By midnight, the precinct-by-precinct numbers stretched across the length of the wall at Melinda Katz’s campaign headquarters. But one of her most seasoned campaign workers honed in on a mere handful from Far Rockaway and Howard Beach.
“Look over there,” he said. “That’s where the election was lost.”The crucial returns, from the 23rd Assembly District, a collection of mostly Irish and Italian neighborhoods, and a sprinkling of Jews, were from Katz’s own geographic base in Queens, where she serves as a state Assembly member.
Unlike almost all the other Queens precincts in this cliffhanger of a race to succeed Rep. Charles Schumer in Congress, the 23rd went heavily to City Councilman Anthony Weiner, not Katz. It was only a few hundred votes. But in this low-turnout, four-person race, which saw Weiner apparently beat Katz by a mere 285 votes, slight slippage was all it took when Weiner’s own base in Brooklyn came through strongly.
“It was the Genovesi machine, alive with Italians,” opined one Jewish analyst, referring to the legendary political organization of the late Assemblyman Tony Genovesi, who died in a car crash last month. His organization, which worked hard for Weiner, darted into this multiethnic enclave in Katz’s territory and took it, he asserted.
Lou Simon, the district leader for this territory, told The Jewish Week, “I wasn’t working for Weiner, I was working for Schumer and [attorney general candidate Catherine] Abate, for the Queens Democratic organization.” But Katz, the organization’s congressional choice, was conspicuously missing from Simon’s roll call.
There was, to be sure, no shortage of explanations and interpretations, as analysts mulled over the results of the hotly contested Democratic primary for the Ninth Congressional District seat Wednesday morning. In percentage terms, Weiner and Katz finished in a dead heat, at 28 percent each, with Weiner getting 12,569 votes to Katz’s 12,284.
City Councilman Noach Dear, who spent more than $1.5 million on a campaign focused on the district’s Orthodox voters, garnered 10,041 votes, 22 percent of the electorate. Assemblyman Daniel Feldman, who had the support of Brooklyn’s Democratic organization, came in last with 9,783 votes, also 22 percent.
Katz herself made no concession speech, pointing out that 1,600 absentee and paper ballots had yet to be counted. But even her mentor, New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, acknowledged the odds were stacked against these ballots altering the final outcome. Final tallies are expected by the end of the week.
“It was a dead heat,” he said. “We were on the wrong the side of the dead heat.”
While Katz partisans focused on the 23rd Assembly District as a crucial shortfall for them, with such close numbers there were many other explanations for just when and where the contest was decided. Several observers pointed to Schumer’s late endorsement of Weiner, his former aide and 34-year-old protege as key. If so, this presumably countered the strong endorsements Katz received from The New York Times and Newsday.
Katz herself denounced a heavy 23rd-hour flurry of negative leaflets against her that Dear mass mailed which, she claimed, consisted of “lies about my voting record and false allegations saying I violated federal election laws.”
But whatever the explanation, most agreed it was a big loss for Dear’s strategy of building victory on the Orthodox vote and a huge reaffirmation of the enduring importance of broad-based coalitions. (See story on opposite page.) Dear had explicitly described his campaign as a test of Orthodox strength. But in fact, one Jewish communal official pointed out, the Orthodox turnout in New York has traditionally been much lower than that of Jews in general.
“This election further exposes the weakness of the Orthodox vote,” said the official. “If the Orthodox become part of a coalition, as they have in Carnarsie, Midwood and Williamsburgh, those pockets become very potent. But if the only goal is identity politics, they’re impotent."
The ritualistic trip that politicians made to see the Lubavitcher rebbe only produced 2,000 votes in that neighborhood. Political professionals are starting to understand this,” he said.
Another apparent big loser in the race was Hevesi, who had thrown the weight of his formidable citywide organization strongly behind his protege, Katz. But the city comptroller strongly rejected the suggestion that this carried any portent for his own organizational strength in the event of a widely expected mayoral bid in 2001.
“The variables that go into a citywide race in three years are complex,” said Hevesi as he milled among the disappointed Katz supporters at Pasta d’Giorno Italian restaurant in Forest Hills late Tuesday night. “Those variables have nothing to do with a political event three years before [that race].”
Several observers also pointed to the serious failure of the Brooklyn Democratic organization to boost Feldman, the choice of Kings Country Democratic chairman Clarence Norman.
With the exception of Dear, who took conservative positions on abortion, gay rights and school vouchers, it was an election in which the candidates’ actual stands on most issues differed little.
All stood strongly for health care reform, protecting social security and other social welfare issues. All except Dear strongly backed abortion rights and opposed tuition vouchers for education.
“There wasn’t enough difference to slide a piece of paper between the candidates,” said Norman Adler, a prominent New York political consultant.