Queens House Race Roiled By Charge Of Jewish ‘Spoiler’
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Queens House Race Roiled By Charge Of Jewish ‘Spoiler’

Candidate withdraws amid claims he was tapped to split community’s vote in Ackerman district.

UPDATED THURSDAY, APRIL 19, 1:55 PM

Jeff Gottlieb’s name is well known in the northern Queens district that he had hoped to represent in Congress next year.

The founder of the Queens Jewish Historical Society and one of the borough’s unofficial historians, he leads neighborhood tours and has worked in community affairs in the offices of five local elected officials.

But his entry earlier this month in the crowded race to succeed Gary Ackerman, who recently announced his retirement, was seen by some critics not as a natural progression of his activism but as a calculated ploy to upend one of his Jewish rivals’ chances by splitting the community’s vote.

Democrat Assemblyman Rory Lancman quickly jumped into the fray when Ackerman made his announcement a few days after new district lines were approved. Shortly after, another Assembly member, Grace Meng, said she’d compete in the primary — with the backing of the Queens County Democrat party organization.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who is a cousin of Queens Democrat chair Rep. Joseph Crowley, is also in the race, and more candidates are testing the waters. The winner of the June 26 primary will face Republican Dan Halloran in November.

Formerly stretching from Long Island through Queens, the 6th District, as redrawn in this year’s reapportionment process, is now entirely in Queens, and includes most of Flushing and parts of Bayside, Fresh Meadows, Kew Gardens Hills, Hillcrest, Middle Village, Glendale and other areas. It is estimated to be about 39 percent Asian and 20 percent Jewish.

Because both Gottlieb and Lancman are Jewish, some —including Lancman — saw a plot to split the community’s vote and help elect Meng as the first Asian American to represent New York on Capitol Hill.

“Gottlieb’s Queens machine-manufactured candidacy is a cynical attempt by machine candidate Grace Meng to divide the Jewish community,” consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is working for Lancman, said in a statement e-mailed to The Jewish Week Tuesday. “I guess she thinks Jews are fools who’d never figure out that until a few weeks ago, Gottlieb was just another political patronage appointee. Grace Meng is in for a big surprise.”

On Wednesday, Gottlieb filed papers with the state Board of Elections withdrawing from the race. Reached on his cell phone Thursday afternoon, Gottlieb deferred comment, saying he would soon issue a formal statement. The papers he filed listed another candidate, Stephen Green, a lawyer, as his replacement in the campaign.

A spokesman for Meng insists there was no scheme to split the vote.

“Our position has been that anybody who wants to run for office and pursues that process should be on the ballot,” said Michael Tobman on Tuesday.

But another consultant working for the Meng campaign, Michael Nussbaum, was reported to have spoken to a local Democrat district leader, Matthew Silverstein, about joining the race. Tobman on April 10 confirmed that conversation to the political blog City and State NY.

Tobman told The Jewish Week Tuesday that Nussbam’s conversation with Silverstein had been “tongue-in-cheek” and was “taken out of context” in the blog report.

Nussbaum would not comment about his conversations on behalf of the campaign, but told The Jewish Week Monday, “I don’t understand why people are so afraid of having multiple ethnic candidates balloting and looking for office. This is what America is all about. This is politics the way it has been played since the founding of this country.”

Nussbaum, a former president of the American Jewish Congress’ Metropolitan Region in the early 2000s (the Congress shut down in 2010), pointed out that there is another candidate collecting petitions, Robert Mittman, who is Jewish. And he said there may be a second Asian candidate as well, Juan Sheng. “Is anyone accusing them of splitting the vote?” he asked. Another candidate listed by the Federal Election Committee is Michael Scala.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mittman, an ear, nose and throat doctor in Bayside, sent reporters an emailed statement declaring his candidacy in the Democratic primary. " I consider it an honor to seek elected office in the community that I was born in, raised in, lived in, volunteered and worked in for over 40 years," he said. "In particular, as an internist and family doctor I am eager to discuss the current crisis in our health care system which desperately needs reform."

According to some reports Gottlieb was initially gathering petitions on behalf of Meng. He did not file any fundraising reports with the FEC.

Political science professor Douglas Muzzio of Baruch College said that from an outsider’s perspective it appears that “there’s an attempt by the Queens County [Democrat] organization to split the Jewish vote, to hurt Lancman.”

