Republican win culminates raucous campaign that centered on Obama, Israel and gay marriage, but few district issues.
As he left P.S. 255 on Avenue S in Midwood, Brooklyn, Tuesday morning, Albert Tebele said he voted against Democrat David Weprin because of the candidate’s vote in the state Assembly to allow gay marriage in New York.
“Gay marriage will ruin the social fiber of the city,” said Tebele, 57, an Orthodox Jew who manufactures women’s clothing. “New York is an example to the rest of the country. It sends a message to our children that homosexuality is permissible and right when the Bible says it’s wrong.”
Another Jewish voter at the same polling site, who gave his name only as Charlie, said he had considered voting for Republican Bob Turner but decided in the end to back Weprin.
“I was tempted because of what [former Mayor] Ed Koch said, that it would be a protest vote against [President Barack] Obama,” said Charlie, a retired salesman who is 66. “But Turner is supposed to be more anti-Medicare, which became my primary issue.”
Interviews with voters at several polling sites within the Brooklyn and Queens district that elected Turner on Tuesday by a wide margin, 54-46 percent, produced a wide variety of voting rationales, none of them having to do with issues specific to the 9th congressional district.
The retired broadcasting executive’s victory, the first by a Republican in that district in nearly a century, suggests that the overwhelmingly Democrat district is fed up with the status quo, worried about the economy, largely disenchanted with the Democratic president and concerned about the future of Israel.
“We have been told that this is a referendum and we are ready to say, Mr. President, we are on the wrong track,” Turner told supporters at a victory party shortly after midnight, held at an Italian restaurant in Howard Beach and heavily attended by Orthodox Jews, who launched a significant get-out-the-vote campaign for him.
“We lit one candle today, and there's going to be a bonfire pretty soon.”
Weprin on Wednesday morning issued a statement congratulating Turner, saying he was proud that his campaign “raised the profile of issues like Medicare, Social Security, and tax relief for working families – issues that will be of critical importance for the next Congress.
Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said the unique demographics of the district were the most important factor in the victory.
“The Jews are more conservative and more observant and the Catholics are blue collar,” said Shinkopf. “ The Catholics and Jews joined together to send a message to the president and to Washington: We don’t like you or your economic policies and you should leave Israel alone.”
Interviews at the polls reflected the impact of two salient factors: Koch’s public call early in the campaign to elect a Republican in the district — for the first time in nearly a century — as a way to protest Obama’s priorities in the Mideast peace process and Orthodox anger about Weprin’s support for gay marriage.
The latter issue led some Flatbush Orthodox rabbis, in an unusually strident letter last week, to issue a prohibition not only against voting for Weprin but against donating time or money to his campaign.
But there were also those who worried about the impact of Republican control of Congress on Medicare and Social Security.
The balloting was a special election to replace the seat vacated by seven-term Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned in June amid revelations that he had been sending various women lewd Twitter messages.
The majority of those interviewed said they were voting by party affiliation, mostly Democrat.
“I always vote Democrat,” said William Johns, 51, a security guard who works at La Guardia Airport as he left I.S. 98 on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, a few blocks from Weiner’s former Brooklyn office. Johns said Weprin “looks like he’s going to do a good job.”
But there were ardent Republicans as well, particularly among Russian-speaking voters. “I’ve been voting Republican as long as I am in this country, 30 years,” said Raisa Shurak, a retired designer who emigrated from Moscow and reveres Ronald Reagan for helping free Russian Jews. Shurak said she had met Turner on several occasions, and “he’s very nice.”
About 57 percent of the 343,000 registered voters in the district are Democrats and only 19 percent are Republicans. However, recent polls showed Turner and Weprin almost neck and neck, with the latest Siena College poll giving Turner a slight edge. In addition, Turner won nearly 40 percent of the vote against Weiner last year, and the district has been shifting toward the GOP in recent presidential elections.
