Welcome to NY-9, and an awkward special election for an endangered congressional seat

welcome-ny-9-and-awkward-special-election-endangered-congressional-s
Bob Turner's Labor Day. (Dana Rubinstein)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

The shape of New York's Ninth Congressional District, where the tight race to replace ex-congressman Anthony Weiner has riveted political observers in recent weeks, is, at first blush, mystifying.

On a map, it looks like a stretched-out anvil that’s been hammered nearly beyond recognition. Its southern base encompasses the barrier peninsula that juts west from Long Island, home to the gated community of Breezy Point, where the Republican nominee Bob Turner lives, as well as Belle Harbor and Neponsit, before stretching northward across the bay to take in Manhattan Beach, Marine Park and Mill Basin in Brooklyn. Then the district arches back to Queens, stretching northeast to embrace parts of Ozone Park, Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.

In the middle of the Rockaway Penninsula, right where weekend visitors transfer from the Rockaways-bound A train to the subway shuttle that will take them to the beach, is Broad Channel, home to one of the city's only volunteer fire departments. Low-slung bungalows line weedy streets, salt air rusts chain-link fences and American flags wave from potted plants, porch railings and front yards.

It was there, in front of the Queens Library branch on Cross Bay Boulevard, just down the street from the Bay-Gull bagel store, that Bob Turner chose to spend part of his Labor Day afternoon.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

It being a day in recognition of the American worker, he began with a press conference about unemployment, surrounding himself with what his press shop described in a release as "a group of recent college graduates who are buried in college loans and cannot find jobs to pay them back" and are joining him in "calling on President Obama (D) to 'get out of the way of the American worker in creating economic growth."'

Behind Turner, rows of books lined library windows, including three Rachel Aaron fantasy adventures (The Spirit Thief, The Spirit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater), two cookbooks by New York's first girlfriend Sandra Lee, Best Jobs for the 21st Century, the fifth edition, and Ed Schultz's Killer Politics: How Big Money and Bad Politics Are Destroying the Great American Middle Class.

In his Labor Day proposals, Turner advocated reducing regulations on natural-gas drilling, including, should the scientists deem it safe, hydrofracking near the New York reservoir system; reducing corporate taxes to encourage the repatriation of more than $1 trillion in offshore corporate assets; and cutting the size of the debt.

Turner's "recent college graduates" included Josh Spielman, a 23-year-old Rutgers graduate from Teaneck who was interning for Turner spokesman Bill O'Reilly and looking for a job in the city; Matt Kelly, a recent Marist graduate who got an entry-level job in H.R. and is friends with one of Turner's sons; and Kevin Brennan, a sophomore member of St. John's University's College Republicans who, when asked what Turner policies in particular he liked, said, "I really can't tell you, I'll be honest with you."

After the press conference, Turner got some unsolicited political advice from former Republican district leader Eddie O'Hare about marching in the local Labor Day parade ("Don't stay in the middle, go out and shake hands") and bought lemonade from entrepreneurial eight-year-old Matthew O'Reilly (no relation to Bill), who gave patrons complimentary pretzel sticks with their beverages. The scene was so lovely that a New York Post photographer asked them to repeat it.

"Hand him a cup and look at us," the photographer said. His subjects obliged.

ON A WEDNESDAY IN AUGUST, JUST MINUTES BEFORE lunch, Turner ambled into the dingy hallway of a senior center, attached to the Forest Hills Jewish Center and bordered by Queens Boulevard, a broad thoroughfare lined with dun-colored high rises, and Austin Street, a commercial strip boasting the city’s only Eddie Bauer.

“He’s better-looking in person!” said one female visitor as Turner approached.

The candidate's destination was the center’s Crystal Room, which was brimming with mostly elderly, mostly white women. Workers had prepped the buffet, piling slices of white bread or pumpernickel on disposable plates with pats of butter. A chafing dish nearby was filled with what a worker described, with a smirk, as “chicken with paprika.”

Turner, a retired cable TV executive responsible for fare like "The Jerry Springer Show," is gregarious, but somehow nearly as ill-at-ease in public as his famously unpackageable opponent, David Weprin, who was chosen by party bosses to be the Democratic nominee in the Sept. 13 special election precisely because he's not expected to have the desire or ability to challenge any other Democratic members if and when the Ninth District is eliminated in next year's round of redistricting. They are both vying to replace a congressman who, say what you will about his attention-grabbing political style and sexual peccadilloes, was charismatic. In recent years, Weiner made a name for himself with his outspoken defense of a single-payer health care system on cable news and on the House floor. Perhaps the Ninth District is tired of flamboyance. Either way, it’s not on the menu.

One thing that is on the menu is Israel, in the form of a fairly substanceless conversation about who does and does not support it more. On one side there is David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew who’s visited Israel eight times, has family there, and has taken to publicly chiding Obama for not being sufficiently pro-Israel. On the other side is Turner, a Catholic who lives in Breezy Point, which rivals 740 Park in its sense of exclusivity, racial and otherwise (though not of course in sheer scale of wealth). To get there, one must cross a toll bridge and pass through a series of gates staffed by private security.

