Md. politicians heed fundraiser call for Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010; 10:42 PM

The two men have known each other for years - one the professor, the other the student. But on Sunday, Isiah Leggett (D) and Rushern L. Baker III (D) sat opposite each other as equals, two county executives trying to help a local charitable organization raise money to plug gaps that their own local governments are struggling to fill.

In what has become an annual no-miss event for elected officials, politicians joined hundreds of volunteers at phone banks at Jewish community centers in Fairfax County, the District and Rockville to elicit private donations for schools, the elderly, young people and special-needs residents supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

Among those making calls at the Rockville site on Montrose Road were Leggett, of Montgomery County, and Baker, his former Howard University law school student who took office a week ago in Prince George's County.

On Sunday, the men shared ideas about how to sweet-talk donors and said they hope to work together to help to ease funding shortfalls that are unlikely to be filled by state aid. Maryland is challenged by its own $1.5 billion funding gap. Montgomery is facing a $300 million gap, and Baker doesn't have a clear picture of Prince George's finances.

Although Montgomery and Prince George's each have about a million residents and similar-size public school systems, their budgets are vastly different.

In Montgomery, which has an annual spending plan of about $4.3 billion, Leggett recently announced an austerity measure, including cutting money for schools and social services, to reduce its budget shortfall. Baker, whose county budget is about $2.6 billion, is still trying to get a clearer picture of the finances in Prince George's, which he has said his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), did not spell out before leaving office.

The differences in what each county spends stem in part from Prince George's voter-imposed tax cap as well as its overall lower tax base, something Baker hopes to fix by attracting more businesses.

Although the two counties will probably compete for the same limited pots of state and federal aid in the next few months, Sunday was all about praise and cooperation.

"I am so proud of what he has accomplished," Leggett said of Baker. "He's done a terrific job."

Never mind that Baker often found himself chatting with folks who knew Leggett better. "His list was padded," Baker joked, as he handed off some callers to Leggett.

Baker praised the federation for funding nonprofits that benefit not "part of this region, but for all of this region."

Sunday's fundraising event, which organizers hope will raise at least as much as last year's $650,000, is part of an effort to do what local government says it cannot. But private-sector fundraising also is suffering from the effects of the recession.

"This is a challenge," said Susan Schor, a federation board member and lawyer who has been involved in the fundraising effort for several years. "But we see a little optimism in people." Several callers she reached increased their gifts from last year.

Many of the organizations funded by the federation, such as the Jewish Social Services Agency and the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, are community-based and serve residents without regard to their religious affiliation. Other beneficiaries of Sunday's phone-a-thon are Jewish day schools in the Washington area and youth groups that tend to attract mostly Jewish members but also serve non-Jews.

In Rockville, the politicians' table hosted a rotating group that included Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, U.S. Reps. Donna F. Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, as well as members of the Montgomery County Council and state House delegation, all Democrats.

Edwards donned a yellow fundraising T-shirt as she started her round of calls. She has tangled with some Jewish leaders because of her decision to vote "present" on a nonbinding House resolution last year recognizing Israel's "right to defend itself from attacks from Gaza" and condemning Hamas for its attacks on Israel.

But there was no mention of tensions as she was introduced and then spoke to volunteers from the podium. Edwards said she was pleased "to be part of a community that understands how communities take care of each other."

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