What’s more important in a potential member of Congress, the esteem of your political peers, or the ability to point to a list of your many accomplishments as a legislator?
If the answer is the first one, Assemblyman Rory Lancman—candidate for congress in the 6th Congressional district in Queens—may be in trouble.
In conversations about Lancman, it's not uncommon for people to fall into non-attribution mode right before things like this get said: he’s self-serving, he’s entirely focused on his own self-promotion, he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, he lacks introspection.
Or, as one of his assembly colleagues not from Queens put it: “Rory’s probably the most hated member of the state assembly.”
If it’s the second one—if it’s about bills passed, issues tackled, and press conferences held—Lancman can make a good case for being the next Congressman from Queens.
“I’ve been very active on homeland security issues as an assembly member,” Lancman said. “I’ve been very active on work place rights issues as an assembly member, and chair of the assembly's subcommittee on workplace safety. And I’ve been very active on Israel issues even before I was an assembly member. So for me to translate what I’m doing into a campaign for congress and then serving in congress doesn't take much.”
Lancman and members of his campaign staff sat in a diner in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn in early March. He’d just come from an interview at a major Jewish newspaper nearby.
“I passed 19 laws in the state assembly related to homeland security, economic fairness, work place safety. With me people know what they're going to get in their member of congress.”
What they’d get is someone hoping to be the next in a line of Queens liberal lions that stretches from Senator Charles Schumer to, most recently, former Congressman Anthony Weiner: high-profile Jewish sons of the district who are good at getting their issues—and themselves—plenty of attention.
As one Democratic political consultant noted: “He wants to be the Weiner of the race.”
Better Decks and Playing Fields
In a sense, Lancman’s been running for Congress for years, ever since Weiner made his mayoral ambitions known. But his own political ambitions first surfaced when he was a teenager. As he tells it on the campaign trail, a letter to his single mother, advising her of a “some astronomical” rent increase, arrived to their rent-controlled apartment. He was in his late teens. The letter led to meetings, meetings led to organizing a tenants association, which led to both the defeat of the rent increase and Lancman’s vice-presidency of the association.
“I remember a very keen awareness of how the deck is kind of stacked against ordinary people and one way to level that playing field is to be involved in the political process,” he said.
He first ran for state senate in 2000 and lost. Six years later, after the man who had helped Lancman as a political mentor, Brian McLaughlin, stepped down from his state assembly post, Lancman—then a Democratic district leader—ran as the early favorite. McLaughlin would later go to jail after being convicted of racketeering and Lancman would go to Albany as the representative from the 25th Assembly District.
In the assembly, Lancman worked to establish himself as an aggressive progressive voice.
“If we're going to really engage and spend resources and put our members out there, we want to do that for proven champions,” said Alison Hirsh, the political director for 32BJ SEIU, which has endorsed Lancman. “What we're finding in Washington more and more, even the Democrats are not standing up and out there in support of issues that are important and priorities for working families and working people. That lens is how we went into the whole process around [the] New York 6th [congressional district]: Who do we think can go to Washington and immediately be a champion for our members who are being attacked left and right?
“Of the candidates, I think Rory is the one who has proven in his time in the assembly that he is willing to stand up on important issues that impact workers.”
Being out in front can also come with negatives. Lancman’s reputation is that of someone interested first and foremost with Rory Lancman.
“There are certain unwritten rules of the legislature and he likes to violate them all for his own self-promotion,” an assembly member said. “Every time something that happens in conference shows up in a blog, [Assembly Speaker] Shelly [Silver] thinks it’s Rory.”
Put Me in Coach
Lancman’s first shot at Congress came in the wake of Weiner’s resignation last year. The Queens Democratic organization, however, went with Lancman’s colleague, Assemblyman David Weprin. Weprin lost to Bob Turner in the September special election. One of the issues that helped sink Weprin’s campaign was Israel—something Lancman, who was until recently the only Jewish candidate in the race, says won’t be the case should he win the primary.
“Israel is a very important issue in this district, to the Jewish community but also to a big segment of the non-Jewish community just as Israel is a very important issue for most Americans--many Americans,” said Lancman. “My argument is not that we need a Jewish representative per se. I’m not running around talking about my ethnicity. That’s not my campaign. But the issues that are important in the Jewish community are important in this race. You saw in the last election, the Jewish community is more than willing to support a candidate of a different background--a different religious background--if that candidate represents or stands for their issue in a way that matters to them."
Israel is something that matters to former Mayor Ed Koch, who backed Turner last year. He’s now supporting Lancman.
“[His campaign] is catching on; his dynamism, his intellectual ability, his support of Israel and knowledge concerning the Mideast, which is far superior to that of his rivals,” Koch said.
Koch may have settled on Lancman but the Queens Democratic organization hasn’t. From the day Turner took office, Lancman has positioned himself as the Democratic candidate ready to challenge Turner this year. After Turner’s seat essentially disappeared during the redistricting process, Lancman indicated he might still run, even if it meant a primary against Congressman Gary Ackerman in the new 6th district.
On March 15, Ackerman and Lancman met to discuss the upcoming race.
“Gary and I had coffee that afternoon. I was in his house for about 45 minutes or an hour, talking about a wide-range of things, including the days I interned for him when I was high school and the things he still wanted to do in congress,” Lancman said.
That afternoon, Lancman suspended his campaign for congress in deference to Ackerman. Three hours later, in a move seen by observers as done to spite Lancman, Ackerman announced he was not seeking reelection.
Within days, the Queens Democratic organization had picked its candidate to replace Ackerman in the now-open seat. It wasn’t Lancman. It was another assembly colleague, Grace Meng.
Lancman decided to continue his campaign, as Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat who supports Lancman, says he should.
“He’s smart. He’s out there. He’s talking about issues. He’s a veteran…I think that’s an important thing,” Nolan said, referring to Lancman’s service in the National Guard. “He’s got every right to run. I think he’s got good ideas and I’ve found him very easy to work with.”
Since reactivating his campaign for the June 26 primary election, Lancman has done what he does best: flooding the zone with statements on issues and announcements of press events, as well as garnering a host of early big union endorsements like District Council 37, CSEA and the aforementioned 32BJ SEIU.
But a poll conducted by the Meng campaign suggests Lancman has a lot of ground to make up. According to people briefed on the results of the mid-April poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, despite his early entrance in the race and initial big labor endorsements, Lancman’s position with potential primary voters has him struggling to break into the low double digits.
UPDATE: The Lancman campaign, through its spokesman Hank Sheinkopf, respond to the poll: "Meng's phony poll its a slap in the face to the over 1 million union members who have endorsed Rory Lancman, and distracts from the growing awareness in the district that Rory is the only candidate who knows what to do in Congress once he gets there."
If there's a way to improve his standing in the race, it will come with Lancman sounding every bit like the kind of fiery, fierce member of congress people in Queens have come to expect.
“My record in Albany, having passed 19 laws that relate to the issues that are important to the people in this district--homeland security, economic security, workplace rights--and having been an advocate and a leader on issues like tax fairness, best prepares me to represent this district in Congress and to get things done,” Lancman said. “That is what people want; they want to get things done. They look at Washington, they don't see things getting done and they need to send someone who can get things done. And that is what I’d like to think distinguishes my candidacy."