On a recent, rainy Wednesday, Bob Turner waited patiently for his turn at the podium at a rally of angry union workers outside the struggling Peninsula Hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens, which is slated to close later this year.
When he got there, Turner looked out at the sea of members of 1199 SEIU, whose benefits the hospital says it can no longer afford, and quickly struck the right chord to draw cheers.
“I’m a businessman,” said the former broadcasting and cable executive, who has also started his own companies. “I don’t know how [Peninsula’s money problems] happened with this speed. I have experience running a business, and when things go bad you kind of get a hint. You don’t just wake up one morning and say sorry, we’re out of here.”
After his speech, when asked how he’d keep the troubled hospital’s doors open, Turner said the hospital should explore a merger with nearby St. John’s Episcopal Hospital, as recommended by a state committee.
The 70-year-old Turner, who has never held office but is the Republican candidate for the vacant 9th Congressional District seat in Brooklyn and Queens, clearly hopes his business success — and position as a political outsider — will translate into the same success enjoyed by media mogul and three-term mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I’m uncorrupted, unsullied by the process, without baggage, as it were,” said Turner in a softer tone at his busy campaign office on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach.
The lifelong Queens resident, initially from Richmond Hill and now living in the beach community of Rockaway Point, has made a priority of appealing to the area’s high-turnout Jewish community, banking on endorsements from two former mayors, Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, who did very well among Jews in their elected careers.
“[Turner] has a very clear message, which is [President Barack] Obama has been bad, send a message,” said one Republican consultant who declined to speak on the record because he does not work for the campaign.
The idea of electing a Republican to succeed Democrat Anthony Weiner — and seeing such a GOP victory as a possible signal to Obama that he is losing support among Jews by pushing Israel to cede land to the Palestinians — originated with Koch, a passionate Zionist who doesn’t believe electing Democrat Assemblyman David Weprin, also a critic of Obama’s Middle East policies, will sufficiently accomplish that goal.
At a time of political turmoil both nationally because of the debt crisis, and locally, with the 9th District without representation since Weiner’s resignation in June, endorsements from trusted political figures appear to be particularly valuable.
A Siena College poll released last week showed that Koch’s endorsement was influential to more than a third of those surveyed, 38 percent, compared to 45 percent who didn’t care and 15 percent who said it hurt their chances of voting for Turner.
Tuesday’s endorsement of Weprin by former 9th CD representative and current Sen. Charles Schumer also proved valuable; 40 percent of voters said it was influential, compared to 36 percent who said they wouldn’t care.
Both nods appear more significant than the endorsement of any of the city’s three major newspapers to the 501 people reached by telephone from Aug. 3-7 for the poll: 28 percent said they’d be swayed by The New York Times, and 16 percent each by the Post and the Daily News.
All this in a race that has Turner trailing Weprin by a slim six points, 48-42, according to the poll with 9 percent still in play, an unusually tight race in a New York City district (albeit one without an incumbent).
Andrew Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College, sees the endorsement of Koch, who is known for bipartisanship and independence, as a boost for Turner, but notes that it could be mitigated by low ratings for Republicans, who control the House of Representatives.
“One of the problems is that Congress is so reviled right now, and the [recent] Gallup poll showed a huge swing against Republicans,” he said. That telephone poll of 1,204 voters, taken Aug. 4-7 — after Standard & Poor’s lowered the nation’s credit rating — showed 51 percent saying they would support a Democratic candidate in their district today, compared to 44 percent who would back the Republican.
“Turner will do very well, but I don’t think he will win,” said Beveridge.
Turner, who has a long resumé of executive positions at TV and advertising concerns such as Pearson LLC, Multimedia Entertainment and CBS cable and now owns some hotels in Florida, has been married to his wife, Peggy, for 46 years and has five children and 13 grandchildren. An Army veteran, he was educated entirely in Queens at St. Thomas The Apostle Grammar School in Woodhaven, Richmond Hill High School and St. John’s University in Hillcrest, earning a bachelor of arts in history. He decided to run against Weiner last year when he saw that the Democrat would otherwise run unopposed. After securing about 40 percent of the vote in a midterm election that cost Democrats the House, Turner became the natural GOP pick to run this year after Weiner’s self-destruction in a lewd Twitter scandal.
