Can A Progressive Upend Felder?
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Can A Progressive Upend Felder?

Uphill battle for Blake Morris in heavily Orthodox state Senate district.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

Attorney Blake Morris campaigning to unseat state Sen. Simcha Felder at a farmers’ market last month. Courtesy of Blake Morris for NYS Senate District 17
Attorney Blake Morris campaigning to unseat state Sen. Simcha Felder at a farmers’ market last month. Courtesy of Blake Morris for NYS Senate District 17

Blake Morris’ primary challenge to state Sen. Simcha Felder has been generally classified as a very long longshot. Not only is Morris taking on a three-term incumbent, he is also challenging an Orthodox Jew who represents the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park and Midwood. However, the 58-year-old attorney, who lives in progressive Ditmas Park, appears to have gotten under Felder’s skin enough to inspire him to try to get Morris thrown off the ballot on the charge that Morris is using his middle name on the ballot in place of Lawrence, his first name.

Aaron Maslow, Felder’s attorney, argued that Morris always uses Lawrence on his legal documents and has voted under the name Lawrence Morris “over 50 times.”

Howard Graubard, Morris’ attorney, counters that there are dozens of examples, many of which have been upheld in court, in which people have run for office using names that differ from their legal names.

Sarah Steiner, an attorney who specializes in election law, said she thinks Morris will prevail. “All of the case law that I know backs up Mr. Morris’ claim,” she said.

Jerry H. Goldfeder, an election lawyer and an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law, agreed. “As long as a candidate uses a name that they are generally known as and it doesn’t cause confusion or is intended to defraud voters, nicknames are fine,” he said via email.

State Supreme Court Judge Edgar Walker was expected to issue a decision on the case late this week.

Felder, who served two terms in the New York City Council and is finishing his third term in the State Senate, was elected in 2012 as a Democrat but immediately announced that he would be caucusing with (i.e. voting with) the Republicans, giving them a one-seat majority. For that reason he is arguably the most powerful politician in Albany, and perhaps the most disliked among the Democrats. Perhaps because of that distinction, the Morris-Felder race has been given “wildcard” status by the publication City and State New York.

State Sen. Simcha Felder has a primary challenger for the first time since 2012.

Morris is a Conservative Jew who lives in a left-leaning pocket of District 17, a district that encompasses just about all of South Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods, including Borough Park, Midwood and Kensington, and is 42 percent Orthodox, just over half of whom are ultra-Orthodox, according to the 2011 UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study of New York. Other portions of the district, including parts of Mapleton and Sheepshead Bay, lean conservative and will likely support Felder in the general election, where he is also running on the Republican line. The only other left-leaning part of the district is a small portion of Sunset Park.

Yosef Rapaport, a media consultant for Jewish organizations who lives in Borough Park, said that despite Felder’s move to the Republican side, Orthodox support for Felder hasn’t flagged. In fact, Felder’s rare position as the person who gives Republicans their majority allowed him to hold up passage of this year’s budget until his amendment easing state oversight of yeshivas was included. (The nonprofit YAFFED, Young Advocates for Fair Education, has filed a lawsuit challenging the amendment as a violation of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state clause.)

“He’s seen as somebody who protects yeshiva parents’ interests,” Rapaport said. “For our community, everything begins and everything stops at this issue.”

“The community is very proud of him [Felder] for representing our interests,” Rapaport continued. “They know who butters their bread.”

But, Morris says, a lot of Orthodox Jews are not registered Democrats and hence cannot vote in the primary, which is scheduled this year for Sept. 13, a Thursday, as the second Tuesday falls on Rosh HaShanah. (A third candidate, Luis Rivera, will be running on the Reform party line on the November ballot.)

Morris said that very few people vote in the District 17 Democratic primary. In 2012, the last primary in which Felder faced a significant challenge, only 8,070 people voted, according to Ballotpedia, in a district that has roughly 144,000 registered voters. Thus, Morris said, running in the District 17 primary is “more like running for student government president of a small college.”

“It’s a student government election, and a lot of the students don’t like Felder,” he said.

Felder did not return requests for an interview.

Whether or not Morris wins, support for his campaign appears to be growing. In early July the campaign had almost 200 volunteers. Now there are roughly 400, said Morris. On the fundraising front, Morris noted, Felder still has Morris beat by nearly 10-to-1. In the last campaign filing, Felder reported raising $430,000 and Morris $41,000.

Chamber of the Albany Common Council in City Hall in Albany, New York. Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin W. Schaeffer is one of a handful of Orthodox Jews volunteering for the campaign. Asked why he was supporting Morris, he said: “I’m a Democrat.”

“Simcha Felder won as a Democrat in 2012, but after [he] … was in office, he started acting like a Republican,” Schaeffer said. “Now in this current season there’s actually a [real] Democrat running.”

Schaeffer agrees that in general Felder has strong support among Orthodox Jews in the area, “but then again,” he said, “they haven’t been exposed to an alternative.” And, he said, a lot of people are upset that Felder voted against the reauthorization of speed cameras in front of elementary schools, shutting down the 140 cameras currently in use.

Democrats also complain about several other votes by Felder, including one preventing adoption of a 5-cent fee on plastic bags to discourage their use and his proposal for a bill to raise the speed limit on Ocean Parkway, which runs right through his district, from 25 to 30 miles per hour. But Morris thinks dissatisfaction with the yeshivas is the biggest factor drawing Orthodox voters to his side.

“The ones [Orthodox Jews] who are supporting me are the ones who are upset about Felder’s stance on yeshiva education. Because there are students in yeshivas who are not getting the appropriate education to actually make a living and fully participate in society, and either they’ve been injured or their friends and family have been injured by having a lack of education. There is a group of those volunteers who are furious and they feel that they have no voice,” Morris said

Morris’ candidacy came about after watching Felder be re-elected twice, despite his defection to the Republicans. In 2016 he helped form NYSD 17 For Progress.

Morris tried hard to find a candidate. Following a community meeting about a year ago, Morris stood outside the building soliciting support (and a candidate) to take on Felder. “What are the requirements to run?” this reporter asked, curious. “A pulse,” he said.

Morris is married with a daughter who attends Brooklyn Tech. He’s a commercial litigator who frequently works pro bono for civic groups, including in the 1980s a group battling the Westway development plan in Manhattan, and more recently supporting Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which fought for a more community-friendly development plan for the Atlantic Yards site.

“I’m happy doing my civic avenger work,” he said. But finding no candidate, he decided to run, despite warnings that Felder could not be beat. “I say welcome to my life, this is what I do,” said Morris, who is making his first run for statewide office. “I work on the impossible.”

But the election is not so much about him as it is a referendum on Felder, Morris said. “That’s why there are so many people that — once they find out that I’m running against Felder — they don’t even care about who I am anymore. They just want to know when the election is and when they can vote Felder out.”

Still, political observers say they will keep their money on Felder. “Morris will get the liberal Jewish vote of Ditmas Park … and folks that may want to see change, and diehard philosophical Democrats,” wrote Stephen Witt, editor-in-chief of the website Kings County Politics, in an email interview. However, he said, “Felder to me is still the favorite. He is a veteran campaigner and he brings home the kosher bacon. And the bulk of the community is frum, which is his demographic.

“Then again,” Witt added, “you never know, and Sept. 13 is a long ways off.”

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