By Jeffrey Saltz
Candidates for public office frequently state that they learn the most about local issues by talking with their voters. This may sound like a cliche, but in fact I recently learned about virulent anti-Semitism and racism lurking right in our backyard, by talking with voters who have been exposed to such hatred.
Together with my running mate Wendy Rothstein, I am a Democratic candidate for Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County — the main county court located in Norristown. As a candidate, I have traveled the length and breadth of Montgomery County, a large and diverse district, from my home in Lower Merion to close-by communities in Cheltenham and Abington, to the more rural areas farther north. Wherever I go, I have spoken of the lessons that we have learned this year about the importance of judges in protecting individual rights and in standing up to government abuse of power.
Ever since August 12, I mention the march of neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville, which for me was a blaring wake-up call. The Charlottesville march was sickening and terrifying. And the most frightening part was that we know that we have not seen the last of these hate groups — especially with the encouragement provided by Donald Trump’s message of moral equivalency. As I have addressed groups around the county, I have asked the question, “What if the next march is here?” Free speech is constitutionally protected, but violence and intimidation are not. Who do you want sitting in the courthouse if the marchers come here and bring these legal issues with them?
Audiences seemed responsive. But in truth, I wondered whether my questions were just abstract and hypothetical. That was until I went to the Perkiomen Valley, in the northern reaches of Montgomery County, encompassing towns like Schwenksville, Red Hill, and Pennsburg. To a group of voters, I posed my usual question — “What would happen if the Klan were to come here?” — but the reaction was very different. They laughed. My question was a foolish one. As the audience explained, “The Klan is already here.” They told me how Klan members have lived in the community for years, including the man in their neighborhood who stands in public places dressed in a Nazi-style brownshirt. The Klan has typically been quiet, but recently, I was told, they have become more vocal. “They feel they have permission now,” one voter said.
Voters in the town of East Greenville showed me flyers that they had received in the mail, anonymously, before the Charlottesville march. I will not describe them in detail, because they were so offensive that I refuse to repeat their content. Let me just say that they were the most vile anti-Semitic and racist materials that I have ever seen. It was as if they had been taken right off the wall of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. They were appalling. I could only imagine the fear that was evoked when everyone in the neighborhood opened their mail that afternoon.
My experience with the voters of the Perkiomen Valley drove home the point that questions about where the next Charlottesville will occur are not just hypothetical. The hate groups are already here. More of them may be coming. We need to be ready, so that violence and intimidation do not threaten our democratic values and individual rights.
Jeffrey Saltz lives in Lower Merion and is a Democratic candidate for the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. He is a past President of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne. More information is available at www.saltzforjudge.com.