Not Backing Down from Challenges of Disability, Gun Violence, or Threats to Democracy.

(Former Member of Congress Gabby Giffords and her husband, Astronaut Mark Kelly, Democratic Senator from Arizona)

I thought I knew pretty much everything about the 2011 attempted assassination of former Arizona Member of Congress, Gabby Giffords, and her remarkable and arduous recovery from being shot in the head.  Then I watched an eye-opening CNN documentary about her entitled Won’t Back Down, and was inspired anew.  As the son of a strong woman who fought polio for 92 years, few things move me like the daily, determined struggle to overcome disability.

Giffords’ story is astonishing, as is the unshakeable love story between her and Mark Kelly, an astronaut and genuine American hero—whose bald head reminds me of a modern day Dwight D. Eisenhower.  I love watching how he still takes her hand and gently guides her through crowds each time she speaks.  I love Gabby’s inspiring story for all of us, to never give up; I love how much Mark Kelly loves her.  This is the essence of life, and love, and hope, and the right stuff we like to see in our leaders, and ourselves.

Following Kelly’s recent re-election as a Democratic Senator from Arizona, winning his first full-term to fill the seat of John McCain—another American hero– the national Democratic Party should be fixated on figuring out a way to put Mark Kelly on the 2024 ticket. 

Biden, an octogenarian who’ll be 82 if he runs for re-election, needs to follow the graceful example set by Nancy Pelosi, also 82, and embrace smart, succession planning, to clear the way for a new generation of leadership.  At 58 years old—even though he looks older–Kelly clearly fits in that category, as do many other promising Democrats, including Kamala Harris, also 58; Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who turns 41 in January, 2023; Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, age 52; New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, 53, and Colorado Congressman Jason Crow, age 43.

With such a deep Democratic bench of raw political and public service talent, it’s time for Biden to take the advice of one his political heroes, JFK, and “pass the torch to a new generation.”  He can take pride in a whole list of accomplishments during his term:  from defeating Trump, to saving the nation from a calamitous COVID response, rescuing the economy from ruin, and passing the largest infrastructure rebuilding program ever.  His elevation of the first female Vice-President in American history was also enormously consequential. 

 Good job, Joe; but now, it’s time to go.  I know that it’s tough for someone accustomed to center stage for 50 years to step out of the spotlight.  But, your legacy may well depend on how smoothly you leave.

If the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, it might be easier for Biden to ensure that legacy and step down before the end of his term.  Such a bold move could give Kamala Harris, the advantage of incumbency heading into 2024, permitting the nation’s first female President, to pick the perfect Vice-President— a heroic and humane figure, with broad bipartisan appeal like Mark Kelly– ready to assume office immediately.  Biden’s self-less stepping aside could neutralize the Hunter Biden hangmen of the GOP, and force the country’s focus on a new generation of exciting, pioneering leadership and issues of urgency to Gen Z and Millenials, like climate change, gun safety, and the right of individual bodily autonomy. 

In such a scenario, to preserve the Democrats’ Senate Majority, the newly elected Democratic Governor of Arizona, Katie Hobbs, would have to immediately fill Kelly’s Senate seat with a new progressive Democrat, like Latino Congressman Ruben Gallego, a 43-year old Iraq War veteran and rising progressive star.  The possibilities for diversity, youth and a newly energized electorate would be unlimited.

Unfortunately, the 25th Amendment, and the takeover of the House of Representatives by a collection of crazies from Marjorie Taylor Greene, to Jim Jordan to Matt Gaetz, and Arizona’s own ghoul, Paul Gosar—despised by his own family– puts the kabosh on my dream sequence. 

Passed in 1967 following the assassination of JFK four years earlier, the 25th Amendment requires that any person appointed to fill the Vice-Presidency be approved by both Houses of Congress.  It was tested twice in the decade after the Amendment’s passage, when Nixon replaced the disgraced, indicted, bribe-taking, avatar of corruption Spiro Agnew, with Gerald Ford in 1973, and again the following year, when Nixon himself resigned, and Ford—who assumed the Presidency—nominated Nelson Rockefeller to the Vice-Presidency.  Although the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House for each vote, Ford and Rockefeller, both Republicans, were approved in the interest of national unity.

