Before a crowd of 400 at a Brooklyn catering hall last week, Assemblyman Dov Hikind had difficulty staying off the podium.
Presiding over a fund-raiser for his newly minted political club, Hikind often upstaged the emcee and, during his own speech, lingered for more than 20 minutes, covering everything from local judgeship races to his own political ambitions.
"We have a lot of important things coming up," Hikind told the crowd of club members and local elected officials, citing upcoming elections. "All of us are going to work together."
Hikind can be forgiven for savoring the moment. This wasn’t how his enemies, and many pundits, envisioned his future one year ago, when he stood trial on charges of misappropriating public funds allotted to the COJO of Boro Park.
His foes predicted that his prospects for leadership were limited to the minyan at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility.
But nearly a year after his acquittal, Hikind is flying high. Easily re-elected to his eighth term prior to the trial, Hikind, 48, is now a Democratic district leader, with a weekly radio show and plenty of speculation about his future prospects. An end to his feud with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani may be in sight, and he’s taken on a high-profile role attacking teen drug abuse in the Orthodox community. And although he backed losers in last year’s Senate race and this year’s Israeli elections, he’s regaining his stature as a power broker.
"He’s building momentum to bring his career back to where it was before the interruption," says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who sees Hikind made more powerful by Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear’s inability to seek another term in the City Council. "That will make him the Orthodox political leader with the longest period of service in public life, and the one who brings in the services."
Hikind’s good fortune stands in contrast with those of two former employees of the now-defunct COJO of Boro Park, Rabbi Elimelech Naiman and Paul Chernick, who were convicted of bribery. "My heart goes out to them," says Hikind. "It weighs on me, as it would if any person in my community were faced with jail. No one could comprehend what that does to a person and his or her family unless he or she has been in a similar situation."
Almost a year after the trial, no one is asking the lingering questions, such as how two people could be convicted of an illegal transaction involving Hikind, while he himself was acquitted.
"There are two ways to look at it, and it depends on your prejudices," said Hikind. "Another way is: If I was innocent, the other people must be innocent, too."
Hikind said he was buoyed during his ordeal by strong grassroots support in his community. Even after his indictment no one challenged him for his seat, he notes, and he was able to raise more than $500,000 for his defense. The state later repaid most of what he spent. Leftover funds, he says, were given to charities before Passover. He declined to name the charities.
Hikind, who has a penchant for endorsing Republicans in key races, denies that his freewheeling political style will get him into trouble now that heís a member of the Democratic State Committee. "I think people know me well enough by now to know that in major races I’m not going to be a ‘good Democrat.’ I’m going to do what I believe is correct."
That includes vehemently opposing the likely Senate bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he considers pro-Palestinian and "way too liberal for me." Although Hikind jokingly waited until Brooklyn’s Democratic chair, Clarence Norman Jr., left his dinner to publicly display his "Hillary, Please Don’t Run" button, he insists he’ll be up front about his opposition.
As he told the crowd Sunday night: "After what I’ve been through, what else can they do to me?"
William Rapfogel was almost en route to the White House last week for a ceremony honoring the World Champion Yankees when he learned that Rev. Al Sharpton would be a prominent guest. Rapfogel, director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, then canceled the trip: a painful decision for a lifelong Bronx Bombers fan.
Rapfogel holds Sharpton responsible for anti-Semitic outbreaks in Crown Heights and Harlem. "He has shown no remorse, and made no effort to reach out to the Jewish community," he said. "And yet Sharpton was in Row 1 [of the audience], while [Harlem Rep.] Charles Rangel, someone who has worked with the Jewish community, was in Row 3. This shows the White House doesn’t care about what’s happened between Sharpton and the Jews, or doesn’t know."
Meanwhile, the first lady’s masquerade as a Yankee fan at that ceremony to boost her New York ties has earned its place beside the 1988 Michael Dukakis tank ride on pundits’ lists of infamous political stunts, an indication of how nomination by fiat can go to a candidate’s head.
New York 1’s Andrew Kirtzman called the first lady "a pandering loser" of the week.
"After all those years together with Bill, you’d think Hillary would know how to act sincere by now," said Kirtzman in his weekly commentary. "Her Yankee stunt was an affront to the master. … Merely throwing a team cap on your head is the stuff of amateurs, something worthy of a local school board race."
Speaking of school board races, a blatant appeal to the Christian right was apparently not enough to elect Brooklyn deli owner Arlene Rutuello to a seat on Community School Board 22, which includes Borough Park. Last month Rutuello drew citywide headlines (and widespread Jewish condemnation) with her declaration that Christians have a "hidden strength" in the community and she "will not support any other group." Rutuello came in 11th out of 14 candidates for nine slots.
Among those elected to a school board, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, is former assemblyman and state attorney general G. Oliver Koppel, who is spearheading a controversial plan to create a new high school in order to prevent white flight from the middle-class enclave.
In Queens, three board members of the Queens Jewish Community Council won seats on different school boards. Judith Freidman Rosen was the highest vote-getter in District 28 in Forest Hills; Treasurer Art Beroff was re-elected in District 27 in Howard Beach, and David Rothstein was elected in District 25. "This will give us more of a voice on education issues," said Manny Behar, director of QJCC.