The Secret Behind a Rocker’s Election to Congress: Hasidim

By Josh Kraushaar

Published January 19, 2007, issue of January 19, 2007.
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Rep. John Hall has plenty of supporters to thank for his transformation from rocker to congressman. But his most important — and seemingly most unlikely — backer may have been Abraham Wieder, mayor of Kiryas Joel, an insular Hasidic enclave in New York’s Orange County.

Hall first gained a degree of fame as a founding member of the rock band Orleans, best known for the catchy and kitschy ’70s hit “Still The One.” He posed topless with his four shirtless band mates for the cover of their best-known album. Now he is one of the most liberal Democrats in the new class of congressional freshmen.

Wieder, on the other hand, wears the traditional garb of a Satmar Hasid — black hat, black coat and a yarmulke. He is a registered Republican.

Despite such differences, Wieder can reasonably claim that he was singularly responsible for Hall’s narrow 4,760-vote upset of six-term Republican congresswoman Sue Kelly. There aren’t many towns whose partisan affiliation swung as much from 2004 to 2006 as Kiryas Joel’s did. Two years ago, voters in the village cast a remarkable 92% of their ballots for President Bush and 67% for Kelly. Had Kelly performed as well in Kiryas Joel this time around, she would have won reelection. This past November, however, Hall won 88% of the village’s votes.

What changed? This time around Wieder decided to back the Democrat.

Kiryas Joel, home to some 18,000 individuals, members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, is one of the few communities left where the local leaders’ endorsements matter — each election the village gives the vast majority of its votes to a single candidate. Thus Wieder’s endorsement carries the same weight as the larger-than-life party bosses of generations past.

“The rabbis basically hand out pieces of paper and tell people how to vote,” said Hall’s spokesman, Tom Staudter. “They have a history of wanting to vote with winners. In close campaigns, they hold out to the end to see which way the wind is blowing.”

In Kiryas Joel, ideology and party affiliation are secondary to the ability to deliver on government services and assistance. Wieder has endorsed across the political spectrum — from President Bush to Hillary Clinton, from George Pataki to Chuck Schumer, from Sue Kelly to John Hall. But no race has been close enough for Kiryas Joel to play a decisive role — until this election cycle.

The state’s most powerful politicians frequently court the Kiryas Joel leadership with promises of assistance. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg met with Wieder and three other village officials on behalf of Kelly — at the same time that he was being lobbied about a yeshiva that the Satmars want to build in Brooklyn. Clinton and other top state Democrats urged Kiryas Joel officials to support Hall. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi phoned Wieder on Hall’s behalf.

But Wieder’s decision to endorse Hall had less to do with the candidate than with a desire to curry favor with the ascendant Democratic establishment statewide. With Eliot Spitzer, whom Wieder also backed, considered a shoo-in for governor and a Democratic majority likely in Congress, an opportunity for more federal support came with supporting a Democrat.

And while Kiryas Joel voters sympathize with Republicans on social issues and appreciate the GOP’s tough-on-crime rhetoric, they also belong to a community that suffers from poverty and depends on Democratic-backed assistance programs.

“The Democrats convinced us that Democrats have a broader tent when it comes to education, social programs, health-related issues,” said Kiryas Joel’s village administrator, Gedalya Szegedin. “They said we want to welcome your support.”

A local controversy over the arcane issue of water rights — tinged with charges of antisemitism — also played a role in Kelly’s defeat. The fast-growing village, which has nearly tripled in population since 1990, thanks to its high birthrate, needs to expand its water supply and had been lobbying for federal funds for a pipeline to flow water from New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct. The proposal drew widespread opposition from constituents outside Kiryas Joel, and in 2004 Kelly withdrew an appropriation guaranteeing the money.

But Kelly continued to court the community until she lost their endorsement late in the campaign. So on Election Day, she fired back. Her campaign distributed an Election Day mailer to Orange County voters picturing hundreds of Hasidic boys with losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall. The flier said that Hall “cut a deal” with Kiryas Joel involving “your money and your water to feed their growth.”

She also commissioned an Election Day robo-call claiming that Hall was “trading the votes of Kiryas Joel in return for a mammoth pipeline that will damage our quality of life in Orange County.”

“Sue Kelly had four years to prove she could be effective in helping Kiryas Joel in any way. And she never made it to the starting point,” Szegedin said.

Soon after Hall’s win in November, it appeared as if he would already have to start bracing for a challenge in 2008. The conservative magazine Human Events reported that former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was interested in running against Hall. But Fleischer quickly denied the report.

Looking ahead, Jewish identity or support of Israel (the Satmars believe a Jewish state shouldn’t exist until the Messiah comes) is irrelevant to whom Kiryas Joel will support in 2008. If Hall increases federal funding to the village and the state Democratic Party keeps its promises, he’s a good bet to get the town’s support again.

Because in Kiryas Joel, it’s all about the pork.

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