Joseph Crowley, the county Democratic chairman, did not respond to messages left at both the state party headquarters and his Washington office as of Thursday.

One Jewish community leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his organization is nonprofit, said that regardless of whether anyone put him up to it, Gottlieb’s campaign could split the Jewish vote.

“Voting in June is uncharted territory,” said the leader, noting that primaries are usually in September. “The turnout is going to be [mostly] super-prime voters. Those are the people who know Gottlieb best” because of his long history in politics.

Super-prime voters — those who show up for all municipal, state and federal races — are usually heavily Jewish in New York.

Councilman David Weprin, who is supporting Meng, said he had been assured by campaign officials that they did not recruit Gottlieb to run, and he takes them at their word. In any case, he suggested, ethnic appeal should not be overestimated.

“Clearly, when I was the Jewish candidate [last year] against Bob Turner, the Jewish vote was split,” said Weprin, referring to the special election to succeed Anthony Weiner last year won by Turner, who is Catholic. “You can’t take for granted that the Jewish candidate gets the Jewish votes against a non-Jewish candidate, in this case Grace Meng.”

Gottlieb has served as an aide to Hevesi, to Weprin when he was a councilman, to former Councilman Morton Povman and to former Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin.

In a sign that the race will get nasty, The New York Post on Sunday published a story saying that Gottlieb in 1971 had been charged with arson after a fire destroyed his apartment, but accepted a plea bargain for criminal mischief. The Post cited an unnamed source who said Gottlieb, then a public school teacher, was treated at a psychiatric facility but soon returned to his job. He now works for the state Board of Elections.

Not surprisingly given her party backing, Meng leads in fundraising, with $360,203 tallied as of the last filing in March. Lancman has pulled in $239,628 while Crowley’s donations totaled $100,050.

Rep. Ed Towns’ announcement this week that he would not seek re-election in a three-way primary in a drastically altered Brooklyn district has now set up a smaller battle between Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and Councilman Charles Barron.

Barron, elected in 2001, has caused a stir in the Council by refusing to support resolutions that are not evenhanded in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians. The Daily News once labeled him “a one-time Black Panther who is given to racial views and to a nonsensically divisive confrontational style.”

To win, Barron will have to gain a substantial following in parts of the 10th district that were shifted from those of Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Rep. Bob Turner, including Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay, which are heavily Jewish.

In an interview Tuesday, Barron said he had a history of fighting for affordable housing, parks and living wages, and against crime, education cuts and school closings.

“That’s for everybody,” he said. “When I get to Washington I’m going to protect Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and end those wars, and fight for the trillions of dollars in resources to come back to neighborhoods like ours.”

Asked how he will address his views on Israel on the campaign trail, he said, “My continued position is there has to be an evenhanded policy of negotiated settlement not a military settlement.” He then added: “What about Africa, what about the Caribbean, what about Europe? There are hotspots all over the world that I’ll have to deal with, ending wars and world poverty and oppression, making sure people get treated fairly around all over the world.”

Jeffries, who visited Israel with the Jewish Community Relations Council in 2008, said he is already visiting the shorefront communities where is not as well known in order to introduce himself.

“It’s important for me to spend a considerable amount of time in Mill Basin, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach,” he said. “In the next few weeks I’ll be meeting with civic leaders, religious and other stakeholders to get familiar with the issues important to them.”

Israel, he said, is “clearly a significant issue for many people in the southern portion of the district and it’s very reasonable for them to express positions in those issues. The next representative will obviously have to engage in that public policy decision.” He said he views the U.S.-Israel relationship as based on three “pillars”: security, democracy and stability.

Towns, first elected in 1982, announced Monday that after consulting with family he decided not to seek a 16th term. “It has been an honor to have fought so that the people of New York can have more opportunities and a chance to live better lives,” he said in a statement.

With $516,958 raised, Jeffries has pulled in more than any other candidate challenging an incumbent this year and has $398,351 on hand according to the FEC’s database. Barron has raised $61,704, with 52,939 on hand as of the last filing. (Towns had raised $762,396.)

No Republican is registered as raising funds for a race in the district.

“Jeffries has an overwhelming advantage in money and support of the establishment, politicians, labor, etc.,” said Baruch College’s Muzzio. “If I’m Jeffries, I’m going to argue that I can deliver, I have coalitions across ethnicity and I can work within the Congress.”

This story was updated on Wednesday, 4/18 to include the statement from Robert Mittman.

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