Since the fall of communism, immigrants from the former Soviet Union have transformed the ethnic landscape of southern Brooklyn. Radiating out from Brighton Beach, known as “Little Odessa,” Russian-speaking immigrants — most of them Jewish — are a major presence in many areas of the borough.
But one area in which the immigrants have yet to leave much of a mark is local politics, though not for lack of trying. During the past half-decade, several immigrants from the former Soviet Union have run for the State Assembly and City Council, ultimately losing to Italian-American and Jewish-American politicians, descendants of earlier immigrant groups who have long held sway in southern Brooklyn.
That, however, is about to change.
Brooklyn’s 46th Assembly District appears set to make history. Both candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are Russian-Jewish activists. The district is so heavily Democratic that whoever wins the September 12 party primary is expected to go on to victory in the general election in November. The race pits Alec Brook-Krasny, on leave from his position as founding executive director of the UJA-Federation of New York-funded Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, against Ari Kagan, a longtime journalist for local Russian-language media outlets and community volunteer. This race may be, according to some observers, the first time that a representative of the recent waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union is elected to a state legislature anywhere in the country.
Quicker than you can say “milestone,” though, the race has turned ugly. While the election marks the arrival of Russian Jews on the American political scene, the candidates’ hostile exchanges led one Brooklyn newspaper to describe the pair as sounding like “embittered characters from a Gogol novel.” Some Brook-Krasny backers have accused Kagan of KGB ties, based on his past enrollment at a Soviet military school, while some critics have accused Brook-Krasny of being a supporter of Russia’s increasingly authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin — characterizations that the respective candidates vehemently deny.
The Moscow-born Brook-Krasny, who previously mounted unsuccessful bids for City Council and State Assembly, says this has been his nastiest election yet. His Minsk-born opponent agrees that the race has been vicious. Each, however, points an accusatory finger at his opponent.
This time around, Brook-Krasny, 48, enjoys the overwhelming support of Brooklyn’s Democratic establishment, including local elected officials such as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who represents the area in Congress. The 39-year-old Kagan, who worked for the Russian Forward newspaper for a decade, is dismissive of Brook-Krasny’s establishment support, billing himself as the “voice of the people.” (The publishers of the English-language Forward sold the Russian Forward to a group of Russian-American investors in 2004; Kagan stopped working for the paper shortly thereafter.)
“There’s general agreement that Alec Brook-Krasny’s the favorite, and Kagan is the underdog,” said Erik Engquist, a reporter for Crain’s New York Business who has long covered Brooklyn politics. “But the fact that Brook-Krasny has commented at all about Kagan indicates that he’s not assuming he’s got the race wrapped up.”
Whoever wins will represent an ethnically diverse district that includes the heart of Brooklyn’s Russian community, Brighton Beach, as well as Coney Island and Fort Hamilton. “It’s clear that the Democratic nominee and probably the assemblyman from this district is going to be a Russian-speaking immigrant from the former Soviet Union,” Nadler said. “And that’s a milestone in the political coming of age of this community.”
Brooklyn is the national epicenter for recent waves of Russian-speaking immigrants. The 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York found 124,000 Jews living in Russian-speaking households in Brooklyn.
While Kagan and Brook-Krasny are both Democrats, politically the Russian Jewish community is considered up for grabs. Whereas American Jews gave three-quarters of their vote to Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, Russian-speaking Jews are believed to have turned out in large numbers for Bush, in part because he was viewed as a strong supporter of Israel. In a pre-election survey of metropolitan New York’s Russian Jewish community by the American Jewish Committee, participants overwhelmingly said they preferred Bush to Kerry, by a margin of 54% - 14%. But in the 2000 presidential election, Russian Jews are believed to have supported the Democratic ticket.
“If you look at 2004, there were people who were vigorously supporting Bush in the 46th District and at the same time supporting Jerry Nadler,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
Though Brook-Krasny and Kagan fall on the same side of the partisan divide, the race has featured plenty of rancor. Brook-Krasny, noting Kagan’s past enrollment in a Soviet military school, said that being a former communist should disqualify Kagan from representing the Russian-Jewish community.
Asked to respond, Kagan lifted this reporter’s tape recorder to his mouth and shouted, “Alec, shame on you!”
Kagan said he graduated from the journalism department of a Soviet military school in 1988. He said he had been a Communist Party member for “a very short period of time during the Gorbachev era.” He explained that one needed to join the party to be a military journalist. Kagan also said that he resigned from the party in 1991 in disgust and was admitted to America as a refugee. “I am proud of my biography,” he said.
For his part, Brook-Krasny has been attacked on the Internet and on fliers posted in Brighton Beach as pro-Putin — and even pro-Hamas — following televised remarks he made about the Russian president’s controversial decision this winter to invite Hamas leaders to Moscow for talks. Brook-Krasny said that, at the time, he felt that the Russian government could help sound out “how far Hamas would go regarding talking with the Israeli government.”
More broadly, Brook-Krasny disagrees with Russian émigrés such as Kagan, who support a confrontational stance toward Putin’s government. While he said Russia’s government is “going in a bad direction, back to authoritarian type of regime,” he added: “I don’t think we should get back to the times of cold war.”
Kagan, insisting that his campaign had nothing to do with these attacks on his opponent, called the charge that Brook-Krasny is pro-Hamas an “exaggeration — he’s not pro-Hamas, absolutely not.” But Kagan called his opponent’s statements about Putin’s overtures “very strange.”
Each candidate says the race should be focused on local issues, such as affordable housing, health care, crime, development and education — issues that matter to all the residents of the 46th Assembly District. And each candidate blames the other for switching the focus to the former Soviet Union.