Democratic congressional primaries in New York, when they do occur, often are low-key affairs, with little drama and predictable outcomes. But this season is seeing an unusual share of hot races, and they are becoming increasingly nasty. Facing serious challenges in four races of interest to Jewish communities are Reps. Anthony Weiner, Major Owens and Ed Towns in Brooklyn and Eliot Engel in the Bronx.
"It’s very unusual for this many congressional primaries to occur in a city where the primary is tantamount to election," said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who is working for the Towns campaign. "It has to do partly with [citywide] term limits, and partly with opportunity and the longevity of congresspeople."
Two of the challengers, Una Clarke and Noach Dear, are City Council members who must vacate their seats in 2001. Clarke is challenging Owens; Dear is vying with Weiner.
Clarke is gaining wide Jewish support in her bid for the seat representing Crown Heights and parts of Flatbush. The Jamaican immigrant is backed by several Jewish Democrats, including Public Advocate Mark Green and former Mayor Ed Koch, as well as the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council’s Political Action Committee.
Owens is backed by Sen. Charles Schumer and district leaders Mike Geller and Ann Levine of the powerful Highway Democratic Club.
Some in Crown Heights have called Owens unresponsive.
"Whenever we reached out to him, we never get our phone calls returned," said Hanina Sperlin, chair of the Crown Heights PAC.
Owens has been hurt as well by recent statements likening Clarke to Judas, Hitler and Austrian right-wing leader Joerg Haider. In an ill-fated move, his campaign recently challenged Clarke’s candidacy by raising questions about her citizenship status when she registered to vote in 1983. The city’s Board of Elections dismissed the objection, claiming it had no jurisdiction over the matter.
Clarke characterized the move by her ex-mentor as "immigrant bashing," which could rally support in a community that is heavily Caribbean American.
"He has called me some of the worst things you can call another human being, and when all that failed he then decided to attack my credibility and status," she said. "I think it’s very sad."
In a statement, Owens’ campaign said the objection was "a standard election procedure" and insisted questions remained about Clarke’s documentation. Refuting the charge of immigrant bashing, the statement pointed to legislation he has supported, such as the Alien Child and Family Anti-Deportation Act.
In the only all-Jewish race, in Brooklyn and Queens, Dear has picked up the Republican and Conservative ballot lines in his attempt to unseat Weiner, whom he is also challenging in the Democratic primary. Last week the Board of Elections removed 500 signatures contested by Weiner from Dear’s Republican petitions, but enough remained to keep Dear on the ballot.
An election lawyer with ties to the local GOP is suing Weiner for allegedly violating the civil rights of Republican voters.
Weiner will not have the advantage of a second ballot line. He’s rejecting the nomination of the Independence Party because it would not guarantee that conservative activist Pat Buchanan would not be on the ticket.
Weiner said he was shocked by a pro-Dear flier signed by five prominent Orthodox rabbis warning followers that "the values of the Torah and our way of life are foreign to the one who represents us in Congress." It also cited the need for an Orthodox representative.
"It’s sad and troubling that these respected rabbis would cast aspersions on my faith," Weiner said.
More sparks flew as a gay political club accused Dear of fostering homophobia by sending an operative to record its meeting with Weiner in order to hurt the congressman with Orthodox voters. A Dear spokesman suggested Weiner was making conflicting statements to Orthodox and gay voters but did not provide examples.
Dear declined to be interviewed. The contested district includes Park Slope, Midwood and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn as well as the Rockaways in Queens.
In a third Brooklyn race, challenger Barry Ford is attacking Towns for missing votes concerning Israel’s security. Towns’ district includes Williamsburg, Canarsie, East New York and Brooklyn Heights.
"Ed Towns [failed] to be at the ramparts as a supporter of Israel and as a supporter of the peace process," said Ford, a Harvard-educated lawyer. "He has missed several votes of importance to those who care about Israel." They include amendments to fund the Wye River peace agreement and to prohibit aid to Jordan unless it recognized Israel, as well as a resolution condemning Israeli housing construction in East Jerusalem.
Ford, who won 36 percent of the vote against Towns in 1998, won’t say how he would have voted on any of these issues, insisting only that "I would have voted."
Towns replied that Ford "does not have the kind of understanding to be a member of the U.S. Congress."
"You have family members that die, or flights that are canceled and you might not be able to make a vote," Towns said, noting that he did not abstain from any of those votes but that circumstances had kept him out of Washington.
He pointed to recent conferences organized by his office to foster ties between black and Jewish representatives. Defending his vote against a resolution to condemn former Nation of Islam activist Khalid Mohammad in 1994, Towns said the congressional act gave Mohammad too much prominence.
The race pitting Engel against state Sen. Larry Seabrook has divided four Jewish Bronx Democrats. Assemblymen Jeff Klein and Steve Kaufman are backing Seabrook, while Council member June Eisland and Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz are backing the incumbent.
Defenders of Engel, a six-term veteran, have faulted Seabrook for his race-based appeal to be the first African-American representative of the district, which also includes Westchester. But Klein, of Pelham Parkway, says Seabrook has the better record.
"He’s somebody I have worked with on a lot of issues," said Klein, who sponsored a bill with Seabrook to withhold state pension funds from Swiss banks who cheated Holocaust victims. As for Engel, who has been accused by some of a lethargic legislative career, Klein said: "I have no working relationship with him."
But Dinowitz, of Riverdale, calls Seabrook "the least qualified person that could come up against [Engel]. His attendance record in Albany is an embarrassment, while he has the highest rate of per diem reimbursements."
Engel, said Dinowitz, is a "leading spokesman in the House for the State of Israel and issues that I care about, like education and health care reform."
Asked why his fellow legislators, as well as the Bronx Democratic organization, were not supporting Engel, Dinowitz said: "Some of us do what’s right and some do what they are told to do."
A fifth primary was avoided last week when Councilman Walter McCaffrey abandoned his challenge to Rep. Joseph Crowley, who represents Long Island City, Middle Village and other parts of Queens. The cable station New York 1 raised questions about McCaffrey’s use of campaign funds for personal use, such as car service fees.
Crowley was handed his seat by former Rep. Tom Manton, the Queens Democratic chairman, who resigned too late for a special election. McCaffrey’s withdrawal hands Crowley a painless second term.