Nearly 200 Jews descended on Sacramento this week to lobby California's most powerful politicians to protect major programs that serve the poorest and frailest Jews and other Californians from the budget ax.
Jews from throughout the state, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County, canvassed the state capital Monday, May 19 and Tuesday, May 20 to fight against proposed cuts to Medi-Cal, the state's health insurance for the poor. They also networked, learned how to become effective advocates for Jewish causes and attended workshops on issues ranging from how to manage the media to the need for Jews to build coalitions.
The mood among participants, against the backdrop of a ballooning state budget shortfall estimated by some at more than $38 billion, appeared less ebullient than in the past.
"In prior years, when the state had a surplus, the discussion was on expanding programs and creating new initiatives," said Esther Netter, executive director of the Zimmer Children's Museum in Los Angeles. "This year, everyone had a defensive posture, and the mood was more somber."
State Controller Steve Westley warned participants at a breakfast speech that California's budget problems were even worse than they seem.
Attendance for the two-day mission, which was sponsored by the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC) of California, the state's main Jewish lobbying group, was 190 -- off by more than 8 percent compared to last year, organizers said. They attributed the drop to holding the event a week before Memorial Day weekend, the poor economy and a belief among some Jews that their voice wouldn't make a difference.
Still, Cliff Berg, JPAC legislative advocate, said he thought the group's collective message would get through to legislators because of participants' commitment to deliver it in person.
"I think the fact that you're willing to take a couple days off work and come to Sacramento will resonate with [the politicians]," he said. "It shows there are others who feel the same way you do and others behind them."
Gov. Gray Davis has proposed cutting Medi-Cal reimbursements by up to 15 percent to help close the growing state budget deficit. That belt-tightening would save more than $1.4 billion, but would do so at the expense of California's most vulnerable. Medi-Cal underwrites a slew of programs that cater to a largely Jewish clientele locally, including the Valley Storefront Adult Day Heath Care Center in North Hollywood, and the Multipurpose Senior Services Program (MSSP), which provides indigent elderly with taxi vouchers, home-meal preparation and other services to keep them out of nursing homes.
The Valley Storefront would have to close down, along with an estimated one-quarter of the state's 307 adult day health-care centers, if the Legislature enacts the suggested cuts. MSSP would shed 110 of its 734 monthly clients and lose one of its two full-time social workers.
"I think it's immoral to turn our backs on the elderly," said Jessica Toledano, director of government relations for the Jewish Community Relations Committee, a department of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "These programs keep their [seniors'] dignity, and also keep them out of nursing homes, which are far more expensive."
Motivated by Toledano's and others' speeches, mission participants made their way to the state capitol where they collectively lobbied 60 legislators or their aides, admonishing them to forego the proposed Medi-Cal cuts. The newly minted lobbyists also asked politicians to support a resolution condemning the Arab League's revived economic boycott of Israel and to support legislation that would train teachers on the prevention of hate crimes in schools.
It is unclear whether their efforts had much impact.
Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) told a group of five neophyte lobbyists that many Democrats opposed Medi-Cal reductions, but that Republican unwillingness to raise taxes or other fees to balance the budget muddied the picture.
"You need to talk to Republicans about revenue generators," he said.
Even if Medi-Cal cuts pass, mission members deserve credit for fighting a battle on behalf of those who sometimes go unheard, said L.A. attorney Matthew Ross, a former business-affairs executive at CBS.
"We're up here talking about the poor, immigrants and the elderly, people who don't often have lobbyists," he said. "We're their lobbyists. We're their voices."
To become legislative advocates, mission participants attended a nearly two-hour session in the nuts and bolts of lobbying. JPAC's Berg told group members to be clear, "stay-on-script," exchange business cards with politicians and, most important, to remain polite, regardless of the reception to their ideas.
"Our broader goal is to build relationships and work on [getting the politicians] to nurture and understand the Jewish community," he said.
Sarah Jaffe, a 19-year-old sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, said participating on the mission gave her a chance to try to create positive change. For her, cutting Medi-Cal is akin to slashing the social safety net that might one day be needed catch her parents -- or herself.
"Being a young person and seeing the changes affecting Medi-Cal makes me worry about the future," she said. "Even though I'm not affected now, in a few years, cuts could hurt my parents and, a few years later, me."