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

Bob Turner's Labor Day. (Dana Rubinstein)
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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.

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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.

ON THE MORNING THAT REPUBLICAN COUNCILMAN PETER KOO WAS TO ENDORSE Democrat David Weprin in Flushing, a gaggle of reporters and Asian-American dignitaries gathered in a small office on the third floor of a shabby office building on Main Street, next door to Red Bowl Noodle, which that morning was selling kumquat lemon juice. Outside, women carried umbrellas against the summer sun, and workers manned tables alternately decrying Falun Gong (“Evil Cult Falun Gong”) and supporting it, (“Falun Dafa is Good”).

Flushing falls outside the 9th Congressional District, but its leadership, or so the idea goes, could prove influential within it, given a recent surge in its Asian population. 

The third floor of the nondescript office building at 40-48 Main Street is home to the venerable, nearly 30-year-old Flushing Chinese Business Association, as well as as a notary public, an herbal weight loss company, and a real estate agency. A massage parlor is just downstairs.

Inside, a dozen Asian-American dignitaries, from Assemblywoman Grace Meng, whose father was the state's first Asian-American elected official, to Peter Tu, the FCBA’s executive director, lined one side of a long conference room table in front of a plate-glass window. Framed mayoral proclamations and potted plants in varying states of health decorated the otherwise bare-bones offices. A battery of Asian press stood opposite the dignitaries. When Weprin walked in, everyone stood up. When Koo walked in, they did the same.

“He has worked hard to empower our newly emerging immigrant communities,” said Koo, by way of explaining his cross-party endorsement, before posing for a prolonged grip and grin with Weprin. In the midst of questions about job creation and redistricting, Weprin got distracted.

“I see we’ve also been joined by my wife Ronni in the back and my daughter,” said Weprin, flushing slightly. “Ronni, want to wave?”

"Assemblyman?” asked a reporter, trying to get a question in.

“Oh and my granddaughter, my first grandchild Abigail,” he continued.

“Assemblyman?” the reporter asked again.

PRIOR TO 1992, THE DISTRICT EXISTED SOLELY IN BROOKLYN. Then came the 1990 census, in which New York State lost three of its congressional seats. At the time, a district covering much the same chunk of New York as the current Ninth was represented by Weiner’s mentor and former boss Chuck Schumer. Pundits predicted that Schumer’s district would be combined with that of powerful Democratic incumbent Stephen Solarz, and that the two would be forced into a "fair fight" primary. Instead, Solarz’s district was combined with Ted Weiss’, creating a Brooklyn-Manhattan district, and pitting those two colleagues against each other. Solarz balked at the prospect and decided instead to challenge a woman named Nydia Velasquez for a newly created Hispanic district in Brooklyn. He lost. Weiss died. And a guy named Jerry Nadler won the Brooklyn-Manhattan seat.

In the meantime, the Schumer district was redrawn.

“You had to accommodate for losing three districts,” said Jeffrey Wice, a veteran of multiple once-a-decade redistricting processes who in 1992 was counsel for the Assembly majority. “You had to accommodate for creating a new Hispanic district. When you put the rest of the pieces together, you see what’s left and you move south and west accordingly and it caused the need to go into Queens.”

The lines of the new version of the Ninth district were drawn so that it remained heavily middle-class, white and Jewish.  

Weprin does not actually reside in the Ninth Congressional District—he lives just outside, in Holliswood, Queens—but he has a name that many of its residents will be familiar with. He’s the son of Saul Weprin, a local resident who was speaker of the New York State Assembly, and the brother of Mark Weprin, a local resident and former assemblyman who is now a city councilman.

David casts himself as a no-sizzle politician with a head for finance, having served as Mario Cuomo’s deputy superintendent of banks and as secretary of the Banking Board for New York State, and as the finance chair of the City Council. He was elected to the Assembly last year in a special election to replace his brother. He has a humble, nebbishy bearing, with his grey hair slicked to the side in a style that suspiciously approximates a toupee, and a thick brush of a moustache.

By contrast, Bob Turner is a slightly more garrulous type, if not a smoother one. The story he tells about himself is that he is an up-by-the-bootstraps businessman. He spent his entire career working in the cable industry, including at Multimedia Entertainment, where, in addition to "The Jerry Springer Show," he produced the shows of Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael. His political experience is limited to his run against Weiner last year, but he argues that his cable TV bona fides will enable him to make government less wasteful and more productive.

“I'm a citizen-candidate,” said Turner on Wednesday night. “I'm not a careerist. I remain a businessman.”

ON AUGUST 31, TURNER AND WEPRIN ATTENDED A COMMUNITY forum in Manhattan Beach, which is the sort of neighborhood where neatly trimmed hedge rows line sidewalks leading to front doors shaded by grand porticos, where backyards have swingsets and basketball hoops, and the streets have aspirational names like Exeter, Dover, and Hampton. The local synagogue offers valet parking.

The location was P.S. 195K, a well-regarded elementary school housed in a red-brick building just blocks away from the sailboats docked in Sheepshead Bay. Partisans filled the school auditorium and vitriol was in the air. The candidates sat at separate tables and grimaced at each other throughout the night.

Turner, keen on displaying his businessman’s acumen, used his opening statement to speak in defense of big corporations.

“We have to rely on ourselves and on the people that always bring us forward, the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers,” he said.

“Wall Street!” yelled a voice from the crowed.

“And Wall Street,” Turner acknowledged, readily. “Those are the people who take the risks and will help us get out of this.”

Weprin used his opening statement to acknowledge his mother and wife and then demonstrate his support for the existing social safety net.

“Everywhere I go people are scared,” he said. “They say their income is going down but their expenses are going up. People are worried that Social Security and Medicare are in danger, and they're on the table in Washington ... My name is David Weprin, and I am fighting to save Social Security and Medicare.”

Then came the questions, collected beforehand from the community group and the audience, on topics ranging from foreign policy to local sewer upgrades to "Obamacare." Both candidates took great pains, once again, to express their support for Israel. Both also took great pains to express their discomfort with the development of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, though they differed markedly in their approaches.

Weprin seemed unsure of the right answer: “I'm glad you brought this up because this has become the cornerstone of Bob Turner’s campaign. His entire campaign is based on appealing to people’s emotions in an irrational way. First of all he distorted my public position on the mosque issue, where I stated a constitutional right, which I think was a given, I assumed was a given ... We do have freedom of religion and we have a constitutional right to build a religious institution on private property. But my public position has been, and has been consistent, that in deference to the considerations of 9/11 families and to the community, that if they could find an alternative site, that would be preferable.”

Turner was less concerned about appearing intolerant.

Turner: “I’m not talking about rescinding the First Amendment. I’m talking about the appropriateness of this particular site for a mosque. This is beyond insensitive. And if anyone thinks this is an ecumenical gesture of good will, I would say they’re sadly mistaken. The developers here are doing this for propaganda reasons, and I’m calling them on it. And I will do what I can to see that this is not done.

His response was greeted by loud applause.

The partisans, of whom there were many, were unswayable.

“I want lower taxes, more jobs, limited government, a balanced budget, and to get the country solvent, said Marty Levine, a Turner supporter, and a retired schoolteacher who runs Fanfare Brass, which provides flag-trumpeteers for weddings, bar mitzvahs and engagement parties. (Levin says he now uses his teacher’s union magazine to line his birdcage.)

The forum didn't seem to be a particularly meaningful event for the few undecideds in the crowd, either.

“They’re all going to vote the way the party tells them to vote,” said Lionel Weiser, an elderly man from Manhattan Beach, before shuffling home.

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