David Weprin was making rounds at a Howard Beach Senior Center in Queens, last week, chatting with the clientele and announcing that he had just become a grandfather, when someone brought up an endorsement by arguably the city’s best-known senior citizen: Ed Koch.
Last month’s endorsement by the former Democrat mayor is for Weprin’s Republican opponent, Bob Turner.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Weprin said, dismissively. “He just wants to make news.”
The crowd was entirely receptive to Weprin, with no tough questions posed. “I’m a Democrat, and I always vote Democrat,” said Anthony Guglucci, who said he is retired from the food business. “I was a Democrat before I started working.”
The seasoned candidate — who has run campaigns for City Council, city comptroller, New York State Assembly and now Congress in the past 10 years — smiled. “I think I won already.”
Elsewhere in the district, though, Weprin has his work cut out for him. While campaigning at a Queens Boulevard subway station in Forest Hills, a passerby quipped “no texting,” a reference to the lewd photos and cover-up scandal that forced Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat to resign and created the Sept. 13 special election. Another man, with his young daughter in tow, complained about having to explain that awkward controversy to her.
And at a debate Monday night at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, both candidates were booed and heckled, in Weprin’s case from conservatives when he attacked the Tea Party for its impact on the economic crisis.
In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1, the race might ordinarily be a slam dunk for a member of that party, especially one with Weprin’s family name recognition: his brother and late father preceded him in the Assembly. But this is a district that has tacked to the right in the past three presidential elections, and where Turner won 40 percent of the vote against Weiner last year.
On the plus side for Weprin, polls show widespread anger about the economy directed more at Republicans then Democrats, and senior citizens and others are worried about the future of their benefits. But it’s unclear whether that’s a more significant factor than the call by Koch and others to elect a Republican in order to “send a message” to President Barack Obama about his Israel policies.
Then there is also anger over the so-called Ground Zero mosque supported by Weprin and opposed by Turner, and a backlash against Weprin’s support of the June bill allowing gay marriage in the state, enacted mostly because of momentum from a Democratic governor. Turner supports the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines matrimony as between a man and woman.
In supporting the marriage equality bill on the floor of the Assembly, Weprin likened opposition to same-sex marriage to the refusal by Orthodox rabbis to marry Jews and non-Jews
“My religion is very important to me personally, but this is not a religious issue,” Weprin said on June 15, the day before Weiner resigned. “I think everyone here would agree that we should not be outlawing marriages between Jews and non-Jews or interracial marriages.”
Those words could come back to haunt him as he campaigns for the high-turnout Jewish vote. A large share of that vote is the Orthodox bloc, and Weprin has hired the chasidic-run Friedlander Group, which has worked on many local Democratic campaigns — most recently Eric Schneiderman’s successful campaign for attorney general — and does publicity for some right-wing Israeli politicians here, to manage his Orthodox outreach.
“Messaging is very important, and David Weprin is in a bit of a no-win situation in terms of who he offends and who he keeps with him,” said Democrat political consultant Michael Tobman, who is not involved in the race. “It’s not just about who turns out, it’s about who stays home. The Republicans are counting on more Democrats staying home than Republicans turning out for Turner.”
Orthodox Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose endorsement is often sought by candidates, said on Monday he could not back Weprin because of the gay marriage issue, but has so far held out on endorsing Turner.
That variety of factors almost obliterates any advantage of being a Democrat for Weprin, and a Siena College poll shows the candidates almost neck and neck, 42 to 48 percent in Weprin’s favor with a four-point margin of error. Turnout in special elections tends to be low, with no bigger race to draw crowds, so the angriest voters are likely to turn out, rather than those who show up just to support their party.
“It’s going to be tough to pick this one,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “What should be a relatively easy win, even with Turner getting 40 percent like last time, is really a nail-biter.”
That said, Weprin does boast endorsements from New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (Independent), both pro-Israel heavyweights. The threat of losing a seat in the House, narrowly controlled by the Republicans, may energize the national Democratic party more than the idea of picking up another seat in a blue state motivates Republicans, and so may draw more funding, said Muzzio.