That Israel is even an issue in the race is the handiwork, oddly, of former mayor and Democratic lion Ed Koch, abetted by a general desire on the part of the media to see a competitive race, and a related willingness to overaccount for the number of voters in the district likely to be making their decision primarily on the basis of Israel.

In July, Koch—a lifelong Democrat who frequently endorses Republicans—threw his weight behind Turner in order to send a message about what he calls “President Obama’s open hostility to the State of Israel.” Never mind that Obama's position on Israel—that the 1967 borders, plus territorial "swaps," ought to be the basis for negotiations with the Palestinian state—is technically not a controversial one. The confusing part, actually, is that in Koch's view, Weprin's position in support of Israel is perfectly good, while the best thing Koch has to say about Turner, apart from the Israel thing, is that Turner has assured him that he will not vote with the rest of the Republicans in the House when it comes to cutting entitlement programs. Koch is asking the voters of the Ninth to make a sacrifice of Weprin as a means of amplifying his complaint to Obama.

Weprin has since organized a joint appearance with Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to bolster his standing with Israel-voting Jews, and today, his campaign is producing an even bigger gun in the Ninth: Senator Charles Schumer, who used to represent the a large chunk of the current district.

But the Koch argument, about electing Turner to pressure Obama, carried weight with Hannah Pfeifen and Helen Enisman, two Holocaust survivors in attendance at the senior center that afternoon.

“Israel to us is our mother," said Pfeifen. "It must exist.”

One of Turner’s volunteers gave her a pen with the candidate’s name on it.

Then Cheolwon Ryn, the center’s program director, took the stage to introduce Turner.

“I will be mercifully brief,” Turner said.

“They all say that,” muttered a woman sitting to my right, who promptly stood up and left the room.

In this case, Turner was telling the truth. Maybe it was because few people were listening anyway. His abbreviated stump speech, which touched on all the hot-button issues for the senior center crowd—Social Security, prescription drug costs, Medicare—clocked in under five minutes.

“Oh my god, I’m voting for him,” said a svelte woman in a pink T-shirt and red ponytail, who raced off to introduce herself to Turner the moment he finished.

The gentleman sitting next to her was less enthusiastic. These days, politics gives Lewis Klein, a 62-year-old retired civil servant who worked under former comptroller Abe Beame, the willies. Political leadership? Klein says there isn’t any. Weprin? A “political hack.” Turner? Barely any better. Klein was “perplexed” by his options.

He seemed less perplexed once Turner came over to introduce himself.

“I’m going to vote for you this time,” Klein told Turner. “I’m not happy about it. But I don’t have a choice.”

Turner thanked him sheepishly and walked away. He had other people to glad-hand, and other places to be, including UA Brandon Cinemas on Austin Street, where he was scheduled to meet a new volunteer named Mike Ferrara for some retail campaigning. Off Turner walked, past the Gap, past Barnes & Noble and past the Eddie Bauer, his entourage of reporters and campaign staff growing ever larger.

Ferrara was waiting as planned. A 45-year-old registered Republican, Ferrara said he decided to join Turner’s campaign after seeing him speak at the Knights of Columbus and then at a bar in Queens.

“He's more like everybody’s uncle than a politician,” Ferrara said.

It is these ephemeral impressions, as much as stances on Israel or Social Security, that make door-to-door campaigning so important, and election outcomes so tricky to predict.

TURNER RAN IN THIS DISTRICT LAST YEAR against an as-yet untarnished Anthony Weiner, and did better than expected by losing by about 20 percentage points. Polls indicate that the special election against Weprin will be closer than that.

Weprin has a built-in advantage, the district’s registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by three to one. But the district is a socially conservative one, by the standards of New York City. This is accounted for in part by the relatively high number of Orthodox Jews in the district—conventional political wisdom is that roughly speaking, about one in three voters who turn out for an election like this in the Ninth might be Jewish, and a third of those voters might be Orthodox—and by white Catholic voters in places like Breezy Point, Broad Channel and Sheepshead Bay.

Last year, when Turner challenged Weiner in a special election that went very poorly for Democrats nationally, he won 40 percent of the vote. 117,613 ballots were cast; 67,013 were for Weiner and 43,129 were for Turner. (Shock-jock Howard Stern and “Lord Voldemort” garnered one write-in vote each.) Far fewer people are expected to vote in this special election, scheduled for September 13.

With Ferrara at his side, Turner stopped at Cohen’s Fashion Optical on Austin Street and 71st Avenue, where the owner told them Weiner used to get his glasses, and then Mr. Vino Wine & Spirits, next door.

“He’s a Republican, right, Bob Turner?” Nicholas Protopapas, the 34-year-old registered Democrat who owns both stores, asked me.

I told him he was.

“I think Turner will definitely get my vote,” he said, explaining that he likes politicians who visit. “We want somebody that wants to be part of the community.”

By that point, Turner's spokesman Bill O’Reilly had arrived, sporting a navy blue blazer and a carnival barker’s demeanor.

“Say hello to Bob Turner,” he said at passers-by, in a sing-song voice. “He’s running for Congress.”

A few handshakes here, a few pamphlets there, a few cold-shoulders in between, and Turner was off to his next events: an editorial meeting with the Jewish Press. Then a visit to Maimonides Hospital.