As New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo steams toward what’s expected to be an easy re-election this fall, he may face opposition from an unexpected corner.
Cuomo has long sought to cultivate support among the state’s powerful ultra-Orthodox community. But a series of recent moves has threatened that relationship, culminating in Cuomo’s early June decision to order the State Education Department to monitor the finances of the East Ramapo school district, which is headed by a majority-Orthodox school board.
“The way things stand now, he’s going to have a difficult time in the Orthodox community, there’s no question about that,” said Leon Goldenberg, an activist who sits on the board of the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America. Goldenberg expects Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino to do well among Orthodox voters.
Ultra-Orthodox sources were far from universal in their criticism of Cuomo. Goldenberg himself acknowledged that the governor has “done some positive things also.” But the appointment of the monitor in upstate East Ramapo, in particular, appears to have angered many ultra-Orthodox.
For years the East Ramapo School District has been engulfed in conflict, with an Orthodox-dominated school board facing off against the mostly black and Latino public school parents. The district includes Monsey and New Square, whose large Orthodox populations send their children to private yeshivas but rely on state aid for transportation and other mandated services. Candidates from those well-organized ultra-Orthodox communities consistently beat non-Orthodox challengers in local school board elections.
The school board’s critics charge that the district has cut public school services in order to benefit private yeshivas. In 2010 the board sold an elementary school to a yeshiva far below market value; the appraiser in the sale was later indicted and the sale reversed. The State Education Department has withheld special education aid from the district over its practices of placing Orthodox special education students in private yeshivas rather than public schools.
Orthodox community members, for their part, say that the district is underfunded by the state and that the district provides only mandated services to private yeshivas.
The Journal News, the area’s local daily newspaper, reported June 11 that the new state-appointed fiscal monitor, a former Cuomo aide from his previous position as New York State attorney general, would be tasked with evaluating the competing claims in East Ramapo and with recommending action.
“We thought it was appropriate to have an independent monitor from outside the community who doesn’t have any predisposition on the issue to come in and to review the operations of the school district, take a look at the accusations that have been made and give us an independent [analysis],” Cuomo told the Journal News.
The East Ramapo school board reacted furiously to the appointment. In a letter to the New York State Education Department, board chair Yehuda Weissmandl, who is Orthodox, accused the state of “acceding to the demands of bigots.”
Orthodox political operatives also criticized Cuomo’s appointment of the fiscal monitor. “Instead of looking at the problem and trying to solve the structural issues here, they did something political,” said Michael Fragin, an Orthodox political consultant. “It’s a fundamental unfairness to the taxpayers.”
Some observers argued that the move by Cuomo wouldn’t have a lasting impact on his relations with the Orthodox, and that the monitor was a necessary step toward resolving the conflict. “There’s obviously frustration among some in the ultra-Orthodox community,” said Ryan Karben, a public affairs strategist and former New York State Assembly member who previously represented the district in which East Ramapo is located. “But that’s tempered by the realization that, in the world of practical politics, there’s not going to be additional aid for anyone in East Ramapo without the governor’s support.”
The new appointment comes as goodwill toward Cuomo appears to be running dry among the ultra-Orthodox.
Cuomo began his governorship with a major move to benefit ultra-Orthodox yeshivas — a 2011 law that made undergraduate yeshiva students eligible for education funding through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program. That law has driven millions of dollars a year to Orthodox yeshivas, $9 million in the first half of 2012 alone.
Yet later moves by Cuomo have hurt him with this constituency. Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed New York State’s Marriage Equality Act — a measure Cuomo pushed hard for — which made same-sex marriage legal in New York in July 2011. In 2012, Cuomo vetoed a bill backed by Agudah-linked activists and politicians that would have made it easier to send state special education funds to religious schools. In 2013, Cuomo backed an amendment to the state constitution that could bring resort casinos to the Catskills, a plan opposed by some Orthodox Jews who vacation and have summer camps in the area. And this past April, both Orthodox lobbyists and Catholic leaders were angered by a last-minute decision by Cuomo and leaders of the state legislature to drop from budget negotiations a proposal that would have given a state tax credit for donations to private schools.
Despite all these policies, some ultra-Orthodox advocates remain pleased with Cuomo. “I always joke, Moses couldn’t satisfy all the Jews all the time,” said Ezra Friedlander, founder and CEO of The Friedlander Group, a lobbying firm specializing in representing not-for-profits from the Orthodox community. “I think Cuomo has tremendous appeal.”
A spokesman for Cuomo cited additional state programs that had benefited the Orthodox. “Our communication and relationship with the Jewish Orthodox community remains open and strong,” Cuomo spokesman Elbert Garcia wrote in an email to the Forward. Garcia identified a handful of funding increases in the 2014-2015 state budget that would aid Orthodox groups.
Whatever his appeal is among Orthodox Jews, among New York Jews in general, Cuomo is actually more popular than he is among New York voters as a whole. In a Siena College poll taken in June, 71% of New York Jews said they would vote for Cuomo if the November elections were today, compared with 57% of New Yorkers.
That same poll gave Cuomo a 36-point lead over Astorino, a lead that observers don’t see Astorino overcoming. Given the likelihood of a Cuomo victory, Orthodox leaders, who are known for their pragmatism, could take his side again in the 2014 election, despite their differences.
Goldenberg said there was still time for Cuomo to win back the disaffected ultra-Orthodox. “I think he still has a chance to pull in a lot of votes,” he said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.