“Turner has so scared the Democratic establishment that I don’t think they are going to allow Weprin to lose. I’m not so sure the Republicans on the national level are so concerned.”
Weprin, 55, has always lived in the Hollis-Jamaica area of Queens, growing up as the middle of three sons of an assemblyman, Saul Weprin, elected in 1971 when David was 16. Saul Weprin became Assembly speaker in 1991. David’s mother, Sylvia was a schoolteacher. He attended Yeshivah of Central Queens and considers himself “frum from bar mitzvah,” having chosen to become more observant than his family, later attending the now-defunct Yeshiva High School of Queens before transferring to Jamaica High School. He earned a political science degree from SUNY-Albany, followed by a law degree from Hofstra University. After law school he served in the administration of Gov. Mario Cuomo as deputy banking superintendent, then worked at various investment banking firms, such as Paine Webber and Pearson LLC. In 2000, he took advantage of the new term-limits law to successfully run for the Council seat vacated by Sheldon Leffler, and was named finance chairman by then-speaker Gifford Miller.
Weprin and his wife Ronni have five children. He is a member of two Young Israel branches in Queens, in Hollis Hills and Jamaica Estates.
After an unsuccessful run for comptroller, which required him to give up his Council seat, he engaged in political musical chairs with his brother Mark, an assemblyman, leading David Weprin’s Republican opponent for Assembly to call them the “seat-swapping Weprin brothers.”
In an interview at his Forest Hills campaign office, above a supermarket in the heart of the busy Austin Street shopping district, Weprin downplayed the Siena poll’s significance, saying it was taken early (Aug. 3-7).
“You have to realize my opponent, who is Republican-Conservative with Tea Party leanings, ran just this past November and got 40 percent, and this poll now showed him at 42 percent. [It] was taken when we were just starting to get the message out.”
That message hammers the Republicans as hostages of the Tea Party who refuse to allow tax hikes on millionaires that could make a dent in the deficit.
“This country has been very good to them; they lived the American dream,” he said in the interview. “At this point I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask those millionaires who can afford it to pay more.”
Turner wants to focus on spending reductions of up to 35 percent while cutting taxes to stimulate growth.
Although no one has questioned Weprin’s commitment to Israel, he says he finds the idea of voting against him to send Obama a message absurd. He notes that he has held a fundraiser in his home for the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, led a mission of supporters there and was one of few elected officials to initially support a post-Salute to Israel parade concert that draws right wingers who oppose any territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
“I have criticized the president on a number of occasions, not only because of the recent comments he made” calling for a return to pre-1967 borders “but when he raised the issue of the settlements. These settlements are major communities. When he snubbed [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] I said that was no way to treat the head of a non-friendly head of a nation, certainly not someone who is our only ally in the Middle East.”
Asked if he would speak out against the president as a member of the House — or campaign for Obama’s re-election next year — Weprin said “I will speak out when I think he’s right, and I will say so when I think he is wrong and he needs advice on Mideast policy … I think I can have more influence on the president’s policy from within as a member of his party than my opponent, should he win this election and speak out on issues he disagrees with. It would be dismissed as partisan politics.”
Weprin said he was unconcerned about those opposed to him because of the gay marriage vote. “This is coming from individuals outside the district, in Brooklyn and Lakewood [in New Jersey] and Monsey [in Rockland County],” he said. “I understand the emotions behind it … But you have to look at kol ha’adam, the full person. Some may tend to disagree with me on that one issue, but if you look at the whole picture I am certainly the strongest representative for the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”
Campaigning at the senior center later that day, as a manager called for volunteers to help serve lunch, Weprin urged the seniors to turn out on Sept. 13 and promised to fight to protect their benefits. “You don’t mind that it’s only for one year?” one senior asked Weprin, referring to the pending redistricting process that could eliminate the 9th CD next year.
“Let me get elected first,” he said. “Then I’ll fight for the district.”
On his way out of the center, The Jewish Week reminded Weprin that he never answered a previous question about whether he’d support Obama’s re-election.
“I am a Democrat and I expect to probably support him as the Democratic candidate,” he said. “But there are issues that I disagree with him [on] and I’m going to express them forcefully.”