Will Assemblyman Rory Lancman be the Democrat who can recapture New York’s once-safe 9th District from the Republicans? Or will he be the latest Queens Jewish politician to fall to formidable freshman Bob Turner?
In a way, the nascent race in the Brooklyn-Queens district vacated last year by Anthony Weiner and won by Turner in a special election may be a mirror of the presidential election as far as the Jewish vote is concerned.
While President Barack Obama is trying to focus on economic issues in his re-election bid, his Jewish critics are hounding him on his Israel policies.
Lancman, a three-term assemblyman from Hillcrest, wants to talk about jobs, tax fairness and opportunity for the middle class.
“It’s important to level the playing field, whether it’s between consumers and banks or investors and Wall Street,” he said in a phone interview en route to the Assembly session in Albany Monday. “These are the things I’m going to focus on.”
But if last year’s raucous race is any guide, Israel will figure prominently in the campaigns, though both candidates are unequivocally supportive of the Jewish state.
In his successful campaign, on the heels of a 2010 campaign winning almost 40 percent of the vote against Weiner, Turner questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel and got a significant boost from Ed Koch. The former mayor told pro-Israel voters to “send a message” to the White House that its Israel policy is off track by electing a Republican.
That placed Democrat David Weprin, also a Queens-based assemblyman, in the strange position of having to defend his pro-Israel bona fides before Jewish audiences, although he has visited Israel numerous times, sent his kids to study there and backed pro-Israel resolutions in the Assembly and City Council.
Like Weprin, Lancman, who has formed an exploratory committee for a possible run, also has strong Jewish ties. He belongs to the Young Israel of Hillcrest and sends his kids to Solomon Schechter Day School in Queens. The 9th District is believed to be about 25 percent Jewish, one of the highest concentrations in the country. It includes areas such as Flatbush and Kew Gardens Hills that are heavily Orthodox.
This year Koch is backing Turner’s re-election, but he says Israel is no longer a concern.
“The president got the message,” he said Tuesday. “He showed that in his [Sept. 21] address to the [United Nations], which showed remarkable support for Israel.”
Koch said he backed Turner not only because of Israel but because the candidate agreed to send another message, to the Republican House leadership, to fight privatization of Social Security and Medicare. “He has kept that commitment,” said Koch.
Although the 9th District was widely believed to be a candidate for the cutting room floor in New York’s redistricting process, that prospect is far from certain as the legislative committee nears completion of the new map. Sources said the map will likely be released by Feb. 29 in order to meet a court-mandated March 20 deadline for approval.
“It looks like, despite the speculation, that district isn’t going to go away,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. He said nearby districts, such as that of Democrat Carolyn McCarthy of Nassau County may be more vulnerable. “In that case, that Turner seat becomes very valuable once they draw the lines.”
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told The Daily News late last month, “I believe it’s a Democratic seat and would be won by a Democrat.”
For now, Lancman said he resides within the 9th District. Although that is not a requirement for running, it’s important for resonating with voters.
He says that while he has a long record of supporting Israel, “I’m not going to compare and contrast. I have a record of working with the government of Israel and putting my neck out, writing op-eds on Israel.” That includes one he wrote with Koch, he noted, in 2007 urging the Democrats to take a stronger stand on Iran sanctions.
While last year voters may have embraced the idea of sending a message on Israel, Lancman believes that in a presidential election year, “they are going to want to send a congressman to Washington who can pass legislation.” He said he has passed 19 laws in the Assembly in the past five years.
“If people are dissatisfied with President Obama they can vote against him; they won’t need to send a message. People will be able to focus on who they want to represent them in Congress.”
Asked to judge his congressman’s performance, Lancman said Turner hasn’t shown initiative to sponsor bills.
“In my first six months in the Assembly I passed five pieces of legislation, on homeland security, consumer protection and government transparency,” said Lancman. “But he is just getting around to introducing his first bill.”
Turner concedes that he hasn’t put many bills up for consideration.
