If the black-Latino coalition forged in last year’s mayoral race holds together this year, it could spell trouble for state Sen. Eric Schneiderman. The two-term Democrat is facing former Councilman Guillermo Linares, the first Dominican-American elected to public office here, in September’s primary for a district that includes areas of northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
With African-American gubernatorial hopeful Carl McCall on the ticket and Latinos running in several local races, minority turnout could bode well for Linares.
Incumbents generally have the edge, but Schneiderman is running in a gerrymandered district carved out, at the urging of Gov. George Pataki, to include concentrated areas of Latinos.
The district change is a twofer for Pataki and state Republicans. On one hand, it helps them oust a Democrat who, as chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, has been a thorn in the side of GOP legislators and candidates. On the other, it deepens the growing bond between Latino voters (the fastest-growing bloc locally and nationally) and the GOP.
"Under the guise of minority empowerment, they have tried to give a headache to a Democrat they don’t like," says John Mollenkopf of the Center for Urban Research at the City University. "This would not be the first time Republicans have made somewhat cynical use of the Voting Rights Act."
Although Washington Heights district leader Bienvenido Toribio is said to be the Republican candidate for the seat, the endorsement of Linares by Mayor Michael Bloomberg Monday is a strong indication that the GOP is banking on him.
Schneidermanís new district includes about 55 percent of his current Upper West Side turf, while adding a chunk with an estimated 57 percent Latino population in Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill in the Bronx.
But Schneiderman insists this is not a race for a Latino seat. For one thing, he says a large portion of the Latino population won’t be eligible to vote in the primary. Those who are voting age include "people who aren’t Democrats, aren’t registered or aren’t citizens," says Schneiderman, who succeeded Franz Leichter in 1998.
He also believes voting along ethnic lines is passe. "If you look at other Senate districts that have been drawn, there are huge numbers of Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, East Indians, Mexicans in a district represented by someone of another ethnic group," says Schneiderman. "The days of there being one district for each ethnic group are behind us."
When asked if he’s running an ethnic-based campaign, Linares, who supported Schneiderman in 1998, says, "I am running based on my record of accomplishment and my leadership in bringing people together …." He declines to say whether those descriptions fit Schneiderman, who has ruffled some feathers in his own party. Linares says he has joined in a lawsuit against the map change, calling for a district without an incumbent while leaving Schneiderman’s base alone.
Schneiderman says there is a "potential for strife" as the race heats up. But he notes his support from neighborhood Dominican leaders, as well as hospital workers union chief Dennis Rivera and Rep. Jose Serrano, among other officials.
Those backing Linares include former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Washington Heights Councilman Miguel Martinez, and Bronx Sen. Adriano Espaillat, among others.
But Schneiderman leads in support from black leaders. He’s backed by McCall, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and Comptroller Bill Thompson. Linares has the backing of former Mayor David Dinkins.
Mollenkopf is optimistic that the two candidates "would campaign on issues rather than identity. To me, it’s very unfortunate that two very capable people will be forced to square off this way."
Jewish Republican elected officials have been an increasingly endangered species here lately. That makes the long-shot congressional campaign of Alan Skorsky of West Hempstead, L.I., worth watching.
A Detroit native, Skorsky, 39, grew up Democrat but switched to the GOP in the ’80s, inspired by President Ronald Reagan’s Israel policy.
Skorsky, a member of the Young Israel of West Hempstead, hopes to win a three-way primary to challenge incumbent Democrat Carolyn McCarthy in November. "She’s probably a nice person who meant well," says Skorsky of the three-term representative who ran for office after her husband was murdered on the Long Island railroad by a deranged gunman in 1994. "But after six years she has no record to run on."
Skorsky alleges that McCarthy "has to ask the Democrats how to vote" on key issues and "takes her marching orders from Dick Gephardt, whose agenda is to be House speaker. … On issues that affect my district, I won’t have to ask another congressman from another district."
Skorsky, whose Web site bio details his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, says McCarthy has made all the right votes on Israel. "But there is no risk involved for her in a heavily Jewish district. She has never been a leader or an advocate. Why does it take someone from Texas like Tom DeLay to be a leader [on Israel]?"
McCarthy spokeswoman Cecilia Prewett countered that "it’s always disturbing to hear remarks that may not be from a fully informed person. The congresswoman has been really busy on congressional matters, and has stood steadfastly by our only ally in the Middle East."
A kosher snack-food distributor who describes himself as middle class, Skorsky said he would challenge what he considers class warfare by the Democrats. "Their mantra is that the rich are the winners of life’s lottery and the poor are constantly discriminated against," says Skorsky.
Skorsky would be the only Orthodox Jew in the House. But first he’ll have to beat Dan Frisa of Westbury, who was unseated by McCarthy in 1996, and Garden City optometrist Marilyn O’Grady in September’s Republican primary to challenge McCarthy in November.
Just a few weeks ago, the religious observance and expression bill proposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer didn’t even have a sponsor in the Senate.
But this being an election year, the bill steamrolled its way through both houses after it was picked up by Republican Sen. Dean Skelos of Rockville Center. Current law protects an employee’s right to observe the Sabbath. The new legislation would extend protection to include a range of other religious practices, such as modes of dress, hairstyle, or prayer requirements. The old law did not protect workers at a firm with fewer than 15 employees, notes Marc Stern, the American Jewish Congress counsel who lobbied for the bill. "Federal law doesn’t reach that low and state law didnít cover you," says Stern. Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union also pressed for the bill, along with Seventh Day Adventist and Sikh community leaders. A similar bill was introduced recently in the U.S. Senate.
Spitzer called the new state law "a vital piece of civil rights legislation."
The bill is a significant victory for Silver, coming on the heels of the passage of another Orthodox-backed measure that requires insurers to cover infertility treatments. He’s also working on a state-sponsored conference on security concerns for yeshivas.
Speaking of security, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo is calling for random inspections of fuel trucks, background checks of drivers, and assistance from the National Guard to protect "significant centers of Jewish life."
Cuomo is responding to reports from captured Al Quaeda operatives that fuel trucks could be used to attack synagogues here.
In a letter to Pataki, Cuomo writes, "We have seen Jewish communities under attack in Israel, France, nearby in Canada and across the world. We must take … actions to make sure that similar attacks do not occur in New York."
Cuomo’s letter followed a visit to Borough Park with Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio.
What was Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe doing in Brooklyn last weekend?
Raising money, of course. The Republican picked up around $50,000, more than enough to cover his trip to the Manhattan Beach home of businessman Ruben Margules, president of the Zionist Organization of America’s Brooklyn chapter.
A leading member of the informal Christian Zionist caucus in the Senate, Inhofe has been increasingly vocal about Israel in the past year. "The senator has been a leading advocate of issues of concern to the American Jewish community," said political consultant Ezra Friedlander, who set up the parlor meeting.
Inhofe, who faces former Oklahoma governor David Walters, a Democrat, in November, is not considered in danger.