Pictured: Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on election night, monitoring the close results in his situation room.
It was a very intense transition from the Harvard Kennedy School’s intellectual haven as a Wexner Israel Fellow, to the hot and complicated politics of Jerusalem. During my Wexner Fellowship last year, trying to figure out how I would leverage my new learning and pay it forward through my next job, I met with Mayor Barkat twice. We decided that I should step out of my professional advisory and policy comfort zone and step into the political side, joining the Mayor’s ticket for re-election. I was positioned #6 on his slate in the municipal elections that took place October 22nd, and had a good chance of being elected (we had 6 members out of the total 31 members in the Jerusalem City Council in his last term).
As a member of the Jerusalem central election committee, I was also overseeing the election count. At 1 am last Tuesday, after the polls closed, I was sitting with two of my best friends, colleagues and partners on my Jerusalem journey, on the stairs of City Hall. At the time, one number deeply concerned us: the turnout rates were substantially lower than the last mayoral elections in 2008 (37% this time versus 43% in ‘08). Conventional wisdom assumed that the lower the voting rate, the lower our chances for our slate. The vast majority of the Ultra-Orthodox voted against us in the past, and they usually don’t have problems with voter turnout.
For me, that night marked the end of an important period in my life, after ten years working with Nir Barkat, five as partners in the management of the city’s largest non-profit for young adults, and another five as Head of Strategy and Policy to the Mayor. The elections turned out to be more intense than any of us had anticipated. Two of the most influential politicians in national Israeli politics, Aryeh Deri (the head of the ultra-orthodox “SHAS” party) and Avigdor Lieberman (head of “Yisrael Beiteinu” and #2 to Netanyahu), were endorsing our opponent, Moshe Lion. The election had become a story of old politics, of voting contractors bringing votes to an unknown candidate (Lion), who didn’t even live in Jerusalem, versus our democratic outreach for support based on character, vision, professionalism and record.
My first assignment when I returned to Israel was to prepare the Barkat plan for 2013. Our vision for the next term was an interesting mix, building on the successes and mistakes of the previous term, with fresh plans for the future. As we grew closer to the election, plans accelerated, especially party candidates’ debates. As I was perceived to be a good public speaker, very familiar with the Mayor and his agenda, and also the party’s voice towards moderates and the “young adult” crowd, I was sent to dozens of these events, night after night. At HKS, I had taken Professor Marshall Ganz’ practical workshops, which focused on our personal narratives and versions of the story of self. I used the skills honed in those workshops over and over again as I had to tell my vision for Jerusalem to voters in one minute, in 3 minute, and in 5 minute sound-bites; explain why my party should get the vote; talk about pluralism, economic growth, our agenda for East Jerusalem, and so on.
At 3 am we found out that our party shrank from 6 seats to 4, regretfully leaving me out of the council. Nir Barkat was safely leading with more than 10,000 votes (out of the 210,000 that voted), but our base supporters had not turned out in great numbers. Our campaign had been highly focused on technology and election day management preparation, and not as much on building activism in the field. As we understood that it would be a very close race, all energy had been focused on the mayoral part of the campaign; building enthusiasm and support for the party and our slate was overlooked.
I am not yet sure where one can make a better contribution, in political office or in policy and advisory positions. I guess the choice is personal and based on character and options. As I figure out my next steps, the lessons and friendships I gained last year in my Wexner Class 24, will give me the energy and will serve me well to face my next challenges.
Roy Folkman, a Wexner Israel Fellowship Alum, Class 24, served as policy advisor to Nir Birkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem. Roy headed the strategic planning department of the Jerusalem Municipality and in the recent election was asked to focus on economic development and Jewish renewal issues. He is now on a slate to join the municipal government. Roy is the co-founder of New Spirit, the largest student organization in Jerusalem, which deals with internships, culture, community building, and affordable housing. Roy has also held several leadership positions in other political and educational arenas, including the National Planning Committee of the Office of the Interior, CEO of the Hebrew University Student Union, and teaching assistant and guest lecturer at the Hebrew University. Upon completion of his military tenure as an infantry field medic with the “Nachal Brigade,” Roy enrolled in the Hebrew University where he earned his BA in Economics and Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and his MA with honors at the School of Public Policy. Roy also earned an MA in Public Administration this past year as a Wexner Israel Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Roy can be reached at email@example.com.