Voters in Brooklyn’s 44th Council District will go to the polls on Tuesday to fill the vacancy that was created when SImcha Felder was named deputy comptroller under John Liu. The winner will either by David Greenfield or Joseph Lazar, and in either case would be the third consecutive Orthodox Jew to represent the district, which includes all of Borough Park and much of Flatbush, and probably has more Jews, most of them Orthodox, than many U.S. cities.
Both Greenfield and Lazar are accomplished men with knowledge of and experience with government who well understand the issues that face the community. But they have big shoes to fill. Felder was not only an accomplished legislator who effected change throughout the city with common sense measures affecting street cleaning and parking, but also a true ombudsman who knew how to stick to his principles while earning the respect of his colleagues. He did not let his traditional opposition to homosexuality based on halacha stand in the way of supporting the person he felt was the best choice to serve as Council speaker, who is a lesbian and advocate of gay marriage. He passionately championed support for Israel when colleagues debated resolutions about world affairs, but was always amiable. During one such discussion of a measure that would condemn Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians Felder held up a poster of an Arab child with the words "grow up, don’t blow up," a message against suicide bombers.
I first met Felder more than a dozen years ago when he was still chief of staff to Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and still going by the name Simmy. He quickly became an important contact in the close-knit Borough Park community. In almost any conversation, he would begin with a genuine inquiry about my own well-being and that of my family. He didn’t mind calls on his cell-phone and rarely spoke off the record. When he jumped into the four-way race to succeed term-limited Noach Dear in 2001, he told me how growing up in the home of a prominent Borough Park rabbi, Mordechai Felder, of blessed memory, taught him to think of other people’s well being as often as his own.
Felder is also a clever politician, and his close ties with Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whom he accompanied several times to Israel and on campaign swings up to the Catskills, showed that he knew which way his matza is buttered. The relationship suited both men well, although they had different views on some local issues that led the mayor to use his veto stamp on some Felder bills, such as suspending alternate parking on Purim.
Some might criticize Felder for running for a third term, of which he would end up serving about one month, when it was clear he aspired to other callings. His departure and the resulting special election, as well as another one in November, may cost taxpayers close to $1million, according to one estimate. That looks bad for an official now charged with scrutinizing city spending. But in fairness, he could not have known in the summer of 2009 what the shifting political winds in the winter of 2010 would provide. And his exemplary years as a councilman at a time when so many politicians locally and nationally have disgraced their offices are his well-deserved legacy.
The winner of Tuesday’s race would do well to keep in close contact with his predecessor, and to continue the good work championed by this rabbi’s son and honorable public servant.