Political consultant George Arzt says he recently fielded an interesting request from Orthodox Jewish activists.
The former communications director of the Koch administration was asked to advise the speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, not to write off the Orthodox vote just because she is openly gay and a strong advocate of gay rights and marriage equality, which became law in New York last year. Orthodox organizations oppose most pro-gay legislation.
“They would still like to talk to her,” said Arzt.
The issue of marriage equality was a key factor in the Brooklyn and Queens congressional race last year that elected Republican Bob Turner to succeed Anthony Weiner — rabbis urged a vote against the Democrat in that race, David Weprin, because he supported the Assembly bill.
But when candidates in next year’s mayoral race begin navigating a Jewish political landscape that has been found to be increasingly conservative — with Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants together now making up a sizable majority of the community, according to new survey numbers — it remains to be seen whether candidates necessarily need to tack to the right to win support.
“It’s premature to assume that Orthodox Jews and Russian voters will support conservative Republicans,” said Ester Fuchs, a former adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University.
“I think leaders will continue to be pragmatic in how they instruct their communities to vote. It means compromising on a lot of issues on which they historically concentrated.”
The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released this month, shows that Orthodox New York City residents make up about 40 percent of the city’s 1,086,000 Jews, or more than 430,000 people, while Russians make up 186,000, together making up more than half the city’s Jewish population.
Seventy-seven percent of Russian Jews and 61 percent of the Orthodox in the eight-country area — New York City, Long Island and Westchester — are of voting age, the survey found.
And Orthodox voters have plenty of reinforcements on the way: 208,000 children in the area identify with the various streams of Orthodoxy, far more than the 131,000 non-Orthodox kids in the region. The largest share of those kids, 37 percent, is chasidic.
Because both Orthodox and Russian voters tend to be politically conservative, this may suggest a boost for the trend of Jewish support for Republican candidates.
Indeed, last month Democratic Councilman Lewis Fidler, a fixture in Brooklyn politics for a decade, narrowly lost to a first-time candidate, Republican David Storobin in a race in which Russian-speaking voters may have played a decisive role, sending one of their own to Albany. Born in Belarus, Storobin, a lawyer in private practice, is only the second native of the former Soviet Union to serve in the state legislature.
In the past two decades Jewish support helped elect Rudolph Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg as mayor and George Pataki as governor for three terms.
But the survey suggests more pragmatic politics may shift that trend.
Thirty-five percent of Orthodox Jews and 45 percent of Russian-speaking Jew live in poor households, according to the data. Sixty-two percent of Jews in Brooklyn, where both Orthodox and Russian density is highest, live at an income level below $50,000 per household.
The total number of Jewish households living in poverty rose 22 percent from 103,000 a decade ago to 130,000, and the Orthodox make up 42 percent of the Jewish poor. Eleven percent of Jews in all areas polled said they receive food stamps. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they are “just managing financially.”
The number of Jewish senior citizens who live alone rose from 21,000 a decade ago to 29,000.
Poverty is a growing issue in the suburbs, too, with an astonishing 86 percent rise in poor Jewish households there since the last survey.
That means support for continued grants to social service providers, such as local Jewish community councils, and opposition to the slashing of government programs is likely to be high on the agenda.
“Clearly if you want to run as a Democrat in those communities you have to affirm your willingness to support issues they care about,” said Fuchs. “It’s different in local races than it is for the rest of the five boroughs, where these voters are not evenly distributed.”
Though the shares of Orthodox and Russian voters have increased as a percentage of the total Jewish vote, Fuchs said the strength in numbers is diluted by the poverty level.
“Poor people are less likely to vote,” she said. “Historically, they tend to be more removed from the political process and tend to believe voting doesn’t make a difference for them. They tend to be less likely to register, and young people are more mobile, generally less interested in politics.”
Because of this growing sense of low participation, Orthodox organizations, such as Agudath Israel of America, have made voter registration a priority in recent years. Fuchs says low turnout “represents a challenge for the leadership of these communities who work to deliver block votes.”
This week’s primary for the House of Representatives will present an opportunity to scrutinize the power of Orthodox and Russian voters. There are two races for open seats, including one in which a harsh critic of Israel, Councilman Charles Barron, is running against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who has pledged to support Israel. Incumbent Edolphus Towns is retiring and backing Barron.
Brooklyn’s 8th District includes Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, where 17 percent of Russian-speaking Jews in the New York metro area live. Their votes could amount to as much as a quarter of the expected low turnout (primaries are usually in September), according to an analysis by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Fifty-six percent of Russian Jews surveyed said they feel a strong attachment to Israel.
The other race without an incumbent is in Queens, where Assembly members, Rory Lancman, who is Jewish, and Grace Meng as well as Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley are vying to succeed retiring Gary Ackerman. Part of the Forest Hills/Rego Park neighborhood that is home to 13 percent of the area’s Russian-speaking Jews is in that district, which is also heavily Orthodox. With all candidates in that race pro-Israel, the edge could go to the candidate perceived to be stronger on social services.
“They are very much interested in social services and are not going to be people who oppose the welfare state and the government supporting programs,” said Fuchs.
“There isn’t a monolithic Jewish vote anymore,” Fuchs continued. “When you unpack what it means to be liberal and conservative in New York City politics now, it is much more complicated. There are overlapping views. They don’t line up the same way [Jews] in other parts of the country line up.”
Arzt, who is working for Jeffries’ congressional campaign, said the changing Jewish demographics in the city “will probably move politics a little closer to the center. I think [candidates seeking Jewish support] will be conservative on fiscal issues and foreign policy, but political figures and elected officials will adjust when they have to.”
Arzt said Storobin, the new Republican senator, pulled off an upset. “You never would have thought he would even be a player in that district,” which included Fidler’s Council district, he said. In that race, Storobin was by far the more conservative candidate, denouncing gay marriage and big government. Still, the race in the end came down to a handful of votes, decided after weeks of recounting, suggesting an ideological split among Russian voters.
Looking ahead at the upcoming mayoral race, Arzt said, “Each person will have to tailor their message to these communities, which they have not done yet.” As the Orthodox olive branch to Quinn suggests, he said, “no one has been eliminated because of his or her views. They’d like to see the field and they’d like to hear the candidates.”
He added that the Democrats most likely to run in the open race for City Hall are left of center, with no real conservative yet established in the field. “The issue will be how they include [conservative Jewish voters] in their tent and what is their message to them. They will all have Russian liaisons and Orthodox liaisons, but they have to generate a message to them that is appealing.”
Alec Brook-Krasny, born in Russia and elected to the Assembly, serving Brighton Beach and Coney Island, in 2006 said Russian-speaking voters are less likely to look at Israel as a defining issue because they have come to expect support for the Jewish state as a given in New York politics.
“They are concerned more with general political issues,” said Brook-Krasny. Support for social services, he said, is instrumental not only to those who receive them but to a growing population that depends on such programs for their livelihood, including people working in health care and in other support services.
He added that there is a dichotomy between more complacent younger voters and older voters who worry about their lifelines. “You are still dealing with a very new community politically, and a people whose lives depend on Social Security and who are under the impression that it’s a given thing, you don’t have to worry about it.”
Fuchs said that while the data are new, the complexity of the Jewish vote isn’t.
“It was never as simple as everyone pretends,” she said. “The Orthodox community did move to the Republican side at points, but I think the vote is as much up for grabs as it has been in the past. Any candidate from any party can go after it.”