“I found that, from a dead start, it has been a little tougher to get something going,” the former broadcast and cable executive told The Jewish Week Tuesday. But he said, “We have been on the right side of the issues in terms of the economy and job growth.” He said he supported 30 bills that passed the House and are now waiting for Senate approval related to regulation control and job growth, and calling for a tougher foreign policy.
Turner said he’s working on an initiative for a tax credit for families that pay for private or parochial school tuition, a major issue in the district’s Orthodox enclaves. He said he hopes more Orthodox areas, including perhaps the Five Towns from Rep. McCarthy’s district, are shifted into the 9th. “There is so much room for surprises here, but I’m ready for whatever happens.”
As to whether Israel will be again be a key factor in the race, Turner said, “My guess is my opponent, whoever he or she is, will have a similar position to mine. The voters will decide whether a Democrat’s vote would support the president’s policies or if a different approach may be in order. In that way I think the top of the ticket will influence that decision.”
Asked for his assessment of Lancman, Turner said, “I really don’t know him. He’s professed to be a liberal Democrat, so there will be a difference in how we approach the issues. But he has to get the nomination first. He is the self-proclaimed candidate but the party may have something to say about that.”
Weprin said in an interview Tuesday that he hadn’t “ruled anything in or out” in terms of a rematch. “I do have the name recognition, although I would do certain things differently if I was going to run again,” he said.
Weprin said Lancman’s announcement of an exploratory committee to run for the seat is premature given that the district’s future is uncertain.
Baruch’s Muzzio said Lancman would likely have a better chance of winning than does Weprin. “He is a much more engaging and smarter candidate,” he said. “If he ran last time he probably would have won.”
A politically active Queens Democrat told The Jewish Week that no one else appears to be positioning to take on Turner. Weprin would have to give up his Assembly seat in order to run in a rematch, and the margin of loss was pretty definitive, said the source, who asked not to be identified to preserve his ties with Weprin.
Meanwhile, Weprin’s brother, Mark, is angling to be the next City Council speaker, which would make it difficult for David to simultaneously seek support for a House run.
“They don’t want to create the impression that those Weprins want everything,” the source said.
Speaking of the City Council, a delegation of members was touring Israel this week, including the current speaker, Christine Quinn.
Also on board are Queens members Peter Koo, Mark S. Weprin, Karen Koslowitz and Elizabeth Crowley; Annabel Palma of the Bronx; Domenic M. Recchia and David Greenfield of Brooklyn and Melissa Mark-Viverito and Robert Jackson of Manhattan. All the members happen to be Democrats.
The 10-day trip includes a visit to the Technion, the science institute that will partner with Cornell University to create a new applied sciences campus on Roosevelt Island. The trip also includes a foray into the West Bank and a tour of Israel’s security barrier with the general who designed it.
JCRC’s intention is to increase support for Israel among elected officials. So isn’t it preaching to the choir to bring along Koslowitz Greenfield and Weprin, who are Jewish and already outspokenly Zionist?
“We find that having a knowledgeable colleague along helps the other members understand many of the issues,” said Michael Miller, JCRC’s executive vice president and CEO. “The participants discuss what they have heard and find that those with a background on the issues are assets.”
The agency says its goal is not only to cultivate Israel support but to give politicians a better understanding of the issues to help them make their case when they get home.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget proposal doesn’t seem to have a big impact on social services for the needy, but it’s hard to say at this point, says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“The details is where the devil is usually found,” he said. “It all depends on what the federal budget is like, and it looks like the budget will be good for he city.”
The $62 billion budget proposed Feb. 2 avoids layoffs or tax hikes but includes major cuts to close a $2 billion budget gap — cuts that are still being analyzed.
“We are trying to drill down,” said Rapfogel. “At the macro level mayors and governors and presidents don’t give you the kind of details that really impact the programs we run.” When there are drastic cuts, he said, it’s easier to analyze than in a year with modest cuts. “When it’s essentially the same as last year, it’s very hard to know whether $200,000 or $300,000 is moved in one direction or another.”
For now, Rapfogel doesn’t see any immediate cutbacks in Met Council services.