The City Council’s only Orthodox member, who has opposed gay rights legislation, says he has no problem backing an openly gay colleague, Christine Quinn, in the upcoming vote for speaker.
"She is certainly the most competent and qualified candidate and a pleasure to work with," said Simcha Felder, an ordained but non-practicing rabbi who represents the city’s largest concentration of politically conservative Orthodox Jews in Borough Park, as well as some heavily Republican non-Jewish areas in Brooklyn. He said he would vote in favor of the candidate selected by Brooklyn’s Democratic chair, Assemblyman Vito Lopez. The 42 re-elected Council members and eight newcomers will elect a speaker, the second most powerful position in the city, to replace term-limited Gifford Miller next week.
Felder, who has voted against equal benefits for gay partners of city employees and against recognition of gay unions formed elsewhere, measures sponsored by Quinn, said he believed she would be no more of an advocate for legislation that he opposes (on grounds that Orthodox Jewish law prohibits homosexuality) than other candidates. He said Quinn, who represents areas of Lower Manhattan, has been an ally in his efforts to provide city-funded nurses in private schools and on other issues. "She’s been unbelievable," Felder said. "She and her office have been extraordinarily helpful to this community."
Some Borough Park observers see the fact that Felder has not supported Quinn’s closest rival in the speaker race, Bill de Blasio (whose district adjoins Felder) as part of a widening rift between Felder and his mentor, Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is backing de Blasio for the job.
When asked to assess de Blasio’s qualifications, Felder said simply "I don’t know."
Backing a gay candidate may raise some eyebrows in Borough Park. But it would also bolster Felder’s reputation for independence and maintaining affable relationships with colleagues with whom he disagrees.
"One of Councilman Felder’s strengths is his ability to work with all members of the City Council who don’t necessarily agree with his positions," said Ezra Friedlander of the Friedlander Group, a Borough Park-based consulting firm. He predicted little political fallout for Felder.
"At the end of day, residents of Borough Park realize that citywide elected officials sometimes hold views on social issues that we consider anathema," said Friedlander. "I think we expect elected leadership to be able to navigate through these conflicting viewpoints and generate support for our community from everyone."
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, director of the anti-gay rights Rabbinical Alliance, said that Quinn’s sexual orientation is "a private matter and in terms of politics today, I don’t think it’s an overwhelming issue."
Amid recent speculation that he would be offered a post in the second Bloomberg administration after co-chairing the mayor’s re-election campaign, Felder says he’ll keep his seat. He has been mentioned as a likely candidate for Brooklyn Borough President in 2009, when Marty Markowitz will be forced out by term limits. Next month Felder will hold an inauguration for his second full City Council term at Brooklynís Borough Hall as a signal of where his sights are set.
The other Council members hoping to be elected speaker are Lew Fidler of Brooklyn and Leroy Comrie, Melinda Katz and David Weprin of Queens. Any of them would serve a maximum of four years in the speaker’s post, unless the Council succeeds in extending term limits, as some are proposing.
The prospect of Quinn as speaker is encouraging to some leaders of Jewish social service organizations because of her history of backing funding for those groups, although she does not have a substantial Jewish population in her district.
"People feel a greater sense of connection with Quinn" than with some of the other candidates, said one Jewish leader, who asked for anonymity to avoid offending the other speaker hopefuls.
Former Public Advocate Mark Green, a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, recently wrote to HSBC Bank to protest a map that excludes Israel on display at some of its branches.
"It is unthinkable that an esteemed company such as HSBC would allow this offensive and outrageous practice," wrote Green in a letter to HSBC CEO Stephen Green (who should not be confused with realtor Stephen L. Green, Mark Green’s brother) and Sir John Bond, chairman of the bank. "It is well known that totalitarian states and terrorist groups that support Israel’s destruction publish maps omitting Israel to advance their views."
A spokesman for the bank, Steven Cohen, said Israel was far from the only country excluded from the map, and insisted no political statement was intended. "Because of [Green’s] concern and those of a few others, we are reprinting the maps to include Israel," said Cohen, adding that "we are very proud of our presence in Israel."
Welcoming the news, Green on Tuesday said he was sensitive to the map issue "because of my experience with how some American corporations buckled under to the Arab boycott of Israel 20 years ago."
A bill that would establish how health care proxies are determined when an incapacitated patient has not designated one could make it easier for third parties to deny life-saving treatment, as in the recent Terri Schiavo case, David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America recently testified before the state Assembly’s Health Committee.
Zwiebel, Agudah’s vice president for governmental affairs, said certain aspects of the bill were supported by his organization, such as requiring the proxy to make decisions in accordance with the patient’s religious beliefs.
But he decried the concept of allowing a surrogate to make the decision to withhold food and water, as Schiavo’s husband, Michael, did. This reflects a trend toward "greater emphasis on the quality of human life and less on the inherent sanctity of human life," said Zwiebel. He said existing law sometimes allowed for the wishes of incapacitated patients in cases monitored by Agudah to be disregarded by a representative named by the patient. "All the more so is there reason to be concerned that a surrogate who was never designated by the patient will in many cases fail to carry out the health care wishes of the patient," he said.