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The Empire

Another special election, another (possible) Republican win--but can it last?

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David Storobin, the next State Sentor from Brooklyn (maybe) (Courtesy of the Storobin Senate campaign)

The later it got on Tuesday night, the more it became apparent that the special election in Brooklyn's Senate District 27 wasn’t going to be decided in one night. In fact, the neck-and-neck race that has Republican David Storobin with a 120 vote over Councilman Lew Fidler, the Democrat, probably won’t be finalized until next week, when the Board of Elections counts the more than 700 absentee and affidavit ballots.

The seat might not yet be won, but the race had a clear winner. David Storobin and his Republican allies will have knocked off—or come very close to knocking off—the Democratic Party pick who was seen as the front runner and likely winner throughout the campaign.

“Tonight, we’ll go to bed as winners when nobody outside believed that we had a shot to even compete, when every story about this campaign began with Lew Fidler, the heavy favorite,” Storobin said after the election.

Republicans in southern Brooklyn are now two for two. Congressman Bob Turner’ upset win over Democratic Assemblyman David Weprin last September happened because southern Brooklyn turned out for the Republican. Now, conservative Orthodox Jews and the immigrant Russian community (itself heavily Jewish) have upset yet another candidate handpicked by the county Democratic organization (i.e. The Machine) in a special election.

What’s happening in Brooklyn in the last two years is as much a story of a few, at-times overlooked, and increasingly assertive communities fighting to be heard, as it is a partisan realignment. The muscle flexing is a story as old as New York City politics. But two special elections don’t mark a permanent political trend, Democrats and observers say. A special election, a divisive social issue like same-sex marriage and a 15 percent turnout may add up to a Republican victory in District 27, but is it the exception or the rule?

The Odd Couple Scores Again

“This is a continuation of Turner versus Weprin and the lack of understanding by Democrats of who the new residents are in New York City, what they really care about, and who's going to turn out in a special election,” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Special elections can no longer be taken for granted by Democratic organizations.”

The “who” in this case appear to be a coalition of communities that aren’t preternaturally predisposed to work together.

“In terms of mutual cultural interests and things that would put them in the same camp, I would not say that those two groups are necessarily bedfellows—Orthodox Jews and Russian Jews,” noted one Democratic observer close to the community. “There’s not a lot in common, frankly, other than ethnic origins way back and that’s not cause to really get together politically.”

“The Russian community aligned themselves—as most groups did—with the Democrats because that’s who was running things,” the observer said, pointing to the election of Russian-born Democratic Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny in southern Brooklyn in 2006. “But there wasn’t an obvious connection to Democratic values, large and small.”

An engrained distrust of liberalism brought over from the Soviet Union and the material striving that many first- and second-generation immigrant groups in the United States develop has led to a more conservative bent in the Russian community, the observer noted.

Havoc, Wrought

That political trajectory happens to coincide with a rising social conservatism in the Orthodox Jewish community that is starting to pay dividends. In particular, the issue of same-sex marriage may have been a galvanizing force in the Orthodox community against Councilman Fidler.

“This is about internal Jewish community politics, and internal shifts within the demographics of the observant Jewish community,” said Michael Tobman, a Democratic political consultant who has worked with Councilman Fidler in the past.

But that doesn’t mean the issue translates from election cycle to election cycle, candidate to candidate, says David Luchins, the chair of Touro College’s political science department.

“With a couple hundred thousand dollars and a hot-button issue, you can turn your base out and you can wreak havoc,” Luchins said. “It sends a message to the machine. It says, We’re important, take one of our guys next time. It’s the same way the Asian groups got to the Queens machine…This is the same way the Irish caught the attention of Tammany Hall a hundred years ago, a hundred and thirty years ago.”

He went on: “The back story here is the growth of a new voting group, the Russians, making an alliance…with an extreme, angry segment of the Orthodox community…the segment that was raving for years now at the fact that the Orthodox community loves the Giulianis and the Kochs and the Bloombergs and the Cuomos and the Patakis—social liberals. The [broader Orthodox] community likes social liberals, and it drives them crazy.

“…But [if] they think these two special elections means they’re beating the machine, I think you’re in for a very rude awakening.”

Has the Sleeper Awakened?

The man currently at the middle of the current maelstrom in southern Brooklyn, David Storobin, says he believes the awakening has already happened.

“We definitely see a change, and we’ve discussed that change for years. We’re several communities—the Catholic community, the Orthodox Jewish community, the Russian community—have been moving steadily towards the Republican Party, which is more in line with their conservative values,” Storobin said in a phone interview. “In recent years the Republican Party has gotten stronger, organizationally, and that’s what’s allowing the fruits to come, all of that to come to fruition. We’re feeling like this is really a sign of things to come.”