It was a brief noontime press conference that grew into a full press-the-flesh election event — and a symbol in a change in Brooklyn’s ethnic politics.
On a street corner along 13th Avenue, the main business thoroughfare of Brooklyn’s heavily Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox legislator who over the years has made several politically unorthodox endorsements, last week announced his support for another candidate whose chances of success had earlier appeared unlikely. He was there to back Kenneth Thompson, an attorney in private practice who is challenging longtime incumbent District Attorney Charles Hynes for nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate in the Sept. 10 primary elections.
After declaring Thompson the “best choice for the Jewish community,” Hikind accompanied the challenger in an unplanned stroll along the crowded street, introducing Thompson to shoppers and merchants, urging them to vote for the DA candidate.
Hikind, who has served in the Assembly three decades and is considered a political powerbroker in the borough’s Orthodox community, is the first prominent Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn to endorse Thompson.
His action raises several questions: is Hynes, Brooklyn’s DA since 1989, vulnerable this year because of criticism over his role in the treatment of accused sexual abusers in the haredi community? Can voters from that community, who often vote as a bloc and play a disproportionate role in some local elections, influence the DA primary race? And what difference will Hikind’s endorsement make this time?
“Hynes is certainly vulnerable in this race,” says Ester Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science and director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. No polling data on the DA’s race was available this week, but anecdotal evidence suggests a possible hesitancy about Hynes in some parts of the Orthodox community, Fuchs said. “Hynes’ candidacy,” she said, has in part been “dependent on strong support in the Orthodox community. Any break in that support creates problems for Hynes.”
Hikind’s highly visible backing of Thompson, following accusations that Hynes for decades had failed to aggressively prosecute alleged sexual abusers in the haredi community or to make public the names of accused or convicted abusers, puts the assemblyman at odds with much of Brooklyn’s fervently Orthodox establishment, whose leaders over the years, in the opinion of some, have consistently supported Hynes in putative agreement with his hands-off policy.
Leaders of the haredi community traditionally discourage the victims of alleged sexual abuse from initially going to the police, and community members have reportedly harassed other fervently Orthodox Jews who sought redress from secular authorities instead of going to rabbis. Hynes, critics have alleged, failed to put pressure on haredi leaders to urge their followers to bring their complaints to the police, and his ties with influential rabbis, the critics said, made him less likely to prosecute accused abusers in their community.
“As someone who took the first steps in the haredi community to publicly talk about and deal with abuse, I believe it is everyone’s obligation to pursue this issue with integrity, diligence and consistency,” Hikind told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “Sexual abuse destroys the lives of its victims. We need determination to deal with this. No one should ever play politics with people’s lives.”
Following complaints about his record in recent years, Hynes, who advocated social services as a component of law enforcement and in 2009 established the Kol Tzedek hotline program to encourage the reporting of sex crimes in the Orthodox community, recently, for the first time released the names of several dozen convicted child sex-abusers (though not all of them were Jews).
“Hynes — with his historic deference to the Orthodox rabbinic leadership — has done more than anyone to discourage and obstruct the reporting and prosecution of Orthodox child molesters,” said Ben Hirsch, a co-founder of Survivors for Justice (www.sfjny.org), an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to child safety. “The question is to what extent Assemblyman Hikind’s endorsement of Thompson can counter Hynes’ aggressive backroom dealing with the chasidic power brokers who deliver the crucial blocs of votes needed to win this election.”
Mark Appel, president of the Voice of Justice advocacy organization, said voter dissatisfaction over Hynes’ record on the sexual abuse issue will play “a major role” in the primary election, and Hikind’s endorsement of Thompson may “do a lot” to sway undecided haredi voters. “It makes a big difference. He plays a very strong role.”
But other observers disagree, saying that endorsements — whether by prominent politicians or rabbis — play a smaller part than in the past in influencing the votes of haredi voters.
“Endorsements have less value than they once had,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella haredi organization. “People form their own opinions.”
“People in the Orthodox community have become much more independent,” forming their political opinions from reading publications, often online, often those geared to haredi readers, said Isaac Abraham, a haredi activist in Brooklyn and 2009 City Council candidate. “They read the blogs.”
Haredi voters don’t automatically follow their rabbis’ electoral recommendations?
“That was my father’s [generation] mentality,” Abraham said.
Will Hikind’s endorsement of Thompson play a crucial role in the primary?
“None whatsoever,” Abraham said. By bringing more attention to the race, “It might influence a couple hundred people. At the same time it may turn off a couple hundred people.”
Hikind’s endorsement of Hynes’ opponent “may make more people turn out to vote,” Abraham said. “The Jewish community will pay a little more attention.”
A conservative Democrat, Hikind has crossed party lines to endorse Republicans in several elections — George Pataki for governor, George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney for president. His influence is believed to be strongest in local races, notably, Republican businessman Bob Turner’s 2011 victory in the contest for Rep. Anthony Weiner’s vacated congressional seat; former Mayor Ed Koch also endorsed Turner that year, as a protest against President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies,
Hikind praised Thompson in Borough Park last week — calling the 47-year-old former federal prosecutor “a mensch” — and on his weekly radio talk show on WMCA.
“I did not support Hynes eight years ago, but I did previously,” Hikind said.
“The people of Brooklyn are looking for change. They are looking for a leader who will fight for one standard of justice for everyone, unlike DA Hynes, who has overseen a dysfunctional office that has often pitted members of the Orthodox Jewish community against each other,” Thompson told The Jewish Week in a prepared statement.
Other political leaders who have endorsed him include U.S. Representatives Yvette Clark and Hakeem Jeffries. Leaders backing Hynes include Borough President Marty Markowitz, former Mayor David Dinkins, City Council members Letitia James and Lewis Fidler, and Assembly member Alec Brook-Krasny, all Democrats.
Hikind says he will campaign with Thompson in the coming weeks “in different Jewish communities throughout Brooklyn. I’ve already made a ‘robocall’ on his behalf and plan to help his campaign in any way that I can. I speak to people not only in my own community but all over our borough.”