By: Yasmeen Khalifa
Standing room only. More than 50 people stand in a vast room, waiting with anticipation to hear what the man in the prim black suit (adorned with a lapel pin featuring his name alongside the Texas symbol), pale pink button down and business-like rectangular glasses has to say. A group of men stand close together, eyebrows furrowed, arms crossed, stoic expressions frozen on their faces. A slender, well-groomed man in scrubs looks forward with a slight smile, rocking his fussy 2-year-old. A tall, bald man with a wild mustache stands close to the speaker, leaning on a nearby pillar, smiling so big that the corners of his eyes crinkle upwards. The low hum of voices fizzles out as the stout man begins speaking. Suddenly, a roar of laughter rips through the once static room.
“Thank you to Anwar for hosting us … and to Iftikhar. Actually this was all an excuse to get Iftikhar’s food.”
This is Neal Katz. A man who, as UT Tyler Political Science student Jacob Mcleod puts it, “jokes around a lot” and “doesn’t really take himself too seriously.”
Katz was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in Virginia Beach where everyone on Gladiola Street knew everyone, and his best friend, James, lived right across the street. When he was 16, he decided he was going to attend rabbinical school in Cincinnati after completing an undergrad in political science. Shortly after graduating from Hebrew Union College, he moved to Tyler.
“I wasn’t interested in coming to Texas and certainly not to Tyler, but as I finished up [my student pulpit] here and prepared for my fifth year of school I said, you know what, I could come back … do a few years here to get my feet wet … so they brought me on for a three-year contract and I never left. There’s a phrase in Hebrew. It’s called ‘Kavod HaRav.’ It means respect for the Rabbi. … It’s a good community here; they have ‘Kavod HaRav,’” Katz said.
Katz has been an integral and active member of the East Texas community ever since. He has been a Rabbi at Congregation Beth El for 16 years. Over the course of his residence here, he has been involved in a slew of committees, boards and organizations such as the Hospice Foundation Board, the City of Tyler Arts Council, the Samaritan Counseling Center Board, Art of Peace, etc. You name it, and Katz has been a part of it.
Now, Katz is undertaking a new venture.
He is running for the House of Representatives 6th District as an Independent candidate.
After being presented with the opportunity to run for a city council position, Neal contemplated running for eight months, but ended up deciding against it. But he had “already gotten the bug.” It wasn’t until a former state representative at a Kerrville folk festival suggested he run against the incumbent that the itch was finally satisfied.
“It lit a fire in me,” Katz said. “The only way you’re gonna change public policy and all the things we complain about is to actually change whose butt is in the seat at Austin.”
But he’s not doing it without help. Due to his commitment to getting minority-voting communities involved in the election, he’s pulling in students to help him with his campaign.
“I feel like a win on my part would be disingenuous if I didn’t have their voices [the millennial, African American, and Hispanic communities]. So that’s why I’m getting them involved because I think they all have a valid voice,” Katz said.
Mcleod is the volunteer coordinator for Katz’s campaign. Like Katz, Mcleod is also immersed in various organizations, including on campus groups such as Student Government Association and off-campus endeavors like the Smith County Young Democrats. But his passion for this campaign rose above doubts about adding one more pursuit to his already full plate.
“Two weeks in I was like ‘oh my god’ this is a lot of work; I don’t know if I should’ve done this, but, like, it’s always exciting, and I don’t regret getting on the campaign,” Mcleod said.
Although Mcleod classifies himself primarily as a Democrat and Katz is running as an Independent, they both have a common goal: student involvement and public education.
“I really like how he’s brought young people on the campaign and talks to them and believes in us and our power. He’s really trying to reach college students. … I want someone who will fight for our public schools. … He really will be a big advocate for our public education system and the students,” Mcleod said while gesturing enthusiastically, the shadow of a smile breaking through his serious demeanor.
Like Katz and Mcleod, UT Tyler Student and Campaign Outreach Coordinator Katie Hicken identifies with their ardor for homing in on the education sector. She feels strongly about the financial difficulties students face, such as having to pick between eating or paying for housing.
“Neal understands the struggles that college students face and is willing to support things like a food pantry, for example, that would alleviate parts of the financial insecurity that college students face,” Hicken said.
Katz is passionate about providing colleges in East Texas with the financial support they need to thrive throughout the many changes they constantly undergo.
“Every time there’s a growth at UT Tyler there needs to be a legislative carve out for that growth … so one issue is just being an advocate for those schools [UT Tyler and TJC] down there in Austin. … The second level is for me to just listen to them [college students],” Katz said.
Not only is he vouching for student involvement and higher education, but he’s also fighting for the public school system as a whole. He hopes to combat the voucher system, which he explains as “a way to privatize public school funding with the misleading idea that competition fixes everything. It does if you’re a pizza restaurant but our kids aren’t pizzas. Our kids aren’t commodities to be bought and sold.”
This is an issue Hicken, a prominent student leader, is emotionally invested in. She yearns to one day be a government teacher.
“Public education, within politics, is like one of the most important things to me, and he has some really tangible goals for that, and he actually cares about improving the public education system rather than privatizing it. … It gives me hope that there are still people that care about teachers, especially because I’m gonna be one,” Hicken said, the corners of her lips turning up slightly.
The midterm elections are on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Katz’s opponent is Republican Incumbent Matt Schaefer. Katz has one common message for students and nonstudents alike: “Government goes to those who show up.”