As anticipated, New York’s legislative task force for redistricting last week released a map that packs several heavily Orthodox neighborhoods into one Senate bailiwick for a Jewish Brooklyn “superdistrict.”
But not everyone is embracing the idea.
“This is a smoke-filled, backroom deal,” said Councilman David Greenfield, who represents parts of Borough Park and Flatbush. Last year, Greenfield testified before the redistricting committee that two or three senators, rather than the current six should represent Orthodox areas.
“Six senators may have been too much, but one is too little,” he said. “If you take a population of several hundred thousand and divvy it up into several districts you can have a swing vote in each of those districts.” He said other prominent community members were mobilizing their opposition.
The legislative task force is appointed by the leadership of both houses and the minority leaders of both houses.
If approved, the map would also empower Asian Americans, who are underrepresented in the Legislature, with only Queens’ Grace Meng in the Assembly and no one in the Senate. The map melds the current district of Democrats Toby Stavisky and Tony Avella, forcing them against each other, with a possible third, Asian candidate, which might, not incidentally, pave the way for a Republican to win the Northern Queens seat, which was occupied by the GOP’s Frank Padavan from 1973 to 2010.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he’ll veto the current map.
The “superdistrict,” No. 17 on the map, would include all of Borough Park, most of Midwood extending into Flatbush, including the young and growing Orthodox community in the East 30s. Its formation is widely seen as an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to hand over a district to Orthodox Jews in central Brooklyn, heavily affiliated with Agudath Israel of America, in exchange for their support for a Republican candidate who will help Skelos keep his majority.
David Zwiebel, executive vice president for governmental affairs at Agudah, denied media reports that his organization had made a deal with Skelos to that effect.
“I have no personal knowledge of any such deal, and I have confronted my colleagues who are in direct day-to-day contact with various government officials, including Dean Skelos, and they also told me there was no such deal,” said Zwiebel. “All I know about that are rumors I read about in the papers.”
On the question of whether the Orthodox community is better off with one representative who can’t get elected without its overwhelming support or with several who must curry its favor, Zwiebel said, “There are valid arguments to be made on both sides of that equation. It will obviously depend on how large of a say we might have in the various districts where we are represented. But the current situation is not a healthy one because we are so dissipated among five districts that it’s hard to say we have very significant influence on any one of the representatives who reach out to us for our votes.”
He added, “I for one am supportive of the idea of a district that would clearly consolidate the community under one banner, thereby ensuring [the senator] would be responsive to our sensitivities.”
The idea of a superdistrict emerged after all but one of the six senators representing the Orthodox area (Republican Martin Golden being the exception) voted in favor of same-sex marriage last year. Shortly after that, Republican newcomer Bob Turner defeated establishment Democrat David Weprin in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner.
A coalition of minority organizations is fighting the legislative district changes because it creates a new upstate district in the state’s Capital Region, but fails to add one in Nassau County, where black and Hispanic representation has surged in areas like Hempstead and Elmont.
The winner of the race to succeed Sen. Carl Kruger, who resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges late last year, will likely become the de facto representative of the 17th District.
Other candidates who may later vie for the seat include former Democrat councilman Simcha Felder and his predecessor, Noach Dear.
The race to succeed Kruger in a March 20 special election is already getting ugly, with Councilman Lew Fidler, a Democrat, suggesting his opponent, Republican David Storobin, has “ties to skinheads, and neo-Nazi groups and white supremacist groups.”
Both candidates are Jewish. Storobin, a lawyer, is a Russian immigrant who came here in 1991.
Fidler made the charge because some foreign policy columns Storobin has written for a site called Global Politician were linked, without his consent, to neo-Nazi websites. The original articles began to disappear when Storobin announced his candidacy.
“Mr. Storobin should stop hiding his true beliefs,” Fidler spokeswoman Jenn Krinsky said in a statement Tuesday. “If there was nothing offensive in any of these writings or interviews, then why did Mr. Storobin delete them from his website, and leave us only the writings that still exist on white supremacist and hate sites, such as Stormfront, American Renaissance or Phora?”
Storobin’s spokesman David Simpson said Global Politician deleted the posts because it didn’t want to be associated with Storobin’s campaign. He said the allegations were “not only incorrect but offensive.”
Storobin held a press conference with rabbis from Brighton Beach to bolster his Jewish street cred.
“David Storobin is a devout member of our synagogue,” said Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky of the Brighton Beach Jewish Center, which Storobin attends. “His ancestors, like many of ours, were wiped out by the Nazis, and he himself fled the former Soviet Union to escape religious persecution because of his faith. No one can in good conscience suggest that he has ties to Nazi sympathizers.”
The state’s congressional redistricting map has yet to emerge, but many eyes will be on the 13th District, which now includes all of Staten Island and a small slice of Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge and part of Borough Park.
Incumbent freshman Republican Michael Grimm, who unseated Democrat Michael McMahon in 2010, is facing some uncomfortable questions about fundraising ties to Ofer Biton, an Israeli citizen who is under federal investigation over accusations that he embezzled millions of dollars from Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto’s congregation.
The New York Times reported Saturday that followers and associates of the rabbi, who splits his time between Israel and New York and is often consulted about business dealings by Jewish and non-Jewish personalities, said Biton, Rabbi Pinto’s former aide, strong-armed donations for Grimm that were over the legal limit and from foreign donors without green cards, which is illegal.
The Grimm campaign collected some $500,000 from Rabbi Pinto’s followers for the 2010 race, the Times reported, but not for his re-election campaign this year.
“Any suggestion that I was involved in any activities that may run afoul of the campaign finance laws is categorically false and belied by my life of public service protecting and enforcing the laws of this country,” Grimm, a Republican, said in a statement issued Jan. 27.
Biton reportedly is pursuing a green card so he can remain and work legally in the United States, according to the Times, and sources told the paper that he may have sought help from Grimm, a former FBI agent.
“It does not look good for him,” said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf of Grimm’s prospects. “He is a nice, clean law-and-order type who took on the mob. This doesn’t help, but the question is can he be beat? Can the Democrats, instead of eating each other for breakfast raise money and put all their energy into beating Grimm if he remains on the ballot?”
He could only be taken off the ballot if he is convicted of a crime.
“We also don’t know what the lines are going to look like,” said Sheinkopf. “The likelihood is it will probably go further into Brooklyn, to a portion that is becoming more Republican.”
McMahon won the seat after Republican Rep. Vito Fossella decided not to seek re-election after a 2008 drunk-driving arrest and revelations that he had an affair.
JTA contributed reporting to this column.