Photo courtesy of Ralph Jaffe

Ralph Jaffe’s war chest for his campaign to be Maryland’s next governor is $415. You read that right.

This is by design. Jaffe, a Pikesville resident and teacher, and his sister and running mate, Freda Jaffe, raised the same amount together in 2016, when he launched a bid for U.S. Senate, and he never went above $490 in prior campaigns for Senate in 2012 or governor in 2010, he says.

The reason? “You cannot be ethical if you take campaign contributions because you’ve been bought,” he says. “You’re beholden to the people that give you the money. It’s called influence peddling, money peddling. It’s bribes.”

Jaffe says his campaigns are part of a movement to upend Maryland’s political system and bring about a new paradigm free of monetary influence in politics. He would strive to set an example for all if elected, denouncing contributions, donating his salary to “the poor and needy of our state” and fixating on developing a youth mentorship program to steer kids away from violence, in Baltimore in particular. (He also wants to bring in the National Guard for three to six weeks to “extinguish the fire” of persistent violence; more on that below.)

Beyond his dislike for career politicians, Jaffe is also highly critical of the news, claiming “98 percent of the media is corrupt” due to bias. His name is oftentimes left out of gubernatorial race coverage–likely due to the crowded field and his place in the polling order–even though he’s been listed as an official Democratic candidate since May 2017. He claims The Sun in particular has “attempted to discredit my teaching and the Jaffe movement” by not noting his candidacy at times, and plans to sue the paper for $1 if he doesn’t secure the Democratic nomination in June. (Jaffe had initially planned to sue for $1 billion, according to an April 16 press release.)

Fortunately, he agreed to chat with us. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation about money in politics, his campaign, what keeps him coming back to run for office and more.

Baltimore Fishbowl: What sets you apart in the crowded field of Democratic challengers?

Ralph Jaffe: The word trust is the difference. You see, first of all, I started a movement, which has a track record, 15 years ago, and that movement is designed to do the following: to begin the process of getting rid of all the corruption in Maryland politics and replace it with something called real, true, ethical reform. That is what the Jaffe movement is all about. Now in order to do that, there are five principles that every politician should adhere to: One is you can’t take campaign contributions because they’re disguised bribes. They might be legal, but they are unethical.

Now, my budget for every one of my campaigns has been no more than about $490—that was probably in the beginning; my last campaign, which I ran in 2016, my budget was $415. I am a teacher, I am not a politician. I want to stress that. Donald Trump stole my approach. He said he was not a politician, he was a businessman. So he lied and people were snookered into voting for him, whereas Jaffe tells the truth and doesn’t lie. He pursues the truth as he understands it to be.

I’ve used these campaigns as a teaching device to show my students where the corruption is. The second thing I teach my students is that what a first-time politician does when he or she is elected is they go into the office that they’ve just been elected to, and they look at the fancy furniture and the drapery and the carpeting and the staff they’re gonna have and the telephones, and they say, “Wow, this is for me.” They want to maintain this new potential power, fame and money for as long as they possibly can. What that brings about is government that is in gridlock, as they say; government that does not serve the people, that only serves these career politicians, be they Democrats or Republicans, be they white, black, Jewish, Muslim, whatever it is. And that’s why our state is so screwed up.

The next thing a politician must do is he or she must pursue the truth at all times, not just some of the time. And the next thing a politician must do is to show he’s really dedicated to what he or she’s doing, so that means you serve freely. You do not take a salary. What my running mate and I are committed to doing is as follows: Should we get elected, the combination of the governor and the lieutenant governor [salaries] is about $300,000. We’re gonna take that money and put it into a trust fund to be distributed to the poor and needy of our state.

The last thing that we also stress: I don’t talk to any paid professional lobbyists. I teach my students to be their own advocates. The most important thing in participatory democracy is not voting. It’s what goes on in between the voting, where every citizen has the obligation to become aware of the issues to the best of his or her ability, and then to take positions on these issues and call these phony career politicians up and say: “I don’t like your attitude or your position on this issue. If you continue this, I’m not going to vote for you.” That’s what people have to do, which they don’t do. And that’s why our system unfortunately has become so corrupt and so sadly failed because the citizens are not doing their homework.

