Chicagoans are well-represented in Washington, D.C. these days. Last week, Chicago’s Jewish community was no exception, as 36 members of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Government Affairs Committee (GAC) made their voices heard in the capitol—and I got to tag along. For me, this trip—my first time in D.C. since junior high—was an opportunity to see the real ins and outs of Washington and get up close and personal with my elected officials.
Against the backdrop of the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the BP oil spill, the bomb scare in Times Square, recent passage of health care reform and shaky economic times, we arrived in D.C. to meet with most of the Illinois Congressional Delegation and senior White House officials. In addition to thanking legislators for their continued commitment to Israel and for supporting the Iran Sanctions legislation, this year’s agenda focused on domestic issues including health care reform implementation, IRA Charitable Rollover and Medicaid extension, Workforce Investment Act reauthorization and the Emergency Food and Shelter program—issues that impact the core services of Federation agencies like Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS), Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), Sinai Health System and CJE SeniorLife.
For all the participating agencies, the need this year is greater than ever.
“Clearly this year we have seen a tremendous rise in families in need,” said Suzanne Franklin, JCFS director of community services. “Those that had never come to our doorsteps before are now seeking help and financial assistance and food subsidies and emergency shelter, and those are our main concerns—being able to be there for those families when they need us most.”
For Roberta Rakove, senior vice president of Government Affairs for Sinai Health System, what goes on in Washington is crucial.
“We are incredibly dependent on the government,” she said. “About 60 percent of our patients are covered by Medicaid, 20 percent are covered by Medicare and 13 percent are uninsured, so what happens with health reform, Medicaid and with Medicare is incredibly important to Sinai.”
She, along with Mark Weiner, president and CEO of CJE SeniorLife, came to Washington hoping for an invitation to sit at the table with legislators as they determine the future of health care, among other things.
“I think the mission for us [was] extremely successful because in doing it in conjunction with Federation, we have access to government officials that is just unbelievable. It gives us an opportunity to speak to the key decision-makers and allows us to participate in the framing of the future health care system.”
I also had a chance to talk briefly with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who expressed her thanks to Federation.
“Through the decades, in good times and in bad times, JUF has always been there,” she said. “It’s very helpful for representatives to come to the Hill and present these real life stories—how things work on the ground—to members of Congress. I appreciate these days when JUF comes to the Hill.”
On day one, we met with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who spoke favorably and warmly about Federation agencies, particularly Sinai Health System. Both he, and staff from Illinois Senator Roland Burris’s office, were receptive and positive about the issues discussed by the delegation.
Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau chief for the Chicago Sun Times, joined us over lunch to discuss the exciting goings on in Washington and Chicago’s representation in D.C. “There are so many Chicagoans in the White House,” she said, “I like to call it the 51st Ward.”
We also visited the Israeli Embassy to meet with Public Diplomacy Minister Noam Katz, who discussed the political process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the security challenge of Iran, and Israeli-American relations.
On day two of the mission, we split into groups to meet with 18 of the 19 Illinois house delegation. Representative Danny Davis had this message for Chicago’s Jewish community: “When people are able to work together in an organized way, share as much of the same vision as is possible and determine the quality of life worth pursuing and then go out and pursue it, the sky becomes the limit and there’s nothing that cannot be accomplished.”
The final meeting of the trip was at the White House Executive Office Building, where we met with Susan Sher, a Chicagoan who serves as assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady; Danielle Borrin, special assistant for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison; and Heather Higginbottom, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council.