. Without institutional support you don’t win. You only get institutional support if you win. OK. No need to yell though.

    To offer one example does not support your point since your claim was that this is how it happens in all elections. Let me draw yoru attention to the 1984 campaign in which John Kerry beat Jim Shannon in the primary 41-38 (thanks wikipedia). This is not how it happens in all elections by any stretch.

    I do, however, agree that Romney’s chances would have been far better had the party anointed him from jump street. Let me, however, also point out that the party’s decision not to do so and to, instead, place its bets on Rick Perry initially demonstrates precisely why allowing the party to make the calls is a disaster.


    Thomas Paine · January 9th, 2013 at 12:53 pm
  8. dcc-
    Is there a particular conservative candidate who (a) stands to win the Democratic primary if Markey and Pesner split the liberal vote, (b) is more likely than a liberal candidate to lose to Scott Brown? (With or without b, I agree with you that it would be better to elect a liberal Democrat than a conservative Democrat, but you’ve also made the claim that splitting the liberal vote in the Democratic primary will lead to a Republican victory.) I haven’t been following the race closely enough enough to answer those questions, but backing up these claims with specifics seems pretty critical to your argument. How do we know there aren’t 5 candidates who will split the conservative Democratic primary vote even thinner?

    In any case, Massachusetts has been a national pioneer in areas from marriage equality to universal health care, and similarly ought to become the first state to implement instant runoff voting (or another similar system with ranked choices) in statewide elections. That way voters can focus on the candidates and the issues, and not this sort of strategic inside-baseball bs. But I acknowledge that this won’t happen in time for this election.


    BZ · January 9th, 2013 at 2:43 pm
  9. You make good points. I won’t push that. And I see your logic, but you aren’t seeing mine. This is an abbreviated campaign. Markey is a good candidate that will most likely attract the same kind of support base as Pesner. This will hurt both of their chances of winning and therefore hurt the chance of a liberal holding the seat. At this time, Markey has institutional support and a career in congress fitting for things like communications freedom and access for normal folks. If he loses a primary, whoever wins the primary will get support from the party…there is no circular argument there. However, if there is a big fight for that primary, the support will be not as strong. That just makes sense. SORRY ABOUT YELLING.

    It is called the Coumo effect or the 3rd Party Influence. It might not happen EVERY single time, but more often than not the fringe candidates kick each other out for the middle ground. In this case we would have the left of the party eliminated in favor of a State rep with a questionable track record on many issues we call important.

    You seem to take issue with his “push to create the position.” What do you mean by this?
    He came to the URJ pushing for the top spot. He didn’t get it. So he pushed to create this campaign for youth engagement. It is his baby. It is his program. It is his vision with the help of hundreds of other leaders and participants. Leaving it 1/5 done seems like coping out. It might just be me but it seems very different than the political jumping. Your look is valid but I don’t see it that way.

    This isn’t to say that Rabbi Pesner couldn’t be a good Senator, I just don’t think he should run.


    dcc · January 9th, 2013 at 3:06 pm
  10. BZ – There is an article linked in the post about the people. No one else besides Markey have put their hat in the ring as of yet. However, Congressman Stephen Lynch has been rumored to want to make a run. He is pretty Blue Dog and would be seen as a turn coat among many liberal dems in MA and too similar to the proven commodity of Scott Brown for swing voters.

    I agree with everything you say in your second ‘graph.


    dcc · January 9th, 2013 at 3:26 pm

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