by Adam Dickter
In 1997, when he was 23, Ryan Karben was elected to the Rockland County Legislature during his second year at Columbia Law School. Four years later, 10 fellow Democrats named him majority leader. Last month he was elected to the state Assembly.
Karben appears to be on the fast track, at 28 already more adept at navigating the choppy waters of New York politics than older, perennial candidates. He has fallen in with the right Democrats, like Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Sen. Hillary Clinton, for whom he campaigned in 1998 and 2000, respectively, and mastered the art of fund raising.
"Ryan knows how to play the game," says veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.
In the second most expensive Assembly race in state history, Karben, a graduate of Yeshiva University, defeated two other Jewish candidates in September’s Democratic primary for the district that includes parts of Monsey, Spring Valley, New Hempstead and the chasidic villages of New Square and Kaiser.
In November he won 52 percent of the vote against Republican Jerry Walsh and several minor party candidates after spending a whopping $567,724, all of it raised on his own.
Karben, an Orthodox Jew, considers himself part of a "new generation of Jewish leaders" for whom coalition building is as essential as looking out for parochial interests. Although he was elected with heavy support from the Orthodox enclaves, next month he will represent one of the largest Haitian-American populations in the state as well as heavily Latino areas, and movie stars like Bill Murray, Al Pacino and Lorraine Bracco in posh Sneden’s Landing on the Hudson.
"We need to engage these communities and build bridges between them and make sure they get their share," he says. "The nature of politics in New York is changing."
Karben, believed to be the youngest state legislator, has all the makings of a political rising star. Trouble is, Albany has a poor track record when it comes to nurturing rising stars in the Legislature, and in a crowded field of downstate Jewish politicians, it has been tough to break out of the pack.
For every success story like Charles Schumer, Steven Solarz and Jerry Nadler, who have used the Assembly as a launching pad for congressional careers, there are far more legislators who serve their constituents well but are unknown outside their districts. Several have failed in recent campaigns for higher office; Bronx Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz recently won more publicity from a cameo in the new Jennifer Lopez movie than many colleagues get in years of lawmaking.
Karben’s predecessor, Sam Colman, known as an advocate for Jewish causes over an 18-year career, was recently elected justice of the Town of Ramapo. Brooklyn’s Dov Hikind has become perhaps the best-known Jewish assemblyman in the state but has declined thus far to seek higher office, perhaps because his current job is his for as long as he wants it.
Standing out in a crowd of 150 Assembly members, 103 of them Democrats, can be difficult. Virtually all the credit for major legislation generally goes to the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, although they each throw occasional bones to confederates (usually committee chairs) who have earned their favor.
"The key is to become an expert in a particular area and be the first to react to key issues, building a reputation with the media and political leaders as the go-to person on an issue," says Jules Polonetsky, who represented Brooklyn’s shorefront for three terms in the Assembly in the mid-1990s before running unsuccessfully for public advocate.
"Whether that means spending 20 years as an Assembly figure or using that profile to move on in the political firmament is a challenge some members face."
Karben says he is taking a salary cut in leaving the Manhattan law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost for the Assembly’s $79,500 paycheck, but says he is happy to be part of the process. He notes that New York has the second biggest Legislature in the nation behind California.
"To participate on the development of public policy in one of the leading states in the nation is exciting," he says. "There’s lots of good to be done as one of 103 [Democrats] in Albany."
A father of two daughters, 3 years old and 18 months, Karben says he wants to play a lead role in facilitating ideas proposed by Spitzer to increase public funding to parochial schools to lighten the tuition burden.
"There’s a lot of exciting things happening with respect to yeshivas and education," he says.
As for his future prospects, Karben acknowledges that he once considered vying for the congressional district long represented by Republican Ben Gilman. But that seat was eliminated in this year’s redistricting process.
"Right now, I was hired to do a job in the Assembly, and I look forward to doing it for the foreseeable future," says Karben, who was appointed to the Town of Ramapo Planning Board at 18.
The mild-mannered Karben, a Bronx native, says his family has a history of communal involvement and political activism.
"I was inspired by my grandparents’ devotion to their community in Mount Vernon, where their life revolved around their shul," he said.
Both of his parents, who have since divorced, served as presidents of their local civic association in Spring Valley.
"The phone constantly rang with people who wanted help, from drainage issues to garbage pick-up," Karben recalls. "And because my parents had been involved in so many local Democratic campaigns, they were able to get results."
Karben says that growing up, he followed campaigns the way other kids follow sports. At Frisch Yeshiva High School in Paramus, N.J., he started class projects to support environmental legislation; in the 10th and 11th grades he led delegations of classmates to AIPAC conferences.
Although he says he is "too young to be cynical," Karben is apparently not too young to be controversial. During the campaign, the local GOP forced him to go to court to prove that his motherís house in New Hempstead was a legal residence, although he lives in adjacent Wesley Hills, outside his county legislative district. (Both homes are within the Assembly district). In endorsing him for Assembly, the Journal News of Rockland said Karben "pushed the limits of the residency law" and handed his rivals a distracting issue. Public interest groups also gasped at his relentless campaign spending.
Sheinkopf says Karben could be a viable candidate for Congress or Rockland County executive. "If anybody can break the Assembly curse, itís Ryan Karben," says the strategist.
"He’s young enough to take it in multiple steps. He’s a tireless worker and observant Jew, which gives him access to a community that will actively fund-raise for one of its own."
(Karben’s coffers this year were outdone only by the combined $1.4 million spent by Republican Gail Hilson and Democrat Jonathan Bing in the East Side Assembly race won by Bing. Karben’s total is noteworthy in that it was derived fully from individual, corporate and union donors, and not from party funds.)
In the case of Polonetsky, who also was seen as a young Orthodox political star, he gained prominence by scuttling a state contract to a security patrol in his district linked to the Nation of Islam. In 1997, Polonetsky left the Assembly after crossing party lines to run alongside Republican Rudolph Giuliani, and was appointed consumer affairs commissioner by the mayor after losing the public advocate’s race.
Polonetsky has since taken his talents to the private sector, and is now vice president for integrity assurance at America Online. But he says a long career in the Assembly, notwithstanding bids for higher office, is a political prize in its own right.
"There are some very respectable members who really appreciate the service role they play or staying in close touch with constituents," says Polonetsky. "Representing 100,000 people and their opinions on a state level is no slim pickings."
Next year’s City Council candidates are off and running. Among those holding recent fund-raisers is Democrat David Reich of central Queens, who is hoping to capture the seat he lost to Jim Gennarro in 2001. Reich was seen to have split the Jewish vote in that race with Barry Grodenchik, who recently won an Assembly seat and won’t be a factor in the rematch. Reich, an aide to Brooklyn Sen. Seymour Lachman, says he raised $12,000 at his kickoff Saturday night.
Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer has appointed Rabbi Marc Schneier, who supported Ferrer rival Mark Green for mayor last year, to the board of his think tank, the Drum Major Institute. Rabbi Schneier heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Sheldon Silver, who on Monday was unanimously re-elected as speaker of the Assembly, will lead a delegation of Democratic colleagues to Israel in mid-January sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and UJA-Federation. Most of the participants will be visiting Israel for the first time.