It’s unlikely an uncontrollable, chaotic GOP-slimed House would care one iota about the national interest, even if, God forbid, Biden died or became incapacitated during his last two years in office. A dysfunctional deadlock in the House of Representatives over a new Vice-President, would keep Kevin McCarthy, or whom ever becomes Speaker, as next in line for the Presidency until the next election–a terrifying thought. 

It’s doubtful that GOP dark-money groups, having just polluted Arizona’s fresh, clean air with tens of millions of dirty dollars in a failed attempt to defeat Mark Kelly, would lay low during Congressional confirmation hearings.  They clearly understood and feared the power of Kelly’s cross-party, All-American appeal, and the lock on the White House he could bring the Dems—generating even greater national visibility for his wife Gabby Giffords to fight for gun safety.  The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, in lockstep with Leonard Leo, would be apoplectic, having nightmares of Assault Weapon Bans, background check legislation, and a steady stream of rational, intelligent, compassionate Democratic judicial nominees.

So, we’ll just have to keep fighting for the future the way we’ve been doing for decades:  in an open set of 2024 Democratic primaries to choose the next Presidential candidate.  Only to make it truly open, President Biden has to announce sometime in 2023, that he’s not running for re-election; that he’s accomplished what he set out to do, especially cultivating a new crop of highly qualified successors, to continue.

Such a bold, Biden move would demonstrate that Democrats—like the courageous and inspirational Gabby Giffords–Won’t Back Down, and are unafraid of passing the torch of public service over to a new generation of leaders, ready to take on the battles for democracy, decency, human rights, economic and social justice and equality for all.  

After all, it’s the American way.

Legacies of Light: Frank Lloyd Wright, Josh Shapiro & Etty.

Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Governor-Elect.

The first time I met Josh Shapiro, he didn’t strike me as Ted Lasso, the way the brilliant writer David Sirota described him earlier this month, in his piece “The Democrat Who Picks Fights with Bad Guys,”  (

After all, Shapiro, the Governor-elect of Pennsylvania, and I met four years ago in April, 2018, two years before the upbeat Ted Lasso entered America’s consciousness on television, and six months before hate and anti-Semitism murdered 11 Jews quietly worshipping at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg on an ordinary Saturday morning.

Serendipity brought our families together at Beth Sholom Synagogue, in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, on a similar Saturday morning across the State. Carol Villano and I were there to celebrate the 90th birthday of the matriarch of Carol’s family, Ethel “Etty” Jacobson Hamburger.

Shapiro’s family, like our beloved Etty’s, also belonged to the only synagogue in the United States designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and declared a National Historic Landmark.   Josh Shapiro was there to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of his son, Jonah, who, two years later would achieve instant internet fame by casually walking in on his father’s November 2020, MSNBC post-election interview, as then Pennsylvania AG Shapiro explained his legal challenges to Trump’s Presidential election deniers.

Twenty years earlier, with Josh Shapiro fresh out of Georgetown Law and living in DC, we first visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural “tribute to Mount Sinai,” when Etty, then 70, and her granddaughter Stephanie, both made their Bat Mitzvahs.     The synagogue’s soaring design—with its’ translucent glass roof reaching skyward, and the graceful melding of geometric shapes in every detail– mesmerized and inspired me.

 During long Hebrew riffs in services that I didn’t always fully understand, my eyes would wander up and down the fiberglass walls of the Temple, and up 110 feet to the crest of the ceiling, marveling at every meticulous detail in metal, wood, stone or glass.  Being at Beth Sholom, was a feast for every sense, and left me feeling uplifted.

So it was in that context, bathed in the soft, filtered light passing through the luminescent roof of this Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, that we were introduced to Josh Shapiro and his family by our Etty, and her oldest daughter, Pam.  Most of her fellow synagogue members knew Etty, since, a decade earlier, she was honored as “Congregant of the Year” at Beth Sholom.  That’s just who she was.

At the Oneg celebration following that morning’s services to literally “break (challah) bread” with the other families sharing joys of life that day (like the Shapiros), Etty waved us over to where they were sitting. 

“Carol, Steve,” Etty called to us, reaching out her arm.  “Come, come–you’ve got to meet our State’s Attorney, Josh Shapiro. I was just telling him of your work with Mario Cuomo, and of the book you wrote all about it.”

This was Ethel Jacobson Hamburger at her cheerleading, family-advocacy best.

