WASHINGTON – Public service is in the DNA of Representative Jamie Raskin’s family (D-MD). The Maryland lawmaker’s grandfather was the first Jew ever elected in the Minnesota legislature. His wife, Sarah Raskin, served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury during the Obama Administration and Raskin’s great uncle worked as a judge in Wisconsin. So, it came as no surprise that after climbing the ranks in the Maryland General Assembly and attaining the position of Majority Whip, Raskin was interested in entering national political life by running for Congress.
The freshman legislator is unabashedly liberal. In addition to a picture of his grandfather, Raskin hung a portrait celebrating Maryland’s abolishment of the death penalty. Even before supporting LGBT rights became fashionable among many within the Democratic party, Raskin backed same sex marriage in a 2006 Maryland Senate debate. Responding to a conservative colleague who justified her position against gay marriage by quoting the bible, Raskin shot back, “People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible.”
Raskin’s ties with the Jewish community were established at a young age. Each year as a child, his grandfather gave him Israeli Bonds as a birthday present. A member of the Reform Synagogue Temple Sinai, Raskin noted that his youngest child Tabitha recently returned from Israel on a Birthright tour and, in December 2015, the Maryland Congressman visited his cousins who live in Kfar Hess, a Moshav relatively close to Netanya.
In an interview with Jewish Insider from his spacious Congressional office in the Cannon House Office Building, Raskin connected the recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks across the country with the political rise of President Donald Trump. Referencing Trump’s final television ad during the 2016 campaign that some – including the Anti-Defamation League – felt invoked anti-Semitic tropes, Raskin explained, “There were very specific signals sent by the Trump campaign, giving license to primitive impulses and bigotry in the public. We even saw candidate Trump say that there should be a ban on Muslims coming into the country.”
During his time in Congress, Raskin has adopted a nuanced perspective on the issue. Two months ago, when the House voted on Resolution 11 critiquing the United Nations Security Council for its resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Raskin joined with Republicans. At the same time, the former Maryland Majority Whip wrote an op-ed in the Washington Jewish Week slamming David Friedman calling the selection a “terrible choice” and a “wrecking ball”
A constitutional law professor for 25 years, he acknowledged, “I’ve written dozens and dozens of law review articles that nobody has ever read.” During his time in academia, Raskin started the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which sent law students into public high schools to teach about the constitution and the bill of rights. Spreading to 20 law schools, the project has educated thousands of students.
While some lawmakers are incapable of offering any praise for the opposition party in the age of intense partisan divide, Raskin commended multiple Republicans including Nebraska GOP Rep. Don Bacon for his military service while also noting that he “strikes me as a very thoughtful, reasonable and patriotic guy.”
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Raskin’s career has shifted from the classroom to Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, one theme has consistently remained: “Everything I always wanted to be in life started with the letter ‘p’: professor, politician, philosopher, poet, a playwright and a professional football player.”
Jewish Insider: What motivated you to run for Congress?
Representative Jamie Raskin: “I ran because I had a remarkable amount of success legislating in the Maryland General Assembly as a state senator for a decade. So, I fashioned myself as a shrewd legislator in addition to being a law professor. I had championed marriage equality, abolishing the death penalty, restoring voting rights to ex-felons, medical marijuana and a bunch of other legislative breakthroughs that we had. In the process, I found that I had some gift for crossing the aisle and making friends among Republicans. I thought those were the kind of skills that could be used in today’s Washington. Of course when I announced I had no idea how dire the circumstances would be. My colleagues in the law school, state senate, and my family thought I was crazy to leave the Maryland Senate where I was Majority Whip and chaired several committees to run to become a freshman Member of this body. They just thought I could get less done in this context. I was really 100% certain from the moment Chris Van Hollen called me and said he would run for Senate and asked if I would support him, I said ‘not only will I support you but I will run for your seat because I did know instinctively that it was something that I wanted to do.”
JI: Can you name a Democrat and Republican lawmaker who you have been most impressed with since entering office?
Raskin: “Let me start with the Maryland people because Maryland punches way above its weight in the US House of Representatives. We have Stanley Hoyer, the Minority Whip, who has an extraordinary knowledge and love for this body, which is impressive. Nancy Pelosi was born in Baltimore so we claim her as a Marylander too and I’m really amazed by her magnificent energy and fight. I serve on the House Oversight and Government Reform committee with my colleague Elijah Cummings who is the Ranking Democrat. His passion and vision about Democratic governance is remarkable. I’m learning from all of my Maryland colleagues. On the Republican side, there is a new Congressman from Nebraska named Don Bacon who was in military service for a long time who strikes me as a very thoughtful, reasonable and patriotic guy. There is a new Congressman from Pennsylvania who I have gotten to know and I like very much, named Lloyd Smucker. There are people who I disagree with diametrically on pretty much everything but I find them to have a lively intellectual presence. Lamar Smith (R-TX) is someone who I have struck a friendship with and which reminds me I owe him a phone call.”
JI: Outside of your progressive political viewpoints, what are some aspects of your personality that may not be known on Capitol Hill?
