This past week, in the speech of his career, John Edwards talked about the America that is not George Bush America; he talked about the “can do” America, the country that has inspired men and women the world over with its attitude and values. I’ve never talked to someone running for any office who is a better personification of that America than our guest this week, Dennis Shulman. Dennis’ campaign motto is “We Can Do Better.” After you meet him here you’ll know why.
Before I introduce you to him, let me say something about northernmost New Jersey’s 5th congressional and about that state’s absolutely worst congressman, Scott Garrett, whose ultra-reactionary voting record, to put it in context, is worse than Mean Jean Schmidt’s, Denny Hastert’s or Virgil Goode’s! NJ-05 is a high income, socially moderate, suburban district that voted 57% for Bush in 2004 — and has been sorry ever since.
Most of the inhabitants live in northern Bergen County, although the district stretches out past Passaic County to the Delaware River encompassing all of Warren and most of Sussex counties, which is where the Republicans have gotten their majorities. Garrett will be seeking his 4th term next year; his winning percentage has decreased every year since he was first elected as more and more voters saw how utterly unsuitable his extreme right wing bent is.
How unsuitable? Every single member of the New Jersey congressional delegation — Democrats and Republicans — signed a letter to Bush opposing oil drilling off the New Jersey Coast… except one: Garrett. It gets worse. Garrett was the only northern congressman of either party to vote against extending the Voting Rights Act. All the Democrats need to beat him is the right candidate. And this year they’ve found him: Dennis Shulman.
Dennis is a progressive Democrat. He is also a spiritually-inclined rabbi, a clinical psychologist, an author, a drummer– and a blind man. When he says “We can do better,” he’s talking from experience.
“The whole point of my campaign is ‘We can do better.’ And, in some ways, that’s been the whole point of my life. I grew up poor is Worchester, Massachusetts. I became blind during my childhood; by the time I went to college I was totally blind. I graduated third in my prep school class on full scholarship — the public school was letting me get away with murder and I wanted more of a challenge; it bothered me that they went so easy on me because I knew I could do better — so I applied for Worchester Academy. These were the dark days of pre-computer and I did all my work with Braille. It’s not easy being blind in the sighted world now; it was very difficult in that world because of the lack of a personal computer. I went on to Brandeis and I graduated magna cum laude and phi beta kappa and was accepted to the clinical psychology program at Harvard where I got my PhD in 1976. A lot of that story is about struggling through one’s handicap to achieve one’s goals. I always assumed that there was nothing that I really wanted that I could not do. And the other thing I learned is that you can’t die of embarrassment; you’ve got to take risks.”
After graduate school he moved to NY and married Pamela Tropper (they’ll celebrate their 33rd anniversary next month). She was in med school at the time and now she’s an obstetrician specializing in high risk pregnancies and she’s been working to apply what she knows to global health, traveling to Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Pamela and Dennis have worked together on sorting out reasonable positions on health care policies.
“We’re both extraordinarily troubled by where health care is at this point and we should be doing better. We’re the most prosperous country in the world and we’re the only one that doesn’t have national health care. Garrett and Bush throw around terms like ‘socialized medicine;’ from my point of view it’s Judeo-Christian medicine. The idea that someone is poor — let alone the child of someone who can’t afford health insurance who will show up at a school sick– is just outrageous.”
They have two daughters, Holly, 24, who is the press secretary for Global Trade Watch and Juliana, a junior at the University of Chicago.
“Both of them are remarkable young women,” says a proud father, who also wanted to tell me about someone else who has been a guiding light and inspiration to him. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel made me do this. Heschel died in 1972. He was a mystic, a philosopher a social activist. He marched with Martin Luther King. He was Orthodox and from Eastern Europe and he said to talk about God and not Vietnam is blasphemy. That’s part of what motivates me.”
I got the feeling that Rabbi Shulman feels as strongly about the occupation of Iraq as Rabbi Heschel did about Vietnam. He had just returned from a trip to Israel when we spoke a few days ago. He feels Bush’s policies have been devastating for the Middle East in general and for Israel in particular.
“Israel is a major ally of the United States but Bush’s policies haven’t been helpful. He’s taken his eyes off the major terrorists and bolstered the power of Iran which has fed Hezbollah and other extremist groups in the Middle East. With real threats to both the U.S. and Israel we have to be strong and we also have to be smart and we’ve been not smart and America and Israel are in much more compromised positions than we were before.”
A few days ago, after Frederick of Hollywood, said he opposes even civil unions for same sex couples, I contrasted Rabbi Shulman’s views with the backwards, hateful and bigoted Republican perspective.
“These are issues of equality under the law, not issues of sexual orientation or morality… In the traditions of Reform Judaism, the rabbis have voted to bless gay marriages. I am appalled by the idea that the federal government would intrude on my right to perform a same-sex marriage if I choose to do so. Marriage should be an issue– as it always has been– between the states and religious institutions. I don’t see that the federal government has any rights to define who and how people should be married.”
Dennis speaks common sense and with a sense of moral authority. You want to see better Democrats? I don’t recall ever coming in contact with a better candidate than Dennis Shulman. Please join me in helping him get his message out to New Jersey voters by contributing at our Blue America ActBlue page.