Russians Riled Up Over State Senate Race
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Russians Riled Up Over State Senate Race

Turnout high in Senate election with Belarus-born candidate, but some cry foul over ballot challenges, district lines and stereotyping.

Russian-speaking immigrants turned out in high numbers to cast their votes in a special election for state Senate last month, but evidently did not overwhelmingly support the man who would be the second member of their community to serve the state legislature.

Republican David Storobin and Democrat Lew Fidler are locked in one of the tightest vote-count battles in recent memory, with the margin estimated to be as low as one or two votes as absentee ballots are counted — and challenged.

Things got testy, with some claiming that Fidler’s campaign was deliberately challenging paper ballots from the district’s Russian-speaking population.

“Unfortunately, my opponent’s campaign has unfairly blocked well more than 100 Russian absentee votes from being counted, for no reason other than the fact that they are Russian,” Storobin said in a statement on March 29. “This blatant disenfranchisement cannot and will not stand.”

Some even showed up at Fidler’s City Council district office to protest.

Fidler’s campaign insists it challenged only those ballots, about 120 in all, collected by an individual, Alla Pometko, identified in campaign disclosures as a paid consultant to Storobin. According to Fidler’s court papers challenging the ballots, 16 of those whose ballot was collected by Pometko also voted in person. The court petition suggests those who filled out the ballots were unaware that doing so constituted a vote.

Absentee ballots are largely used by those who can’t vote in person because of disability.

“The Fidler campaign has challenged the fraudulent votes from people either not entitled to vote by absentee ballot or who had voted but showed up at the polling place after having made a miraculous recovery,” said Kalman Yeger, Fidler’s campaign manager.

Pometko could not be located for comment. Storobin’s campaign spokesman, David Simpson, did not return calls for comment in time for publication.

Russian community leaders were further riled up by an unrelated incident, holding a press conference this weekend to condemn the New York Times for its coverage of a massive medical insurance fraud scheme. The Times’ William K. Rashbaum quoted an anonymous “law enforcement official who has investigated organized crime groups from the former Soviet Union” saying “This is the Russian mind-set, and this is why it’s endemic in the system … If you’re not scamming the system, if you’re not scamming the government, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing — you’re looked upon as a patsy.”

Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, a Democrat who is the first and currently only Russian-born legislator in New York state, believes that the vote among Russian-speaking citizens was about evenly split between the parties.

A Fidler supporter, Brook-Krasny said he had no indication that the campaign was challenging voters based on their background.

“If something was done wrong it’s up to the court to find out, but I wouldn’t be blaming the Fidler campaign for challenging Russian names,” he said. “I hope the process will reveal the truth. It could be a case where people didn’t know how to vote properly and broke the law not knowing how to do it. They may be elderly and may not remember signing the absentee ballot.”

Brook-Krasny said turnout in the apartment complexes of Warbasse and Trump, which have high concentrations of Russian-speaking immigrants, numbered about 3,800 — not bad for a special election.

“I’m proud to say the community is voting in big numbers now,” he said.

But new district lines are a cause for concern, he added. While the Assembly lines didn’t amount to much change, the new Senate and congressional lines leave the community with “no strong political base. Quite a few Russian-speaking Americans active in the community who wanted to give a voice to the community now think they don’t have that possibility anymore.”

The winner of the 27th District race, to replace Carl Kruger, will have to run for a district on the new map in November.

With Brighton Beach now moved into the district currently served by Rep. Ed Towns, “there are communities that have no ties between each other and I don’t know how an elected official in the area will be able to serve those different communities equally,” said Brook-Krasny. “Hopefully someone will prove me wrong.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)’s political action committee has given Rabbi Shmuley Boteach a $5,000 donation in his bid to represent his New Jersey district in Congress.

It’s a case of one hand washing the other for the two Republicans: the widely published author, radio host and lecturer hosted a New York Jewish forum for Cantor in October at a time when the Virginian was catching some major flack for his dismissive view of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Rabbi Boteach also praised Cantor on his website and co-hosted a fundraiser with him for New Jersey-based, pro-Israel NORPAC at the home of mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

“Eric Cantor is my friend and we study Torah together,” the rabbi said in a statement. “An inspired leader, he shares my commitment to values-based policies that are essential to the healing of America. As the only Jewish Republican in the House, Eric has been a strong advocate for the U.S. Israel relationship. I am honored to have his support and backing.”

Cantor’s PAC is called EricPAC, which stands for Every Republican Is Crucial. According to the Federal Election Commission’s database, the PAC has raised $2,988,963.70, but has just $725,112.10 left on hand.

Rabbi Boteach has not personally contributed to Cantor’s re-election campaign or PAC. Asked on Tuesday if he planned to, he said, “Maybe when I have a PAC as big as his.”

The familiar mantra of no-specific-threat-but-watch-out was the advice for Jewish leaders at the NYPD’s annual pre-Passover security briefing Tuesday.

Mitchell Silber, the department’s director of intelligence analysis said authorities were probing the posting of ominous graphic on an al-Qaeda-friendly website that featured the city’s skyline and police headquarters with the words “Al Qaeda Coming Soon Again in New York.”

He also briefed the leaders on alleged plots against Manhattan synagogues and other recent incidents, as well as attacks on Israeli diplomats overseas.

Commissioner Ray Kelly said that his intelligence liaison abroad is gathering firsthand information about last month’s attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

“Among other things, he’s learned that the shooter, Mohamed Merah, initially intended to strike a different target, but had considered the school as a target and conducted surveillance there,” Kelly said. “While we know of no similar threat to the city at this time, such attacks are certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

“Lone wolves are extremely difficult to detect.”

Security will be beefed up at area synagogues and heavily Jewish neighborhoods for Passover. He noted that similar accommodations are made for mosques during Ramadan.

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