A pro-Israel progressive, Joe Vogel seeks to make history in Maryland

“When it comes to Israel, I have faced pushback before for my views,” Vogel tells JI

Joe Vogel, a progressive state legislator who recently launched a campaign for an open House seat in Maryland, boasts a fairly atypical profile for a candidate seeking federal office. Not only is the 26-year-old Jewish Democrat poised to become one of the youngest members of Congress if he is elected, but he would also be the first Latino as well as the first openly gay person to represent Maryland in the House.

“The urgent challenges of this time,” Vogel said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week, “call for new leaders with new ideas, new energy and the courage to really get things done. I think that’s what I’ve brought to the legislature here in Maryland, and that’s what I’ll bring to Congress.”

Vogel’s strong support for Israel also sets him apart, even if he acknowledges that his beliefs haven’t always been received positively by the left. “When it comes to Israel, I have faced pushback before for my views,” Vogel, who called himself a pro-Israel progressive, explained. “But I don’t see being progressive as being in conflict with being pro-Israel. I actually think those are overlapping viewpoints.”

He said he expects to face further pushback during his campaign and, assuming he’s elected, in Congress. “But,” he insisted, “I’m never going to compromise.”

That pledge may resonate in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, where outgoing Rep. David Trone (D-MD) has established himself as among the most prominent supporters of Israel in the House. Trone, the only sitting member of Congress who is an AIPAC “minyan” donor, has long been an outspoken critic of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. 

Trone, 67, recently vacated his House seat to run for the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a pro-Israel stalwart. “Trone sets a very high bar within the Jewish community and thus will be very hard to replace,” said Robert Stillman, a Jewish community leader and pro-Israel activist who lives in the district.

Vogel, for his part, suggested that he and Trone share a “similar approach to a lot of challenges” and “have overlapping priorities,” including on mental health and the opioid crisis, which are among his top causes in Maryland’s House of Delegates. “Israel has always been a priority issue of mine,” he added. “I look forward to being one the champions on this issue in Congress.”

He expressed a kinship with some younger Democrats in the House “who have been on the forefront of fighting for Israel’s security and longevity,” citing Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL). “This is not a new policy issue for me at all,” Vogel said. “It is a personal issue.”

The Gen Z lawmaker, who represents a district based in deep-blue Montgomery County, has long been engaged in Jewish and pro-Israel activism. Born in Uruguay, where his great-grandparents sought refuge before the Holocaust, Vogel immigrated to the U.S. with his family as a young boy. He attended a Jewish day school in Maryland and was involved with BBYO, a leading Jewish teen movement, as well as other Jewish organizations. 

“That really was, in part, what propelled me into community service and then eventually motivated me to get involved in public service,” he told JI. As an undergraduate student at The George Washington University, Vogel spoke out against BDS. He has visited Israel, he estimates, about seven times. “I feel very strongly about the story of the Jewish people and how lucky we are to be living at a time when we have Israel,” Vogel said, “not just as a refuge but also as this place to celebrate our culture and our history and our heritage.”

Vogel said he is supportive of recent demonstrations in Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s now-stalled effort to overhaul the judicial system. “I feel strongly, as a Jew, as a proud supporter of Israel, to stand with those protesting against the judiciary reforms and call for efforts to strengthen Israeli democracy,” he said. “I’m pro-Israel because I’m pro-democracy,” he added, “and we have to continue to make sure that Israel is that strong, vibrant democracy.”

Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, described Vogel as a “progressive legislator who is openly gay and who speaks frequently about being pro-Israel in LGBTQ circles.” Halber added: “For the Jewish community to have openly progressive, pro-Israel candidates is really huge because we know the seepage of support is coming from the left.”

During his brief tenure in the state legislature, where he has served for just over four months, Vogel has committed to addressing hate crimes in Maryland, where antisemitic incidents rose dramatically last year. He has sponsored legislation, recently signed by the governor, that will establish a state commission on hate crimes. 

Vogel said he is in favor of the working definition of antisemitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The definition has become a hot-button issue in recent weeks as the White House prepares to release its national antisemitism strategy amid pressure from some left-wing groups that have argued against embracing the IHRA’s approach. 

While he believes that “fair criticism of the Israeli government” is acceptable, Vogel argues that “delegitimization” and “demonization” of the Jewish state can set “double standards” that he views as antisemitic. “I think we can say that clearly and loudly,” he told JI. The strategy, he stresses, needs to recognize “the intersection between antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel that we’re seeing right now.”

Before entering public office, Vogel worked as an intern for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and served on Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) reelection campaign. During the pandemic, he founded a remote learning nonprofit and received a master’s in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He said he had not considered running for higher office before Trone’s seat opened up. 

“A lot of folks in our generation feel a pressure to do something and make sure that we actually deliver on the change that we’ve been waiting for,” he said. His priorities, above anything else, are “pushing back against far-right, authoritarian efforts to erode our democracy,” he said more broadly. The lawmaker emphasized that he hopes his campaign will show voters that “democracy still works.”

Vogel currently has no opposition in the Democratic primary, but other candidates are preparing to enter the race. Lesley Lopez, a state legislator in Montgomery County, told JI that she intends to run. “I’m seriously considering a run and would love to continue serving my community, this time at the federal level,” she said. Meanwhile, Ben Smilowitz, a nonprofit leader who challenged Trone in the 2022 primary, said he’s “really interested” in mounting another bid. “I just have to figure out how to do a lot better than I did last time,” he told JI. 

There are several other Democrats who could also run, including Jan Gardner, a former Frederick County executive; Brian J. Feldman, a state senator in Montgomery County; and April McLain-Delaney, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce who is married to former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD). 

Meanwhile, Republicans are eyeing the open seat as a possible pick-up opportunity as the party seeks to defend its slim majority in the House. 

“Trone’s ability to spend his own money,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jack Pandol said, citing a Cook Political Report analysis, “masked the underlying competitive DNA of the district, which is the most competitive in the state of Maryland.”

But Republicans haven’t been able to land any top recruits, so far. Dan Cox, a far-right Republican who was defeated in Maryland’s gubernatorial election last year, told JI that he is considering entering the race. In an email on Tuesday, he said that he and his wife “are praying about the decision to run” for the seat “after being approached by local and national people asking me to run, but we have made no decision.”

“The seat will be competitive and a Republican who loves the people and the Constitution can win,” he said. 

One complicating dynamic that could throw the race into disarray is the possibility that Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who represents a neighboring House district in suburban Maryland, will run for Senate, forcing Trone to reevaluate his position in the race and potentially return to his seat. “Everyone’s waiting on Jamie,” said Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “It adds another layer.”

Vogel, on the other hand, won’t have to give up his seat in the state legislature should he lose the primary because he is only at the beginning of a four-year term. Leaving the state legislature after serving for less than a year is unusual, but the young legislator insisted that his desire to run for Congress stems from a growing frustration with what he views as a lack of meaningful progress at the federal level.

“There’s something that comes with being from our generation, having spent so long watching our politics and our government do very little on the major threats and challenges that we’re facing,” he observed, referencing a “new slogan” that he said has been circulating among his peers. “Instead of ‘fired up, ready to go,’ it’s ‘fired up, fed up.’”

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