One endorsement Turner may find difficult to secure is that of the independent Bloomberg. Though the mayor has reason not to like Weprin, who ran for city comptroller on an anti-Bloomberg platform in 2009, he might also find Turner’s positions hard to reconcile with his own: Turner opposes the Islamic community center near Ground Zero, which has been championed by Bloomberg, and he opposes abortion as well as same-sex marriage.
Those positions, however, are attractive to the district’s substantial Orthodox community. The Jewish population is estimated at 25 percent, or more than 190,000 people, and the Jewish growth in neighborhoods like Flatbush and Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, and Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills in Queens, has been mostly Orthodox; that means that those of voting age could provide the margin of victory in the tight race if they vote as a bloc and turn out in large numbers. The numbers may be boosted by races for two open Assembly seats in Queens.
Turner has hired Bottom Line Marketing Group, which handled direct mail targeting Orthodox Jews for Bloomberg’s successful 2005 re-election campaigns, and this week he made a campaign swing to vacation communities in the Catskills where constituents summer.
Although Weprin is Orthodox, in vying for his community’s vote he has to contend not only with the “message to Obama” factor but his recent support for gay marriage in the Assembly, says Leon Goldenberg, the president of a real estate agency in Flatbush who is plugged into local Orthodox politics.
“We know that in his heart he is a forceful supporter of Eretz Yisrael,” sad Goldenberg, who is not in the district anymore after being moved out in the last reapportionment process. “But I agree with Mayor Koch that it would be a terrific plus to send a message to the president that the Jewish community is very upset with the way he is treating Israel.”
Goldenberg said that had Obama expressed demands toward the Palestinians, such as calling on them to abandon the right of return to areas inside Israel, “at least that would be evenhanded.”
In a district that is 3-to-1 Democrat, Turner will have to answer questions on domestic issues, such as the recent debt-limit measure, which he supports and most Democrats saw as a poison pill.
“I think it’s a compromise,” Turner said in the interview. “It averted a catastrophic problem. This is only the start of what has to happen to get us on the road to fiscal stability.”
Turner, who sees the Tea Party making a valuable contribution by focusing Congress on the debt crisis, thinks the best way to stimulate the economy is through tax credits and lower capital gains taxes, rather than levying higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. The government, he argues, must cut spending by about 35 percent, but Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t be cut — for now.
“Those who are putting in now, who are 55 and older should get to keep what they put in and what they have been promised,” said Turner, “Beyond that, for the younger group, they have to make compromises across both sides of the aisle. I don’t know what they are going to be, but in order to keep these programs viable for the future — I don’t mean this generation but the next — there will have to be some changes.”
As a bipartisan congressional super-committee takes shape to cut a trillion dollars in spending, Turner said defense spending should be maintained, but foreign aid should be scrutinized to avoid “situations that are not in our interests or in the interests of world peace.”
Like Weiner, Turner said he’d strongly scrutinize aid to the Palestinian Authority. “We are paying the Palestinians, who in turn are paying people they consider patriots who are in jail [on terror charges],” Turner said. “I think that’s absurd.”
Turner supports the release of Jonathan Pollard from federal prison, arguing that his 25-year sentence is sufficient for giving classified U.S. data to Israel. That position, he says, comes from discussions with freshman Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican who represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn.
“He has reviewed this, and he’s a person I trust,” said Turner. “He’s a former FBI agent. We’re on the same page on this one.”
With three weeks to go until the election, and Turner banging out pro-Israel press releases on an almost daily basis, the battle for the Jewish vote is sure to heat up. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman are to hold a kosher fundraiser for Weprin at Abigael’s in Midtown on Aug. 31.
But Turner, who said he fared well last year among Orthodox voters last year but less so with other Jews, is confident he’ll do better this time.
“The Jewish community is far more diverse than you can identify,” said Turner. “It is not a block in the Democratic column. The first thing I heard when I started campaigning is ‘two Jews, three opinions.’ ”
Democratic candidate David Weprin will be profiled in an upcoming issue.