For decades they were a fixture on New York’s political landscape: names like Ed Koch and Abe Beame, Andrew Stein and Alan Hevesi, Harrison Goldin, Mark Green and Elizabeth Holtzman.
Now that landscape is shifting, leaving behind the question: Can a Jewish Democrat get elected in this town anymore?
In the Sept. 15 Democratic primary election, there were three Jews running for comptroller and two for public advocate. One of each made it into last week’s runoff. But none was elected.
And while Jewish Democrats fill plenty of Council seats and two borough president offices, one has not been elected citywide in over a decade, when Hevesi and Green were elected comptroller and public advocate, respectively, in 1997.
The Jewish population in New York City is shrinking (it’s now below a million in the five boroughs), but that may have less to do with this trend than a general shift in party loyalty. Though overwhelmingly Democrats, Jews in large numbers supported Republican Rudolph Giuliani and his successor, Michael Bloomberg — an ex-Democrat — against their party’s. And in this year’s race — which saw Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio win the Democratic nomination for public advocate and John Liu, the city’s first Asian American City Councilman, win the nod for comptroller — both picked up considerable Jewish support. In both cases, the nomination is tantamount to victory, as they face only token Republican opposition.
“What’s interesting about the election is that you had two Jews in the runoff who were defeated,” says consultant George Arzt. “In the past that would have been unthinkable. Now, because of the changing landscape of the city, this election has signaled a real shift.”
Arzt, a former Koch administration spokesman, worked for both Liu and de Blasio. But he also worked for a Jewish Democratic councilman, Alan Gerson, who was one of a handful of incumbents to lose the primary this year. Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan, including part of the Lower East Side, lost the nomination to newcomer Margaret Chin.
“This was a breakthrough for Asian Americans, who now have two City Council members, Chin and Kevin Kim of Queens,” says Arzt. “It says, ‘Move over, there’s a new group in town who will be a force in electoral politics.’”
By moving from no elected officials before 2001 to three eight years later, the Asian American community may be showing the kind of momentum that Jewish Democrats are losing.
“Turnout in organized Jewish communities is abysmally low,” said another Democratic consultant, Michael Tobman. “[Brooklyn Councilman] Simcha Felder couldn’t generate the votes to win in a state Senate primary [in 2006]. If you are looking citywide, I think the days of cobbling together votes between historically Jewish neighborhoods to secure a citywide win are probably behind us.
“There aren’t enough votes in Sheepshead Bay, Forest Hills, Borough Park and the Upper West Side to win. And that assumes a uniform Jewish concern.”
That’s something that has been missing in the past few election cycles as neighborhood frictions have faded, giving way to uniform, citywide concerns like the economy, education and security. This year, nearly all those seeking citywide office were City Council members who faced the challenge of introducing themselves to voters outside their bailiwicks. The Jewish candidates for comptroller — Melinda Katz, David Weprin and David Yassky — seem to have done a poorer job extending their base than Liu, although Yassky ran a high-profile, unsuccessful campaign for Congress two years ago that generated much publicity.
In the public advocate race, Mark Green, who held that office for two terms in the ’90s, saw his lead in the polls evaporate amid attacks from de Blasio, and what some feel may be voter fatigue, given Green’s recent unsuccessful bids for mayor and state attorney general.
Declining in numbers and eschewing ethnic loyalty, Jewish Democratic voters can no longer be considered a base for any Jewish candidate.
“Jews are not a monolithic group,” says Arzt. “There are shrinking numbers of them because more people are going to the suburbs. But at the same time Jews are not beholden to Jewish candidates. Both Bill de Blasio and John Liu had a good percentage of Jewish voters.”
Both victors had the support of prominent Jewish elected officials, including Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an avid campaigner. De Blasio also had the support of Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Williamsburg Assemblyman Howard Squadron. Weprin, after his primary loss, threw his support behind Liu, while Katz backed Yassky.
“In small turnout elections, name recognition helps, but a superior operation is more important,” says Yeruchim Silber, a former aide to de Blasio during his tenure in the City Council who worked on the public advocate campaign. “Bill had the Working Families Party, the labor unions and every county [Democratic] organization in the city. The campaign is driven by who gets people to the polls.” Arzt suggests one factor in the runoff that may have affected voting was Yom Kippur, which fell on the day before the election.
“It’s such a terrible thing for the community to return from the High Holidays and go into the voting booth,” he says. “That had to have depressed the turnout.”
Looking to the future, it remains to be seen what Jewish Democrats will stake their claim for future citywide campaigns. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who ran for mayor in 2005 but bowed out of this year’s race, may have the best shot among them.
“When you’re getting publicity on a federal level and people get to know you that way, the same rules don’t apply as local officials who have to get their name out,” says Tobman.
Another factor is that Yassky, Katz and Weprin gave up their City Council seats to run for higher office, and, as Green can attest, it can be difficult to make a political comeback after leaving the public spotlight. “I’ll take one step at a time,” says Weprin, who belongs to one of the city’s best-known political families, and doesn’t rule out a future campaign. (His brother, Mark, will soon occupy his Council seat.) “I’m certainly not going to disappear from public service. I’m sure I’ll find another opportunity to serve.”
But in his concession speech, Green, a political fixture in New York now for almost two decades, said he was done campaigning.
“You’ll be hearing from me … but not in elective office,” said Green, who is president of the Air America radio syndicate. “I leave that to politicians more skilled than I. For me, campaigns were a route to public service — not an end in and of themselves. Now there will be other ways to serve, which I very much look forward to.”
But then Green said the same thing after his 2006 attorney general loss.