Raskin: “Well, we just had a group here and we started talking about chess. I’m a big chess player and a bit of an insomniac so I stay up late playing chess online. I’m a professor of constitutional law and have done that for 25 years so I have had thousands of law students. I’ve written dozens and dozens of law review articles that nobody has ever read and several books. I started a project at AU called the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which sends law students into public high schools to teach about the constitution and the bill of rights. It has spread to 20 other law schools around the country and has educated thousands of young people about the constitution and how it works.
JI: Can you please discuss your Jewish identity?
Raskin: “My grandfather whose picture is posted right there was the first Jewish person ever elected to the Minnesota state legislature and he was the person who taught me by example what a political leader does and he also inspired me to believe that I might be involved in politics one day. I didn’t realize that I sort of had it in my blood. He was also a very strong Zionist. We got Israeli bonds every year for our birthdays from my grandfather. On my other side, I have a great uncle who was a judge in Wisconsin. Everything I always wanted to be in life started with a p: professor, politician, philosopher, poet, a playwright and a professional football player.”
JI: What do you believe has caused the recent uptick in anti-Semitism?
Raskin: “Here in the US, we have also seen dramatic increases in racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant attacks. This is a terrible shame for the country that these monsters we thought had been destroyed in the last century have come roaring back to life. Some of it has to do with the underlying economic anxieties in the country. But, we also have to face the reality that a lot of it has to do with the signals that have been sent by political leaders. I think there were very specific signals sent by the Trump campaign, giving license to primitive impulses and bigotry in the public. We even saw candidate Trump say that there should be a ban on Muslims coming into the country, we saw him conflate Muslims with terrorists. We saw the closest thing to an outright anti-Semitic TV ad in mainstream presidential politics in our lifetime with the last TV commercial. There was a general typecasting and denigration of African Americans and African American communities. You don’t have to be a literary theorist or interpreter of texts to see what kinds of ugly signals were being sent in the 2016 presidential campaign. It was quite obvious. You can ask any kid with among other things a dramatic rise in bullying. The President sets the tone for civil relations in the country and the President also has the power to drive everything into the basement too.”
JI: Has the Democratic Party’s position on Israel evolved in recent years?
Raskin: “President Truman was of course the President who recognized the State of Israel in 1948. He was a proud Democrat. The Democratic Party has always been a huge champion of the State of Israel and a defender of the state against its enemies. In the current period, what I have seen is nothing but powerful support for the security and peace of Israel and nothing but strong defense of Israel. Obviously, there is a difference between support for a country and support for the policies of this or that leader of the country. I hope there are millions of millions of people around the world who love America even if they don’t love the current President of our government and I’m sure the same could be said with Israel. There are lots of people who love Israel who want to defend Israel who don’t necessarily agree with everything Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing.”
JI: Where would you place yourself between the spectrum of AIPAC and J Street?
Raskin: “A general principle I like is I prefer not to be factionalized. I had a speech over the weekend where I say I’m a liberal because the heart of the word liberal is liberty and I’m a progressive because the heart of the word progressive is progress. Because if we’re not making progress, what are we doing in politics? But I also said that I’m a conservative because I want to conserve the land, water, air, the constitution, bill of rights, and rule of law and what’s been in our nation. I’m not quite sure what the people who call themselves conservative today want to conserve other than their own wealth and power. That demeans a really honorable tradition in our politics if that is all conservatism means. If we can’t make peace between peace between J Street and AIPAC, what are our chances of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians? I hope that I will be part of solutions that strengthen and fortify Israel and bring real peace between Israel and the Palestinians and make the whole region a source of prosperity and justice rather than unremitting conflict and terrorism.”
“There is nothing too fancy about my Mid-East politics. I favor a two state solution, which has been the American position for decades. I think it’s also been the Israeli position for decades. I am for a strong resilient prosperous Israel. I am for the vindication of the rights and aspirations of the Palestinians too who have been the victims of lots of events all over the world including from their own leaders. We need to appeal to the best traditions of everybody’s nation and community to get us through this tough period.”
JI: You have publicly raised the idea of impeaching President Trump. Isn’t this premature?
Raskin: “What I’ve said about impeachment is this. Impeachment has a double meaning there is impeachment in the courtroom and moral sense, which is to debunk lies and to expose deceptions and bring the truth out. In that sense we are impeaching President Trump and his Administration every single day. We are impeaching their false testimony of what is going on in the world and in their Administration. In terms of the constitutional process of impeachment, I’m keeping my eye closely on violations of the Emoluments clause, which is article one section nine and the Russian connection, which obviously threatens the very legitimacy of the whole administration. I have called for a 9-11 style independent commission with most of the Democrats to get to the bottom of what is happening with Russia and the 2016 election. The Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for telling a lie about sex and they took perjury seriously and obstruction of justice. I take perjury and obstruction of justice seriously. I take every part of the constitution seriously so I would never take impeachment off the table if that is something that is warranted.”
JI: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Raskin: “My wife Sarah who I met in law school back in the 1980s was in the Obama Administration. She was Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Department before that she was a governor on the Federal Reserve Board. She had a very distinguished career in public life. She is currently unemployed with the Administrations having switched here. We have three children: Hannah, Tommy and Tabitha. Our youngest just got back from Israel where she did her birthright tour. I have cousins who live in Israel. I went there in December 2015 to visit them in a town called Kfar Hes, but I also spent some time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”