Young activists talk taxes on ‘Rich Man’ tour across U.S.

J Weekly
September 6, 2012
Emma Silvers

When “Fiddler on the Roof” debuted on Broadway in 1964, it’s doubtful the musical’s creators had any idea their words would be repurposed a half-century later to talk about tax reform.Rich Man Tour to Rep Issa's Office

But for nine young Jewish activists, “If I Were a Rich Man” is much more than a wistful klezmer number: It’s a 2 1⁄2 - week, eight-state, DIY speaking tour, aimed at talking to politicians about income inequality.

Since Aug. 22, under the auspices of the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc, the group of activists has traveled by van throughout the country to visit politicians from both major parties, including stops at the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Aaron Brickman, an Oakland-based labor organizer, graduate of American Jewish University and member of the tour, said the group targeted politicians who support extending the Bush tax cuts (breaks for individuals and businesses earning more than $250,000 a year) beyond their Dec. 31, 2012 expiration date.

“These are people who, for the most part, keep voting against tax reform,” said Brickman, who checked in by phone with j. throughout the tour. “The idea is just to get out and talk to as many constituents as possible about progressive taxation issues, as well as politicians.”

The group’s members are in their 20s and 30s and hail from all over the United States. They have backgrounds in food justice, interfaith work and homelessness advocacy. But when Bend the Arc’s Bay Area regional director Susan Lubeck started talking to potential participants about the program, it was clear everyone involved shared the same goals.

“Millionaires in Congress trying to force working people to pay more than their fair share in taxes is like a schoolyard bully stealing lunch money from a kid,” Alan van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc, said in a statement. “American Jews have never stood on the sidelines when we have seen injustice and we aren’t going to start now.”

In California, tour members visited the offices of Reps. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), Gary Miller (R-Los Angeles County), and Darrell Issa (R-San Diego County). In some cases, they were able to speak with representatives from the politicians’ offices; in others, they made do with standing outside, holding signs, passing out pamphlets and speaking with constituents who passed by.

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., tour members spoke with students, as well as local residents and delegates. The majority of delegates didn’t want to engage, said Brickman, but a few were friendly and spoke with the visitors at length. The group also made a brief appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

Not everyone has welcomed the activists. In Irving, Texas, Brickman said Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant called the police on tour members “for leafletting his constituents who were largely supportive of the message we were trying to get out.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Brickman said they were “overwhelmed” by their positive reception in Ohio, where they passed out flyers and engaged with people outside of Republican Rep. Jim Renacci’s office on Aug. 31.

In Louisville, Ky., a Labor Day barbecue hosted by local unions allowed tour members to meet “some old-school Jewish progressives from the days of the New Jewish Agenda,” said Brickman, referring to the large leftist Jewish organization active in the 1980s and early ’90s.

“On the whole, we’re hearing that constituents are on the same page as us,” said Brickman, who was en route to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. as of his last check-in earlier this week.

“They’re suffering, dealing with cuts to education, to health care and social services while the deficit is run up, and watching wealthy people get tax breaks,” he added. “Middle-class folks are having to bear the burden. It’s been great to see that people are ready to stand up and say something.”