In their bid to hold the majority, state Senate Republicans seem to be fixed on giving residents of one of New York’s most heavily Jewish areas what they want: A superdistrict.
The GOP now holds a razor-thin Senate majority after last year’s elections, but redistricting next year will create new opportunities since several downstate districts will need to be expanded.
The heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Flatbush and Borough Park are now represented by six senators, and leaders there have made no secret that they would like a district that is overwhelmingly Jewish, with a representative who simply cannot be elected without the majority of the Jewish vote.
A district map created by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York shows that those areas voted overwhelmingly for Republican John McCain in the 2008 race for the White House. Taken with the recent election of Bob Turner as the first Republican in almost a century to represent the Ninth Congressional District, which includes a chunk of Flatbush, with heavy Orthodox support, the Republicans clearly see that area as ripe for a new Republican senator.
The Daily News reported on Monday that Majority Leader Dean Skelos has been courting former Democrat City Councilman Simcha Felder to run in a newly carved district.
“Dean thinks he might be able to pick up another seat in Long Island and one in the city,” said one nonpartisan Jewish observer of the redistricting process. “And if there is a critical mass of Jews, they get everyone’s attention.”
The source said the Brooklyn Orthodox community is anxious to have one representative in the Senate who sees their support as essential, rather than several who pay close attention, in hopes that this legislator would become active in advocating for issues like tuition tax credits while also taking conservative social positions. Last year’s vote legalizing same-sex marriage has galvanized that feeling, shared by area Catholics who were also instrumental in electing Turner.
The observer said it is likely a court review would uphold such a district because it represents a community of like-minded interests.
Felder unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Kevin Parker in a 2008 Democratic primary and is now a deputy comptroller under campaign-finance-scandal-plagued John Liu.
Felder declined to comment on the report when reached by The Jewish Week on
With a well-known name, having represented Borough Park and part of Flatbush from 2002 to 2010, when he resigned to take the Liu job, Felder might be a good fit for the Republicans. He’d also be a good fit for the Republicans, with his conservative social positions and a menschy manner that made it easy to reach across district, ethnic and party lines. One potential challenge, however: his support for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 term-limit extension without a public referendum earned him some political enemies.
Observers say the changes would likely face no opposition on the bipartisan redistricting panel since the traditional understanding between long-serving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and whoever is his Senate counterpart has generally been a non-aggression pact to approve each other’s lines.
“The probabilities increase daily that that entire corner of Brooklyn will become a Republican bastion,” said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “[Staten Island-based] Michael Grimm’s congressional district is probably moving west, Marty Golden’s Senate seat is in the area and now you have Bob Turner being part of that whole region. Are there enough Russians and other Jews to elect Simcha Felder as a Republican? We will soon see.”
The question remains, though, whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo will veto the map, as he has promised, if he thinks the process is not independent enough.
Preliminary plans could emerge as soon as the next two weeks, prior to the holiday break followed by public testimony in January, according to Albany speculation.
The Orthodox openness to Republicans hasn’t only been noted in Albany. GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, who may benefit from the expected withdrawal of Herman Cain from the primary this week amid yet another accusation of sexual misconduct, is headed for Borough Park for a fundraiser.
The news was broken by a Jewish political blog, Gestetner Updates, and quickly picked up by the New York Post.
In September we reported in this space on a Romney fundraiser at the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, organized by pro-Israel NORPAC, where at least 30 people paid $5,000 to host the event with the candidate and others coughed up $1,000 to meet him; he took in about $200,000, according to Dr. Ben Chouake, one of the organizers. This time Romney hopes for about half that sum, Gestetner said.
There was also a recent Romney fundraiser in Lawrence, L.I., as well as Manhattan events for Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah governor John Huntsman Jr., showing that Orthodox Jews are literally banking heavily on the race to unseat Barack Obama.
Expect a visit soon by surging candidate Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, now that Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind has been hinting at an endorsement.
With federal religious discrimination complaints more than doubling since 1997, according to State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, his office recently announced a Religious Rights Initiative. The initiative will use public education, outreach and law enforcement, including litigation, to combat faith-based discrimination and violations of religious rights.
“Our state’s rich history of religious diversity is founded on our nation’s Bill of Rights and enshrined by laws that protect New Yorkers’ right to freely practice their faith,” Schneiderman said in remarks at an Anti-Defamation League event. “The Religious Rights Initiative will focus on violations of this fundamental freedom, ensure that religious rights are protected and work with communities throughout the state to foster and promote religious tolerance.”
Schneiderman’s office will produce and distribute a series of “Know Your Rights” publications, with the first titled, “Religious Rights in the Workplace,” detailing the practical application of federal and state laws to protect religious freedom.
For more information, or to file a violation claim, go to http://www.ag.ny.gov/religiousrights.