BFB: What’s your response to critics who may slight you for a lack of experience serving in elected office?

RJ: There’s something called delegation of authority. The most important thing any politician can have is trust. Everybody that works with me is a volunteer. I don’t get paid, either. Everything I’ve done since 1990 has been free. Not only do I run these movements, I also help people find jobs free of charge, we have a free transportation system for the elderly or people who can’t drive to their doctor’s appointments or if they want to do shopping.

The most important thing a candidate should have is trust and ideas. His or her moral character and ideas are what really counts. If I don’t know something, then I don’t know it, but I’ve got people I can go to who are experts, and I’ll listen to what they have to say. And based on their feelings, I’ll make a decision. If I don’t know something, I’m not gonna lie about it.

Experience isn’t what’s important; what’s important is your character and your ideas, and whether you can be trusted.

BFB: Governor Hogan has made a point of focusing on corruption in Annapolis on a yearly basis. Do you think he’s gone far enough?

RJ: He hasn’t even started. I’d give him high marks for his effort in battling cancer. I’d give him an A+. As a politician, he’s a failure. First of all, if you look at his war chest it’s about $8 or 9 million, according to anything you read in The Baltimore Sun. That’s $8 or $9 million worth of bribes, because that’s what campaign contributions are—they’re bribes.

As a religious guy, I have to respect him because he was created by your maker, my maker, but I don’t have to respect his behavior. He’s very shrewd.

And by the way, his attitude towards Donald Trump, he’s very wise. Why doesn’t he call for his impeachment? I’d call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Why doesn’t the governor call for the impeachment of Donald Trump? He hasn’t done it, has he? He doesn’t want to hurt his base. If he had real courage, that’s what he would do.

BFB: You’ve entered a number of high-profile races over the years, including bids for U.S. Senate and governor more recently. What keeps you coming back each cycle?

RJ: It’s a movement. You know what a movement is? A movement is when you begin to try to correct the injustices in society, like the Civil Rights movement… I started this movement 15 years ago, we made a lot of progress. Some people think, by the way, that I’m only in this for the movement. But no. If elected, I will serve. But this is a movement. We’re only 15 years old. My movement is a puppy. We’ve got to try. You have to make the effort, man.

If I would get fair media coverage, I could get elected. But the media—speaking of what’s corrupt—98 percent of the media is corrupt, be it of a liberal persuasion, a conservative persuasion. You ever watch Fox? They’re as corrupt as can be now. Mr. Sean Hannity, he’s as corrupt as you can get. And CNN, they don’t always tell the truth either, neither does MSNBC. They all have agendas. It;s hard to find a truly ethical member of the journalistic world. There are some, but far and few between.

BFB: In Baltimore City, what would you do to address crime and police reform?

RJ: First order of business is to call in the National Guard for three to six weeks. This may not be what would be called “politically correct,” but it’s the right thing to do. We have to extinguish the fire. I guarantee if you had the guard out there for three to six weeks, you would see the greatest reduction in the history of crime.

The guard would be there just to supplement the police force. They don’t need to bring any tanks, just a uniform and a rifle. That’s all they need to do. And when they see somebody out on the street, they say, “Sir, can I ask you a question? What are you doing now?” and if the guy’s respectful and says, “Well, I’m just going to my mother’s,” then “OK good, go on to your mother’s, that’s fine.” In other words, there’s not enough of an authority presence right now to prevent the crime from continuing.

They are at least 1,000 officers short, and to replace the officers is not so simple to do. You have to train these guys, and they have to be qualified people. It’s not so simple to replace.

