New York City’s Orthodox bloc vote is cracked.
With just weeks to go before the city’s mayoral primary, Orthodox political activists in Brooklyn haven’t settled on a Democratic contender. Instead, they’ve picked all of them.
In Hasidic Williamsburg, the larger of the two Satmar Hasidic factions likes Bill Thompson. In Flatbush, the Syrians have endorsed Christine Quinn. Bill de Blasio has backers in Boro Park.
Though the Orthodox vote has never been monolithic, the fracturing in this election seems particularly acute. It comes after years of hype over the growing demographic and political heft of the city’s Orthodox, who are expected to cast 7% of the votes in the September 10 Democratic primary.
For some Orthodox insiders, the scattershot endorsements are a sign of Orthodox Jewry’s growing influence on city politics.
“It’s the first time I see that every candidate, no matter what background, is interested in [our] issues,” said Isaac Sofer, a leader of the smaller of the two Satmar factions in Williamsburg. “Everyone is competing for our vote.”
Sofer’s Satmar faction, the followers of Rabbi Aron Teitelbaum, has yet to make an endorsement.
Orthodox political strategy in New York City is all about political handicapping. Driven by an acute need for government services, Orthodox power brokers like to bet on the favorite.
“The greatest single predictor of the Orthodox vote is the identity of the perceived winner,” said David Pollock, an official with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and a close observer of Orthodox politics.
For many Orthodox factions, however, that strategy was deemed unfeasible in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary when the initial favorite, City Council Speaker Quinn, publicly married her longtime female companion last year. Though Quinn has the endorsements of three of the city’s daily newspapers and has put up strong poll numbers for months, her only major Orthodox endorsement so far has been from the Syrian-backed Sephardic Community Federation, the most ruthlessly pragmatic of the Orthodox advocacy groups.
One Orthodox political activist from Brooklyn, who asked not to be named in order to protect relationships, said that Quinn has been too open about her sexuality, and particularly about her marriage to Kim Catullo. The activist said that Quinn had crossed a line when she referred to Catullo as her wife at a mayoral event in Flatbush early in the summer.
“That was politically incorrect for this community,” the activist said. “It was just like rubbing it in your face.”
Endorsements of Quinn by Orthodox communal leaders as a matter of political expediency may have risked alienating the Orthodox rank and file. “If community leadership says ‘Chris Quinn,’ it strains the space between that preference and the actual voters,” said Michael Tobman, a New York City-based political consultant.
Quinn does have some Hasidic supporters, most notably Ezra Friedlander, a political consultant. She also appears to have support in the Modern Orthodox community, which has a limited presence in Brooklyn. A luncheon for Quinn hosted by the Modern Orthodox umbrella group the Orthodox Union drew twice as many people as a similar event for Thompson, and four times as many as a similar event for Anthony Weiner, according to Jeff Leb, the O.U.’s New York State director of political affairs.
Yet Quinn’s lack of viability in most parts of Orthodox Brooklyn has left ultra-Orthodox community leaders to pick their own front-runner. Thompson has been a visible recipient of those endorsements.
In Williamsburg, Rabbi David Niederman of Satmar made it sound as though all of Orthodox Brooklyn was in the Thompson camp as he offered endorsements from his Hasidic faction and from a handful of smaller sects at an August 27 rally.
“What you have received is a bloc vote,” Niederman told Thompson from the podium as he rattled off the names of the Brooklyn Orthodox neighborhoods whose support he claimed to be delivering. “We are all here to ensure that our next mayor is the honorable Billy Thompson.”
Yet Niederman’s assurances would have come as a surprise in other corners of Orthodox Brooklyn, particularly among the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox who make up the constituency of Agudath Israel of America.
Though Agudath Israel, known as the Agudah, does not make political endorsements, senior lay figures attached to the organization do make their positions known. In the Democratic mayoral primary, those positions are all over the map.
“I see people in the community talking about Thompson and de Blasio,” said Shmuel Lefkowitz, a vice president of the Agudah.
Abe Biderman, a member of the Agudah’s board, publicly backs Thompson; Leon Goldenberg, another Agudah board member, backs de Blasio.
Asked why the Agudah can’t settle on a single candidate, the Orthodox political activist who was disturbed by Quinn’s lesbian marriage asked, “What happens if he loses?”
Whether or not Orthodox Brooklyn is strategically covering its bases, the effect of the scattered, long-withheld endorsements has been to force the candidates to pay attention. The fracturing of the Orthodox vote comes amid a campaign in which Orthodox issues have played an unusually prominent role.
Many candidates backed city aid to private religious schools, a perennial Orthodox priority, and criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to regulate a controversial circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh. De Blasio, in a well-timed move in mid-July, issued a statement in his day job as the city’s public advocate criticizing a Saudi-owned airline for refusing to book Israeli passengers on flights at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Weiner and Quinn both said in late June and early July that they believed the West Bank to be disputed territory, not occupied territory.
“All the candidates are addressing [our] issues,” said Sofer, whose Satmar faction is expected to make its own endorsement before the end of August. “It’s a phenomenal achievement, in my mind”
For Niederman, Sofer’s Satmar factional counterpart, the fractured vote is simply a political fact.
“We would love that we all go dressed alike, speak alike,” Niederman said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Orthodox leaders said that they had had trouble settling on an endorsement. Niederman, speaking after announcing that his Satmar faction had endorsed Thompson, said that his group had been choosing among Thompson, de Blasio and Quinn up until the previous day. Dov Hikind, the New York State assemblyman representing Boro Park, praised both de Blasio and Thompson in mid-August, days before coming out for Thompson.
Sofer said that he had been in talks with representatives of Quinn, de Blasio and Thompson, and that his Satmar faction was bouncing back and forth. “In the morning, people [are] pushing this one; in the afternoon, people [are] pushing [that one],” Sofer said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.