Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
On the steps of Queens Borough Hall earlier this afternoon, Assemblyman David Weprin was surrounded by around a dozen female lawmakers from across the city, in every level of government, to tout the congressional hopeful as the woman’s candidate. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn lauded Weprin as the right fighter pro-choice women voters needed in congress.
“We cannot now, when that right is under attack, lose one more voice in congress,” Quinn said.
From Quinn to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney down to the local female district leader, the praise was piled high. It was the sort of event Weprin has been having for the past few weeks. His campaign wants to make this race about defending Social Security and Medicare, the need to create jobs programs, and how dangerous the Republicans in congress are.
What David Weprin would like to stop talking about is Israel.
Yet the issue hasn’t died, at least not in the media. Weprin continued to answer questions about Israel today on “The Brian Lehrer Show.” Asked about former Mayor Ed Koch’s endorsement of his opponent over Israel and what the differences were between him and Turner on the issue, Weprin’s exhaustion about the topic was nearly audible.
“I don’t think we differ too much for our strength for the state of Israel,” he said. “But I think we have to really talk about the other issues where there’s really a major difference.”
Later, when discussing the issue again, Weprin gave the distilled pitch he’s making on the issue. “If you disagree with the president, as I have, with his Mideast policies, the best way to get that message to him and the administration is through his own party, as opposed to a freshman Republican that’ll be dismissed as partisan politics,” he said.
The degree to which that argument sticks is at the core of why this issue keeps making headlines. The New York’s Ninth Congressional District is considered one of the most heavily Jewish in the state, if not the country—this, despite the fact that it’s not a majority Jewish district. In particular, the Orthodox community has been the high-value target of both campaigns pronunciations of being more Israel-friendly than the president.
All special elections, which bring out a fraction of the voters of a normal general election, are about turning out highly motivated voters. He with the most impassioned groups that come to the polls wins. In Bob Turner’s case, that means giving conservative Orthodox Jews a reason to show up.
“There’s no question: the Orthodox community will be voting Republican," said Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. “Their agenda on many issues lean them in that direction." In this race, that means not only Israel but same-sex marriage, a subject Weprin has been distancing himself on after voting for it's passage in the Assembly.
Despite the disproportionate weight a mobilized conservative Orthodox vote could potentially have in a special election, Cohen said the overall effect of painting Weprin as soft on Israel would likely remain minimal. “It doesn't shift that many votes,” he said.
David Luchins, head of Touro College’s political science department, sees the Israel issue in the race as akin to the claim that the Jewish vote is abandoning the Democratic Party.
“The quadrennial madness is again upon us," he said. “The bottom line of the whole thing is that our community is a complex one. It votes for many different reasons, but there is a certain sense that people want to vote for people they know.”
He said the Turner campaign’s attempt to make the race a referendum on President Obama’s Mideast policy would ring hollow among the Jewish community, despite the endorsement of former Democratic Jewish Mayor Ed Koch. He recounted a conversation he had with a senior vice-president of the Orthodox Union, one of the city’s leading Orthodox groups.
“This Orthodox senior leader said, if the choice is between [Connecticut Senator] Joseph Lieberman[‘s endorsement of Weprin]…[and] telling Orthodox Jews to vote for Jewish pride, vote for Bob Turner—how credible does that make [Turner] in the Orthodox community," he asked.
For Dr. Jonathan Halpert of Hill Crest, Queens, more than enough. He’s working on behalf of the Turner campaign to convince other members of the Orthodox community to support Turner. The issue, he said, remains at the top of the community’s list.
“I cannot overemphasize the fear, anger, concern the Orthodox community has over President Obama," said Halpert. He didn’t believe that, should the time come, Weprin would pick Israel over party loyalty. “What is Mr. Weprin going to do, defy the leadership of the Democratic Party? I don’t think he's going to do that."
What has the reaction been to his message? “I'm pleasantly surprised considering that Mr. Weprin is from within the Orthodox community. Many people are echoing what I'm saying."
If today’s press conference is any indication, the Weprin campaign might very well have decided the battle for the Orthodox community vote is in some ways over. The issue of abortion, like same-sex marriage, is one to which conservative Jewish voters have become increasingly opposed. Being hailed as the pro-choice candidate in the race won’t help Weprin with potentially on the fence Orthodox voters.
By some estimates, though, the Orthodox community represents only as much as 15 percent of the voting public in the district. As special elections are about turning out motivated voters, Weprin’s tour of social security offices and senior homes to talk about Republican attacks on entitlements and today’s “Women for Weprin” rally are signs the campaign is targeting the most core of Democratic bases. Expect labor to be holding a support rally soon.
In a district that’s two-to-one in Democratic enrollment during a low-turnout election, battling for conservative religious votes doesn’t make for a good campaign strategy. So if David Weprin sounds tired of talking to the media about Israel, you’ll have to forgive him. There are many other issues—jobs and entitlements chief among them—he’d like to discuss.