Ever since I entered the family 46 years earlier (and later converted to Judaism), I fell head over heels in love with the woman.  She embraced us wandering Jews, for Shabbat dinners and Jewish Holidays, and was there to help us out when our son, Matt, was born in Washington, DC, in 1975, (two years after Josh Shapiro was born), and was present in New York to celebrate Matt’s Bar Mitzvah, 13 years later.    It was as natural as sunshine for Etty to become a booster for my memoir, “Tightrope:  Balancing a Life Between Mario Cuomo & My Brother,” when it was published in 2017.  It’s just who she was.

She arranged a “book talk” for me at Martin’s Run, the senior care facility where she was living outside of Philadelphia in the Fall of 2017, and filled the room with dozens of her fellow residents—aged 80 to 100—who were interested in learning how to write their own memoirs.

A former teacher, founder of libraries, and a literacy maven, Etty had some practical, and loving, advice for me on how she, at age 89, would help sell my book.

“Steve,” she said.  “I’ve put together a list of many Jewish publications in and around Philadelphia, and I think it would be advantageous for you to contact them before you come down here.”

“ I love this idea, Etty,” I responded.  “Plus, I may be the only new author with an 89-year old Jewish grandmother for my press agent.”

Etty kvelled and smiled her sweet smile:  “Great grandmother,” she added, to be more precise.

So, Josh Shapiro— the up and coming Pennsylvania politician and national political figure, and as Dave Sirota wrote, “cheery mensch your Jewish grandmother really wanted you to be,” had met his match.  Etty entertained him with her generous review of my book, and felt that because of our similar commitments to make our faith come alive through compassionate, inclusive, and progressive public service, it was fate that we meet.  She was merely fate’s facilitator, a Yentl, of sorts.

Not even the brilliant, natural light that poured in through the panels of Frank Lloyd Wrights’ “luminous Mount Sinai,” could match the warmth and brightness of Ethel Jacobson Hamburger’s sparkling smile that day, her 90th birthday.  I cannot think of Josh Shapiro and his battles against injustice and hate, without thinking of Etty’s love and gratitude.

I think of her, and Josh Shapiro, and the moment we met inside the heart of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete & glass ode to exultation, and I permit myself to, once again, have hope for humanity.

I Am ALL 12 Angry Men.

I am ALL 12 angry men.

I am a truthful man,

Furious at the evil hate and fear

Of strong women, by flaccid, weak men;

Shriveled souls, hell-bent on complete control,

To compensate for un-faced failures, buried deep inside dark holes.

I am a Caucasian man,

Enraged at so many vile, bigoted White people,

Ignorance etched into every pore,

Proud of their prejudices; poisoned to the core.

I am the descendant of Italians,

Disgusted by the pig-headedness of many brothers

Whose names end in vowels, but think with their bowels,

Forgetting when our people were the “others.”

I am a Jew by choice,

Refusing to mute my voice,

When Christians, I once was, and knew,

Campaign to erase all living, and dead, Jews.

Nor do I support Theocratic Israeli Jews,

Who think they have nothing to lose,

By resorting to that same Rule by Hate,

To justify a Jewish State, as if that breaks the chain.

I am a grandfather of girls,

Determined to repair and improve their worlds,

So they can live in peace and calm,

Free from all violence or any harm.

I am a man closing in on death,

Who’ll fight until my dying breath,

For freedom to love, and live and think,

That could be gone in but a blink

If we shut our eyes to injustice and pain,

Our legacy, forever stained.

I am a student of the law,

Passionate about fairness and playing by the rules,

With zero tolerance for arrogant fools,

Who demand order, for all but their own ghouls.

I am an angry man, demanding dignity for all,

Detesting acts so cruel and mean and small,

Protesting “jokes” and winks, to purposely berate,

Or anything from anyone which masquerades the hate.

I am a father and a lover,

Fierce in the protection of my loves,

And of the other, who, unsheltered, or without embrace,

Have no less need to be seen, or feel a caring eye upon their face.

I am the son of immigrants, and of imagination,

Of dreams, of values, of hope, and indignation

That incantations about equality and fairness are goals, not actual,

That until achieved, are far, far, less than satisfactual.

I am an ethical human child, whose present is my future;

Who, despite my age, will not be mild in my rage for what is right,

Nor sit silently through the dreadful, deepening night,

Knowing that beauty and life and love depend upon our light.