New York’s mayoral race finally has a Jewish candidate, but he’s not getting much organized Jewish support
Anthony Weiner’s much hyped announcement that he would run in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor was greeted with a collective shrug by Jewish activists and donors across New York City.
That’s in part because the Jewish power players are already committed to Weiner’s rivals. On the Upper West Side, liberal Jewish donors back Christine Quinn, the City Council president. Bill Thompson, who came surprisingly close to beating Michael Bloomberg in 2009, has support from Brooklyn’s Orthodox and Upper East Side influencers. Some liberal Jews are getting behind Bill de Blasio, who is running on a progressive ticket.
“Whether the Jewish community embraces Anthony’s mayoral candidacy depends less on the default setting of whether the candidate is Jewish, and more on a sincere evaluation of his positions and viability,” said Michael Tobman, a New York City-based political consultant.
While Weiner may be short of big-name Jewish backers, it’s too early to count him out among rank-and-file Jewish voters. A Marist Poll conducted in the immediate aftermath of Weiner’s announcement that he would run in the primary found that Jewish Democrats preferred him to his rivals.
Amid the relatively small sample of roughly 70 Jewish Democrats, 23% reported that they preferred Weiner. Quinn trailed closely at 17%, followed by de Blasio at 16%. Those potentially heartening results for Weiner were tempered by a question showing that 44% of Jews had an unfavorable impression of Weiner compared with 40% who had a favorable impression — a far worse result than for any other candidate.
That poll was taken during a week of wall-to-wall Weiner coverage. Still, it could signify an opening for Weiner, as some Jewish voters have expressed a willingness to forgive him for the sexting scandal that drove him from Congress.
“We all, in our lives, we all have bumps in the road,” said Yelena Makhnin, a prominent member of the Brighton Beach Russian Jewish community. “We have some obstacles, and we have some problems. But to me, what is important [is] how you deal with it.”
The Democratic candidates will vie in a primary in September. If, as expected, no candidate gets 40% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in a winner-takes-all run-off.
If he hopes to prevail this fall, one place Weiner may start trying to build his constituency is in the Russian-speaking Jewish neighborhoods of South Brooklyn, parts of which he has represented in Congress and the City Council.
Yet activists there say there’s little inclination to back him in the mayoral race.
“Anthony Weiner’s entrance into the race, from what I have seen, has not generated much reaction,” said Leonard Petlakh, executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, speaking in a personal capacity about his neighborhood.
Instead, the formidable political energy of Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking Jewish community is split among a handful of Democratic primary candidates, including New York City Comptroller John Liu, de Blasio, Thompson and long-shot conservative Democrat Erick Salgado.
Salgado picked Russian-language radio mogul Gregory Davidzon to manage his campaign in an apparent attempt to capitalize on Davidzon’s reputation as a Russian Jewish kingmaker. Davidzon drew attention for backing support for Bob Turner on his radio station in Turner’s unlikely 2011 victory in the special election to fill Weiner’s abandoned congressional seat. Since then, however, Davidzon’s preferred candidates have been dealt a succession of defeats in New York State Assembly and State Senate races.
“I believe Salgado will get support in the Russian-speaking community, mostly due to Gregory Davidzon’s support,” said Ari Kagan, a longtime Russian Jewish political activist now running for City Council and supporting Liu in the mayoral race.
Weiner, meanwhile, seems to have missed out on the support of major individual Russian-speaking donors who have backed him in the past.
Alexander Rovt, a Ukrainian American Jewish billionaire who, together with his wife, gave more than $37,000 to Weiner’s campaigns between 2006 and 2011, is in de Blasio’s corner in the mayoral race. He and his wife gave the maximum contribution — nearly $10,000 — to de Blasio’s campaign in January 2012.
Joseph Kleynerman is a South Brooklyn doctor who has raised money for Weiner in the past, and he said that he may still support Weiner in the mayoral race, but has not yet heard from the candidate.
There is one Jewish community that appears eager to have Weiner back in the game. In the Forest Hills section of Queens, a heavily Jewish neighborhood that Weiner represented in Congress until 2011, news that Weiner would be a candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary was met with excitement.
“I like him; he many times help me,” said Rossi Mektaloz, editor and publisher of the Russian-language Bukharian Times. Mektaloz said his newspaper would back Weiner. For Mektaloz, the scandal that pushed Weiner out of office only helped his case for mayor. “He really man, not gay,” Mektaloz said, laughing.
Yet even in Forest Hills, Weiner is facing stiff competition from Thompson, who has made efforts to build relationships there.
“We have a good connection with Thompson, who is a big friend of the community,” said Itzhak Yehoshua, a leading rabbi in the Bukharian Jewish community in Forest Hills.
Thompson’s recent success attracting Jewish support is, perhaps, the most surprising.
An African-American candidate from Brooklyn, Thompson seems likely to have a serious shot at winning the mayoralty. That could be part of the calculus behind his success at wooing Orthodox Brooklyn, whose leaders famously eschew ideology in favor of practical concerns when making voting decisions.
Thompson grew up in Flatbush in a political family with ties to the Orthodox. He also may have an advantage if he can draw a solid majority of black voters in a crowded primary field.
Thompson has the endorsement of the New York State Board of Regents chancellor, Merryl Tisch, who recently signed on as co-chair of his campaign. Tisch, whose own name had been batted about as a potential mayoral contender, is a member of the socially and politically prominent Tisch family, members of which control Loews Corp. and the New York Giants and donate heavily to Jewish causes.
Her partnership with Thompson, a progressive Democrat, is somewhat unlikely. Tisch’s husband, James Tisch, is backing former Mass Transit Authority chairman Joe Lhota in the Republican mayoral primary.
Quinn, meanwhile, appears to have locked in support from Upper West Side Jewish liberals. Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan Borough President who was the Democratic mayoral candidate in 1997, will co-sponsor a fundraiser for Quinn in June with Barbara Dobkin, a donor to progressive Jewish causes. Susan Lowenberg and Joyce Newstat, two major San Francisco-based Jewish backers of Democratic candidates and gay and lesbian organizations, are also sponsoring the event.
“I know her and like her a great deal,” Messinger, now executive director of American Jewish World Service, said of Quinn. “She’s obviously developed relationships with virtually every constituency in the city during the years she’s been in office.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.