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Simcha Felder Is Kingmaker No More — Faces ‘Different World’ In Albany

In Tuesday evening’s New York state Senate elections, there were winners and there were losers. And there was Simcha.

Democrats won the chamber. Republicans lost it. And Simcha Felder, who represents the Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boro Park and Midwood, lost his status as the most powerful man in New York state politics.

With Democrats taking over in the state Senate this coming January, Felder, a notional Democrat who functioned as the divided chamber’s swing vote because he caucused with the Republicans, will be marginalized. The Democrats can now pass legislation he fought against, and possibly even jeopardize his influence in New York’s ultra-Orthodox community.

“If I was Simcha Felder, I don’t know if the Democrats would want to talk to me even,” said Dov Hikind, a state assemblyman who represents an ultra-Orthodox district in Brooklyn, and is retiring at the end of this term.

Two requests for comment sent to Felder’s press representative went unanswered.

Felder represents New York’s 17th district, a primarily ultra-Orthodox section of Brooklyn. Asians and Latinos represent 12 and 15 percent of the voters there, respectively, and it is less than three percent African American, according to JTA.

In Tuesday’s midterm elections, Felder won 85% of the votes in his district. Democrats picked up 8 seats in the New York state senate, earning a comfy majority of 39 seats (not counting Felder) out of 63. Hikind says that win will mean at least two significant consequences for the ultra-Orthodox community, likely early on in the coming state senate session.

He expects there to be legislation making it easier to prosecute perpetrators of sexual crimes against children that occurred more than a few years in the past, law that the ultra-Orthodox community — along with the Catholic Church — has vehemently opposed. Yeshiva curriculum and oversight reform, long opposed by many in the ultra-Orthodox community, is also likely coming.

And Felder may be unable to prevent such measures from passing.

“Sen. Felder has become a legislator without a country based on his past turncoat ways,” Blake Morris, who ran against Felder in the Democratic primary this year, wrote in an email. “He will have no power or friends in the state senate.”

Felder was lately aligned with the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of Democrats that routinely voted with Republicans. In the spring of this year, the caucus dissolved, and its members returned to voting with the Democrats.

Except Felder.

He decided to stay independent — political maps of the chamber showed “Republicans,” “Democrats” and “Felder.” His independence earned him the status of “Albany’s unlikely kingmaker,” as the New York Post christened him.

He used his newfound power to push the state government on issues important to the ultra-Orthodox community. In April, he held up the passage of a budget deal in an effort to end all state oversight of yeshivas, the private religious academies where ultra-Orthodox children are enrolled. The deal only went through after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo personally called a major ultra-Orthodox rabbi to hammer out a compromise.

For Felder’s efforts, the Democrats passed a resolution in May, during the party’s nominating convention, symbolically kicking him out of the party. (The resolution did not come to fruition, thanks to Brooklyn’s Democratic party chairman, Frank Seddio.)

But Felder was not worried about alienating Democrats — he was only concerned with getting legislation passed on behalf his consituents, says Ezra Friedlander, the founder and CEO of The Friedlander Group, a lobbying firm based in New York City that frequently works with ultra-Orthodox clients. It wasn’t a gambit, and the election results did not catch him off guard.

“Simcha Felder is very comfortable in his skin,” Friedlander said. “I don’t think he would have done anything different had he known that the results would have turned out the way it did.”

But now, the results are in, and Felder’s power has been significantly diluted.

“This is a position that he’s never been in in his life,” said Hikind. “This is a whole different world now.”

The change could leave Felder less influential in the ultra-Orthodox world, as its major leaders and organizations look in other places for influence in Albany. The community is seeking to make inroads with other newly elected Democrats, according to Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a major service provider to the ultra-Orthodox community in north Brooklyn.

“Now there are more people that the community will be able to work with,” Niederman said. He mentioned Julia Salazar, whose district includes Williamsburg, and James Skoufis, who will be representing Kiryas Joel and other Rockland County ultra-Orthodox communities.

But Felder may still have a voice, simply because of the power of ultra-Orthodox groups to forge close connections with New York state politicians.

“I don’t think he’s done, because after all he represents a district that in and of itself is very involved, and asserts their needs, and makes themselves heard a lot more than most other districts in the state,” said Naftuli Moster, the executive director of YAFFED, a not-for-profit that advocates for yeshiva reform, and who opposed Felder’s attempt to end government oversight of the Jewish community’s religious schools.

Moster said that Felder’s close adviser, Shiya Ostreicher, a lobbyist who is regarded in Albany as a shrewd political tactician, helped him orchestrate his upending of the state Senate this past summer. Ostreicher and umbrella groups like Agudath Israel, a major ultra-Orthodox charity to which Ostreicher is closely tied, may continue to lend their support to Felder and other incoming politicians.

“The influence runs deep,” Moster said.

But the ultra-Orthodox community may ultimately not need Felder. It is a growing political force in the state, one whose needs cannot be ignored by anyone.

“In our community, you learn to live with whatever God sends,” said Hikind. “So this is a new reality that we have to deal with, but we’ll learn to deal with it.”

Clarification, November 9, 12:45 p.m.: The article has been clarified to show that Ezra Friedlander stated that Felder was concerned with passing legislation for his constituents, and not with doing so exclusively on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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