In his decisive victory in last week’s hotly contested City Council race in Brooklyn, David Greenfield made good use of some powerful friends who helped him carry the day.
They included former Mayor Ed Koch, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose endorsements gave his candidacy credibility; Sephardic community leaders who quickly filled his campaign coffers; Brooklyn’s Democrat chair, Vito Lopez, who provided ground troops to get out the vote, and Mark Botnick, a former aide to Michael Bloomberg, who helped corral the mayor’s endorsement.
But Greenfield, 31, also has some powerful enemies. Assemblyman Dov Hikind could barely hide his evidently newfound distaste for his former aide, and some Jewish leaders who have run across Greenfield’s path in the course of his lobbying for TeachNYS, an ecumenical lobby for more public aid to private schools, were not impressed.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, generally aligned with the powerful teachers’ union, was an opponent of tax breaks for private schools and instead instituted a statewide tax cut for all parents. Greenfield’s group launched a salvo directly at Silver’s base in response, with a critical mailing to observant Jews in Silver’s Lower East Side district. That may have caused Agudath Israel of America’s leaders to distance themselves from Greenfield.
"Trying to hold [Silver] responsible for the high cost of education was above and beyond what one expects in that type of campaign," said one well-placed insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he may have to work with Greenfield in the future.
But supporters say you can’t get anywhere in New York politics without ruffling some feathers.
"When you fight for what you believe, you’re always going to find someone who doesn’t love your tactics," says Mark Botnick, who ran the field operation for Greenfield’s campaign.
The strongest factor contributing to Greenfield’s victory was what many see as a generational shift in the community from established political and religious leaders to younger faces with fresher ideas.
Greenfield, 31, defeated Joseph Lazar, 61 – they are both Democrats – by more than 2,000 votes out of about 12,000 cast.
"David put forth an argument that resonated with many young, first-time voters and appealed to their independent way of thinking, and that carried the day for him overwhelmingly," said Borough Park-based political consultant Ezra Friedlander.
Voters in the district, which includes most of Borough Park and parts of Midwood and Bensonhurst, chose Greenfield by a margin of 58 to 40 percent. The remainder of the vote went to a third candidate, Kenneth Rice, the only Republican on the ballot. The district includes heavily Catholic and Chinese communities as well as a substantial Orthodox presence.
In an interview with The Jewish Week after the election, Greenfield, who was featured in the paper in 2008 as one of 36 young innovators to watch in the Jewish community, said his work as a coalition builder contributed to his victory.
"What really helped me in terms of TeachNYS is the coalition we put together of different communities to focus on an issue that affects everyone from disparate Jewish communities as well as the Catholic, black and Hispanic communities," said Greenfield.
He also dismissed the differences between himself and Hikind, who recently attended the brit milah of Greenfield’s son, saying they were purely political. He also suggested it was about manipulation. "He had an interest in selecting a candidate that would work with him and basically for him," said Greenfield.
Hikind has declined to comment in detail on the outcome of the race. In a statement e-mailed by his spokeswoman, Hikind said only that he wishes the new councilman luck.
Lazar, a former official with the city’s Department of Buildings and state Office of Mental Health and currently a consultant, was ardently backed by Hikind, a powerful figure in Borough Park and Flatbush for nearly 30 years, as well as by a large array of community rabbis and lay leaders.
"There may very well be a generational shift of power going on in Borough Park, as with other ethnic groups such as blacks, Latinos, in which the old leaders may not be as powerful," said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who was not involved in the race.
The parent of two boys, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old, with his wife, Dina, Greenfield marketed himself as someone who, as former President Bill Clinton might say, feels the pain of ordinary voters. Many in his district are struggling to afford the high cost of religious life, including yeshiva tuition, while also managing to own a house and keep some take-home pay.
"People want to hear bold ideas and new ideas, even if they are unattainable," said consultant Friedlander. "They want to know that you feel empathy, and David was able to transmit those feelings."
A graduate of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Flatbush, Touro College and Georgetown University Law School, Greenfield is the latest member of a growing wave of young Orthodox men getting involved in local politics, a field where once only a few in that community dared to tread, and he has close connections with peers.
Michael Fragin, a former aide to Gov. George Pataki, helped out on the campaign although he lives in Nassau County and is a Republican.
The two men first met following Lieberman’s presidential campaign in 2004, when Greenfield was deputy finance director.
"[Greenfield is] the kind of guy who looks at a situation and says that we need to solve it and … he isn’t deterred by the fact that other people have tried and failed," said Fragin. "David did a different type of campaign than people usually do. Most politicians look at the Orthodox community and say if I get some leaders’ endorsements [I’ll win]. David went door to door every day, to subway stops every day, shaking hands."
Sitting in the now-quiet, messy war room of his campaign in a modest walk-up apartment on East Third Street in Kensington on Sunday, Greenfield, his BlackBerry buzzing away, seemed exhilarated, if overwhelmed, and in an interview showed a more humble side than most people saw during the campaign.
The youngest of four brothers, he lost his father, Yisroel, when he was 22, just after he graduated Georgetown Law School and became an associate at a major corporate law firm, Rosenman & Colin.
"That’s the reason I’m in public service today," he said. "The impact it had was huge. I didn’t want to dedicate my life to helping rich people become richer as a corporate lawyer."
His father was a businessman who would buy and sell companies, but Greenfield recalls that he was known for acts of kindness, which he expected others to reciprocate. "If he helped someone get a job he would call that person on the phone and ask him to help someone else find a job in the same office," he said. "He also taught me that the word no is the beginning of a negotiation."
Before long came the job as Hikind’s chief of staff, then a stint on Lieberman’s presidential campaign and later a position as inaugural director of the Sephardic Community Federation, where he earned the trust of a community not known for openness to outsiders by helping them become better organized politically. He was appointed three years ago to a committee of the city’s Department of Education that studies issues related to private schools, working with members of the Catholic, Muslim and secular private school communities.
His Council campaign was a family affair, with his brothers, wife and mother-in-law actively involved. But two days before the election the wind was knocked out of the campaign with news that Greenfield’s ailing paternal grandmother, Henshe Greenfield, had passed away in Tel Aviv.
He considered getting on a plane for the funeral, but the logistics were impossible, so he settled for listening to the eulogies by phone at 3 a.m. in Brooklyn. An older brother represented the family in Israel, while Greenfield resumed campaigning.
"It was very tough, I’m not going to lie to you," he said, emotionally. "My grandmother was very proud. In fact, when she got sick, she took an article in Hebrew about the race with her and clutched it in the hospital because she cared about me so much.
"We took the morning off, spent some time with family and I knew it was what she would have wanted, so we kept on working."
Isaac Abraham, a fixture on the Brooklyn Jewish political scene who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in Williamsburg last year, said Greenberg has been "very active, but at 31 he has a lot to learn."
"He hasn’t been on the battlefield long enough. He’s going to be part of a body with 51 other people working on issues of health, safety, education, crime, the economy. For that, he won’t just have the people who pulled open doors for him, but he will also have the push of people who elected him and the people of the rest of the city as well. That’s a heavy load to pull."
But Fragin says his friend "will be very effective. He’s spent lots of time in City Hall on the other side of the table. He’s not going to forget what it means to be an advocate."
A video interview with David Greenfield is the next installment of the MetroPolitics vlog.