Faced with an embarrassing scandal that might make him “radioactive” — in the words of one consultant — to candidates, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind’s political clout could face a major test in the current political season.
But the Democrat and 30-year veteran of the state Assembly, who is outspoken on Jewish causes and courted by figures of both major parties as a powerbroker, has been known to emerge unscathed from a scrape of two before.
“You never count Dov Hikind out,” said strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has known Hikind for decades and occasionally worked with him.
Facing a torrent of media coverage and criticism from other politicians over his choice of Purim costume Sunday, Hikind initially insisted that coloring his skin and wearing an Afro wig to look like a black basketball player should not be taken as offensive.
He later backtracked and publicly apologized.
“Never did it cross my mind at any point that, Oh my God, this could be misconstrued,” Hikind told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
He said that of some 65 people who visited his home, all of them Jewish, during the holiday none suggested that the costume choice was offensive or could cause controversy. “No one ever said Dov, I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.
The outfit was surprising given the amount of time Hikind has spent in the political arena and his sustained exposure to representatives and leaders of minority communities.
He said in an interview that he knew “very, very little” about the history of minstrel shows that lampooned blacks after the Civil War, and has since learned more.
A photo of Hikind in costume was sent by an unnamed source to The New York Observer, which broke the story early Monday morning. The photo had been posted on the Facebook page of Hikind’s 32-year-old son, Yoni, who appears in it with his parents. Hikind said he consented to having the photo posted.
In it, he sports an orange jersey with a white T-shirt underneath with an outsized black, curly wig and sunglasses. Another photo that appears on the website VIN News shows him also wearing a long gold chain and holding a basketball.
“I am sincerely sorry that I have hurt anyone,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday, one day after dismissing criticism as “political correctness to the absurd.”
In the later post he said “I apologize for the pain that I have caused anyone by this incident, and by any remarks that I have made in connection with it.”
But Hikind continued to make controversial comments in discussing the incident, telling The New York Times he was considering dressing as an Indian next year. And on Zev Brenner’s “Talkline” radio program he said that in the future “maybe I would be a gay person on [Purim] — by the way, would that be OK, Zev, If I played a gay person next year?”
Hikind has built his career appealing to an overwhelmingly large constituency of people who are Orthodox Jews, like himself, in his Borough Park/Flatbush district. He trounced his challenger last year, garnering 94 percent of the vote. In fact, he has been re-elected to seven terms in the Assembly, even after being charged by the U.S. attorney in 1998 with misappropriating federal funds. (In a peculiar jury verdict, he was acquitted but another man was convicted of sending him the funds).
Hikind does, however, have a history of political alliances with African-American political leaders, such as former state Comptroller H. Carl McCall and former city Comptroller William Thompson, who were the 2002 Democrat nominee for governor and 2009 nominee for mayor, respectively. About five years ago he founded a black-Jewish alliance with other legislators to show a united front against problems that confront both communities. In the 90s, he brought together Jewish and African-American high school students for a lunch program with then-state Sen. David Paterson, who would become governor.
Hikind’s costume was particular noteworthy given that just weeks earlier he publicly criticized fashion designer John Galliano for dressing up in a costume that some took as a satire of chasidic garb.
“If it was just anyone else, I wouldn’t know what to say,” Hikind told the New York Post on Feb. 13. “But considering who this guy is, considering his background and what he’s said in the past, let him explain it to all of us: Are you mocking us?”
Galliano had been fined by the French government in 2011 for a rant recorded on amateur video in which he seemed to praise Hitler in an altercation with tourists.
In a statement, Assemblyman Karim Camara of Brooklyn said he was “deeply shocked and outraged” by the costume, adding that “The history of the blackface minstrel show is something deeply painful in the African-American community. It brings back the memories of African Americans being reduced to ‘buffoonery’ just to gain access to the entertainment industry. The stereotypes embodied in blackface minstrels have played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions, which are still painful and offensive today.”
Camara, whose district includes Crown Heights and adjoining Brooklyn neighborhoods, chairs the state’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn also condemned Hikind, telling the Observer, “If he wanted to find somebody who [looked] strange, wild and crazy, he should look in the mirror.”
Even Hikind’s Jewish colleagues criticized his judgment. “I would have never chosen this as a Purim costume,” state Sen. Simcha Felder, a former Hikind aide, told The Jewish Week. “Purim is supposed to be a happy day, not at the expense of others.”
Councilman David Greenfield, who represents Borough Park and part of Flatbush, told the Observer that Hikind “should have known better.” Greenfield is also a former Hikind aide.
In a statement sent to The Jewish Week, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote “Assemblyman Dov Hikind showed terrible judgment in attending a Purim party in blackface…
“There are so many myriad costumes available to Jewish kids and adults during Purim, but putting on blackface should not be one of them. This is especially true for a politician living in an environment where ridicule and prejudice of African-Americans has a long and sad history.”
The top three candidates in this fall’s Democratic primary for mayor, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Bill Thompson, the former comptroller, issued statements calling on Hikind to apologize. But they all qualified their comments by saying they did not believe he was a racist.
“For years, Assemblyman Dov Hikind has played a crucial role in bringing together leaders from the African-American, Jewish, and other communities to stand against racism and anti-Semitism,” said Thompson.
Sheinkopf, the political strategist, said that while Hikind’s district will remain heavily Jewish in the foreseeable future, the non-Orthodox population has been growing, which could pose an eventual problem for the assemblyman.
Meanwhile, he said, there is little short-term impact, since the Assembly is not likely to reprimand him and his alliances are not likely to substantially shift.
“Those who don’t like him are still not going to like him,” he said. “But through this election cycle he has to work twice as hard to prove that he can still deliver votes. Some may see him as radioactive. This was not the best thing to have been caught on camera.”
Hikind said that black elected officials such as Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson and state Senators John Sampson and Eric Adams of Brooklyn, as well as Paterson had called to offer their support.
He added that, though he disliked being associated with the term powerbroker, he was confident that candidates would still seek his support.
“Whoever doesn’t want my endorsement, that will make my decision that much easier,” he said.
The Daily News reported Tuesday that a group of black elected officials held a press conference outside City Hall demanding that Hikind be stripped of his role as assistant majority leader of the Assembly. But Camara told the paper: “I don’t believe he did it with any malice or ill intent. I will take his apology to heart and we’ll move on from here.”