Worried Democrats, fearing a repeat of last year’s Republican upsets in the midterm elections that saw Republican upsets change the House leadership, organized hundreds of volunteers and Weprin appeared on Monday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former president Bill Clinton to rally the party faithful. There were also automated calls and extensive mail campaigns by both sides.
“This is one of those elections where the needs and concerns of the members of the district are practically ignored,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “Turner is running against the Ground Zero mosque, which is a classic red herring. This is one crazy race.”
He was referring to the proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, something that has generated much controversy. Turner aired a campaign commercial on cable TV attacking Weprin’s support for the center.
Muzzio compared the election to an episode of “The Twilight Zone” because of the bizarre sequence of events. “A congressman resigns over a sex scandal with the people not wanting him to leave, and then you have two weak candidates talking about nothing that constituents seem to be talking about, no concerns that resonate to the district.”
An informal survey of voters at Forest Hills High School, in a neighborhood that has a large Orthodox population and a large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — both groups traditionally with conservative voting patterns — found an even split between Weprin and Turner.
One 40something attorney, who declined to give his name, said he voted for Turner “because I don’t like the way this country’s going,” an allusion to Democratic economic and social policies. “Koch’s endorsement,” he said, “was a huge reason” for his pro-Turner vote.
A mother and son walking out of the high school — she’s a nurse turned teacher, he’s a computer programmer — said they voted for Turner. Their main reason, they said, was the unwelcome growth of the federal government and of the government’s influence, particularly in what they described as lowered educational standards.
“Obama’s lack of respect for Israel is part” of their decision, the son said.
Did the rabbis’ ban on voting for Weprin influence them?
No, the mother said. “We’re not really social conservatives. I don’t care who gets married.”
But at James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, Meryl, an Orthodox real estate broker who declined to give her last name, said that was precisely why she chose Turner.
“Someone who signs the gay marriage bill is a hypocrite,” she said as she pushed a baby stroller. Weprin has been attacked for saying in a speech in the Assembly chamber that as an Orthodox Jew “my religion is very important to me personally, but this is not a religious issue.”
Other Orthodox Jews said Weprin’s record of support for Israel and Jewish causes was key to their vote.
In Forest Hills, Manny Behar, the former director of the Queens Jewish Community Council who now works in tourism, dismissed Koch’s endorsement of Turner as a way to send a message of disapproval about the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.
“I have respect for Ed Koch,” said Behar, who has worked for Democrats at Queens Borough Hall and City Hall. “I disagree with him on this. I’ll send a message a year from now,” during the 2012 presidential election.
In an interview Monday, Koch, who lives in Manhattan, predicted a “blowout” for Turner and said his idea of sending a message to the White House by electing a Republican was no different than any other ethnic group protesting an administration’s policies.
“Polls show that for 37 percent of the district Israel is a very important issue,” said Koch. He was referring to a Sept. 8-11 survey from Public Policy Polling, which also found that 54 percent of district voters disapproved of Obama’s policy toward Israel. “Weprin called me and said ‘I’m for Israel’ and ‘I’m for everything else’ and I told him, ‘That’s nice but you’re not a message if you’re elected.’”
During an appearance at P.S. 222 in Marine Park, Brooklyn, on Tuesday morning, Turner acknowledged that the rabbinical letter against Weprin would help his campaign. Turner opposes gay marriage.
“That’s not an issue for me in this campaign, when we [need] jobs and we’re confronting a massive deficit and we have a president that’s not as friendly to Israel as he should be. So, yes, there may be some benefit in a backlash like that but that’s not my issue.”
Asked if he was concerned that the Democrat-led Assembly and Democrat governor would try to eliminate the district, Turner said, “If I win here it means I fight someone else in ’12 and the chances are it remains more intact with a Republican victory.”
He added that without the 9th District, neighboring incumbent Democrats such as Joseph Crowley or Gary Ackerman might have to battle him for their districts and “I think they would rather not.”
Staff writer Steve Lipman contributed to this report.
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