The other thing is my tutor-teen mentor program, and this is mind-boggling. I went to North Avenue to speak to a mid-level bureaucrat in the Baltimore Public School System…you know, I offered three schools this free program free of charge, and none of these principals even had the decency to get back to me. Can you imagine that? Free of charge.

It works like this: My program would be designed so that any student—it should start in the elementary level–any student would have the opportunity to hook on to what we’d call a tutor-mentor team, and that tutor-mentor team would consist of successful people, and once they connected with that student, be they boy or girl, would stay with that student until they either graduated from high school with a job or from college with a job. And I offered to put this in any school you want. I gave two of the schools the outline. They never called me back. They never even returned my phone calls. Could you imagine that? Dr. Santelises is nothing but a figurehead. That’s all she is.

This is why the school system, instead of filled with students who have hope, is filled with students who are filled with hopelessness, and that’s why they resort to crime.

BFB: How would you change the campaigning and elections process in Maryland?

RJ: It’s real easy. You don’t need any laws. That city finance plan is a fraud. All you do is make an announcement: I’m not gonna take any contributions, period. That’s all you have to do. You don’t need laws, just make an announcement to the media. “Jaffe is not taking any campaign contributions, period.”

BFB: What about the process for other candidates? What would you do to change that process?

RJ: I just told you. If I had access as [Hogan] has, I would say: “I’m not taking any money, period. It’s wrong. I acknowledge it, it’s a mistake.” At least he’d be man enough to say it’s a mistake. Right now, we don’t have one ethical politician in this state or in this country. You cannot be ethical if you take campaign contributions because you’ve been bought. You’re beholden to the people that give you the money. It’s called influence peddling, money peddling. It’s bribes, it’s what it is.

BFB: So you don’t think you would need to change the law? It’d just be an announcement from one person?

RJ: We have to show that there’s somebody that people can trust. That’s where I come in. I’ve kept my word. I’ll give you an example: If I could get, say, 50,000 votes, this time on a budget of $415, that would be made known all over the country, if Jaffe got 50,000 votes and spent, by design, $415. It’s by example.Once they see I did it, I would be the role model for everybody else.

It’s a movement, man. Is [the successful movement] gonna be in my life? I don’t know. You have to ask my maker that question. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. All I know is that as long as I’m alive and my brain is working, I’m gonna continue this movement. Hopefully somebody else will take it over when I’m finished.

BFB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received regarding a run for office?

RJ: You ever heard of Rush Limbaugh? He once said “follow your dreams, follow your passion.” But here’s what I say: “Believe in your maker. He put you here for a purpose. Figure out what your purpose is and know it’s because your maker put you on this earth, to fulfill that purpose.” That’s what you do.

BFB: Do you have a favorite place in Baltimore City?

RJ: I used to love to go to Oriole baseball games. Baseball is my passion. It’s interesting because if you have a batter, the batter symbolizes the struggle of mankind. He’s got–or she’s got, because there are also players for softball as well, for girls—all these people playing third base, shortstop, second base, first base, left field, center field, right field. They’re always trying to stop you from succeeding, and you’re trying to overcome the odds.

My favorite place is my synagogue. I get closer to my maker. That’s one thing that’s really wrong with our society. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m religious. And unfortunately there are too many people who haven’t found their maker yet, and that’s the biggest reason why we’re all suffering. Whether you’re Catholic, you’re Protestant, it doesn’t matter. We all have the same maker. And until we get to know our maker—for those who don’t do that, they’re lost. That’s the source of the drug problem. We don’t have responsible parents and we don’t have religious values. And when you don’t have that, you wind up in trouble.

BFB: If you don’t get the nomination, who are you backing to run against Gov. Hogan?

RJ: I am not going to commit to anything right now because right now because, quite frankly, I am not pleased with any of the candidates. I think all of the candidates running, they’re all nice people, good people. I like all of the candidates running, all eight of them. I like the governor. But I don’t like their behavior.

I am not going to make any commitment right now until I see how the primary turns out. When that primary is over, then I’ll make a statement, officially, of whom I’m going to support or not support.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...