The battle taking shape to succeed Anthony Weiner in Congress, with voting set for Sept. 13, may soon test the extent of the heavily Jewish 9th district’s recent lurch to the right.
The Queens and Brooklyn district has voted Republican in higher increments in each of the last three presidential elections, while electing a Democratic representative. But last year, challenger Bob Turner took almost 40 percent of the vote in his battle against six-term incumbent Weiner in a year in which Tea Party activists and others opposed to President Barack Obama’s policies exacted a heavy toll on Democrats across the country, costing them control of the House.
It remains to be seen if Turner, a former cable and broadcasting executive and businessman from Rockaway Point, Queens, who is back for another shot at the seat, can maintain that momentum running against David Weprin, the Democrats’ pick.
“It’s unlikely he will win, but he will do fairly well,” Queens College sociology professor Andrew Beveridge said of Turner. “It’s an off-year election so turnout will be way down. It all depends on who comes out.”
Because of the media spectacle that accompanied Weiner’s exit from office, the race will likely get more media attention than a typical vacancy, and concurrent races to fill two vacant Assembly seats in Queens may also boost the turnout.
But another factor that may drive turnout is resentment among some Jews against the Democratic president because of his policies on Israel. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 51 percent of religious Jews, those more likely to take conservative positions on Israel, support Obama, as opposed to 71 percent of non-religious Jews (as defined by whether respondents attend synagogue frequently or rarely).
This week former Mayor Ed Koch, in his weekly e-mailed political commentary, suggested “a shot across Obama’s bow” by supporting Turner if he campaigned as pro- Israel.
“If Jewish New Yorkers and others who support Israel were to turn away from the Democratic Party in that congressional election and elect the Republican candidate to Congress in 2011, it might very well cause President Obama to change his hostile position on the state of Israel and to re-establish the special relationship presidents before him had supported,” Koch wrote.
But John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said the discussion on domestic issues would likely have greater resonance.
“I don’t see this congressional election as being much of a referendum on Obama’s positions on Israel,” said Mollenkopf. “I think people are focused on what’s going to happen in the House on Social Security and Medicare and cutting the budget.
That more than half the district’s voters, 111,000 of 203,000 cast, voted against Obama in 2008 shows that the district is conservative, Mollenkopf acknowledged, but he cautioned that it’s hard to judge an off-year special election by a presidential vote. He added, “Anyone that tries to equate Mr. Weprin and Mr. Obama will have a hard time of it, I think.”
Ruben Margules, a constituent in Manhattan Beach and president of the Brooklyn chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Israel would not be a major issue because “Both are very strong on Israel. There is nothing anyone can say that is negative about either of them.”
In an interview Tuesday, Weprin said he would stress his six visits to Israel as a City Council member and the fact that he has family living there as part of his Zionist bona fides.
“I’m one of the few [Democrats] who has been very strongly criticizing Obama on the statement he made that the starting point [in Mideast peace talks] is Israel going back to the pre-‘67 border,” Weprin said.
Weprin comes from a well-known political family that has strong ties to residents, organizations and other powerbrokers in Northern Queens, but his name may not be as well known in other parts of the district, particularly in the Brooklyn end.
Turner may face a tightrope in trying to benefit from the scandal that led to Weiner’s resignation last month. The newlywed former congressman admitted that he sent explicit photos of himself to female online acquaintances via Twitter. Before confessing, Weiner initially lied and claimed his account had been hacked.
A slim majority of constituents said in a poll that they didn’t want the congressman to resign. Additionally, several New York Republican congressmen have recently been forced out of office in sex-related scandals.
Turner told The Jewish Week Tuesday he had no intention of rehashing the Weiner scandal.
“That issue is over,” he said. “We have other things to deal with.”
On Israel, he said, “I’m not very familiar with [Weprin’s] positions. I imagine they are very similar [to Weiner’s]. But the big difference will be that he is a liberal Democrat who will support the Democratic caucus, which supports the president. I will have more of an independent voice.”
He added “as always the Jewish vote will be absolutely critical,” and said he needed to do better in such areas as Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills.
“Last year I had good contact and good response from the Orthodox community and the Russian Jewish community, but with traditional Democratic liberals, less so.”
One reason, he acknowledged, could be his lack of political experience.
“I think it’s a factor,” Turner said. “I’m a newcomer, but I’m listening to what people want and need, and [learning] how to respond to them. I think the major issues that might be more important are the economy, jobs, protection of social programs and what has to be done to help save them.”
Weprin lives a few blocks outside the district and is not legally required to be a district resident, but his Assembly district overlaps with part of the 9th CD.
While many Queens and Brooklyn Democrats expressed interest in the race, Weprin said he visited Rep. Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic chair, to discuss the election, but had not been overly hopeful.
“It’s not something I actively sought, but obviously if it’s a congressional seat that overlaps with my district I naturally have to think about it,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised that he encouraged me. I thought he would discourage me, but he said my background was uniquely suited.”
Weprin said that meant his experience as finance chairman and his campaign record (six wins, one loss). But the fact that he is an Orthodox Jew was not lost on Crowley.
The district includes heavily Orthodox areas in both the Brooklyn and Queens parts of the district, including Manhattan Beach, Flatbush and the Gardens Hills.
All three candidates chosen by Crowley for the special election are Orthodox men.
Phillip Goldfeder, an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, was selected to run for the Assembly seat recently vacated by Audrey Pheffer, while Michael Simanowitz, a longtime aide to Assembly member Nettie Mayersohn, was chosen for the race to succeed Mayersohn. Pheffer, whose district includes the Rockaways and Howard Beach, left the Assembly to serve as Queens County clerk. Mayersohn, whose district includes Flushing and Kew Gardens Hills, is retiring.
Whoever wins the race faces the prospect of having to run next year against a fellow incumbent in an adjoining district if the state Legislature eliminates the 9th.
Beveridge said much will depend on whether the Democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Democrat-led Assembly want to keep Weprin in the job if he prevails.
“If Turner wins, you can be sure the Democrats will want to get rid of the district,” said Beveridge.