The Politics Of Encephalitis

The Politics Of Encephalitis

Following word that a case of St. Louis encephalitis had hit Borough Park last week, top city officials flocked to the Vizhnitzer yeshiva there, where they briefed community leaders on efforts to contain the deadly mosquito-borne virus.

The officials included the commissioner of the Department of Health, Neil Cohen; the director of the mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, Jerome Hauer; the mayor’s chief of staff, Tony Carbonetti; and the police commissioner’s chief of staff, Richard Sherer, as well as high-ranking officials from the 66th Precinct.

Hauer discussed with some 200 worried, mostly Orthodox leaders the city’s intention to spray Brooklyn with an insecticide on the eve of Rosh HaShanah. Joined by experts from the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, he also answered questions about the disease said to have killed three in New York City since its outbreak two weeks ago.

But for Felix Ortiz, the state Assemblyman from a district adjoining Borough Park, information has not been as easy to come by. Ortiz, of Sunset Park, was not informed of the briefing last Thursday. And his efforts to reach out since have led nowhere.

"No information has been given to me," said Ortiz, whose district is more than 50 percent Latino. "Either no one knows, or the information is being hijacked from me."

Hauer announced last Thursday that the first confirmed case of St. Louis encephalitis, or SLE, outside Queens was diagnosed in an elderly man in the vicinity of Greenwood Cemetery, which is in Sunset Park. But Hauer later told reporters the man lived on the border of Sunset Park and Borough Park. He has refused to answer questions about the victim, even refusing to discuss the man’s condition.Calls to numerous leaders in the close-knit Borough Park community, as well as more than 10 major hospitals in Brooklyn, turned up no information on anyone with encephalitis. Officials initially told reporters the man had died of the disease (65 cases are under investigation) but Cohen told The Jewish Week the man was in "serious but stable condition."

The influx of city officials to Borough Park came just over a week after police killed an unstable neighborhood Orthodox man who was wielding a hammer. A Brooklyn grand jury is investigating alleged witness accounts that Gary Busch posed no danger to the police when they fired 12 bullets into him, as the officers claim he did. The incident brought hundreds of chasidic protesters to the streets, some questioning the policies of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whom they overwhelmingly supported in the past three elections (nearly 90 percent in 1997.)

Taking center stage at the Borough Park SLE conference was City Councilman Noach Dear, an early backer of the police version of the shooting. A source with access to top city officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the community conference in Borough Park was in part a reward for Dear’s loyalty to the mayor during the shooting crisis.

"This was a political debt," said the insider.

Not only was Ortiz left out of the loop on the briefing, his inquiries to the Department of Health since have gone unanswered. "They have ignored my community as a whole," said the third-term Democrat. "What’s going on is a lack of communication and participation. I offered my office to be open 24 hours [to distribute information and mosquito repellent] but nobody got back to me."

Ortiz wasn’t the only area representative excluded from the encephalitis briefing. Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a critic of the Busch shooting who has been at odds with Giuliani since 1995, said he heard about the conference after the fact. "I was informed of it by other people, who were surprised that I wasn’t there," he said.

State Sen. Seymour Lachman and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Democrats whose districts include parts of Borough Park, were informed of the press conference and sent staff members.

A City Council member from Flushing, Queens, where the SLE outbreak is heavily concentrated, said she had not seen as much attention paid to her district as to Borough Park. "I haven’t had any city officials visiting us in Flushing," said Julia Harrison.

Dear said the officials came to Borough Park because ìthey were concerned that it had spread into Brooklyn next to an area very populated with youngsters and seniors. It is more dangerous to them. That’s why the response was so quick. Finally, we have a mayor who responds quickly to a crisis." (Dear supported the previous mayor, David Dinkins, against Giuliani in 1993, but is now a Giuliani supporter.)

Bruce Teitelbaum, the director of Giuliani’s political action committee, attended the conference and said the mayor’s staff mobilized on Thursday to brief Orthodox leaders who would be unreachable in the following days.

"They knew the Jewish holidays were coming up," he said. "Once a case was reported in Borough Park, they wanted to inform the community leaders immediately about what was being done." He terms any report of political considerations "absolutely absurd."

But Ortiz says he has little doubt that loyalty to a segment of the population supportive of the mayor was a factor. "If I overlooked that, I wouldn’t be a politician," he said. "It’s common sense."

The deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Jane Steiner Hoffman, is the odds-on favorite to take charge of the Department of Youth and Community Development. The agency has been without a commissioner for three months since Martin Oesterreich became head of the Department of Homeless Services.

A former CNN reporter, Hoffman is a close friend of Cristyne Lategano, Giuliani’s former communications director. She is also the daughter of David Steiner, a New Jersey real estate mogul and former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Steiner was forced to resign in 1992 following comments that embarrassed AIPAC concerning his supposed influence over President Bill Clinton, but remains an influential member of the group’s national board.

Also under consideration for the post, sources say, is Ilene Marcus, a former executive at UJA-Federation who became a special assistant to Giuliani in 1993. Marcus is currently executive deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration.

As a result of a conference between black and Jewish legislators last summer, two area congressmen are joining forces to denounce a Mississippi school board’s decision to ban the Star of David as a gang symbol.

The unlikely duo is Edolphus Towns, a black Democrat from Brooklyn, and Ben Gilman, a Jewish Republican from Rockland County. The two co-signed a letter to David Ingrebresen of the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi, urging him to continue pressing a suit against the school district. Although the ban has been rescinded, the congressmen want to set a precedent against a future occurrence.

"The Star of David can and should be considered nothing else than an expression of pride in the Jewish religion and its people," wrote Towns and Gilman.

Michael Cohen, a Towns staffer who organized the Washington parley in August, said the letter was "an effort to expand black-Jewish relations, unity and dialogue following the conference."

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