Special selection: David Weprin and the trouble with boss-picked candidates

Joseph Crowley, Christine Quinn, David Weprin. (Dana Rubinstein)
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On paper, David Weprin was a perfectly sensible choice by the local Democratic Party apparatus to run for Congress. He's an Orthodox Jew and reliable Democrat in a district that is heavily Jewish and rich in registered Democrats. And he's a longtime elected official who holds one of the more recognizable surnames in Queens politics.

Yet Weprin is losing, if you believe the polls, which show the Republican former cable TV executive Bob Turner with a several-point lead. Weprin may well come out ahead once the votes are counted: He'll be able to count on superior resources today to pull voters to the polls, which could be decisive in a low-turnout special election. 

But the fact that things are this tight is an exceptional state of affairs. 

Despite the structural advantages that go with being a Democrat in the Ninth Congressional District, it's Turner and his surrogates who have driven the agenda by keeping the conversation about Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular with many of the district's white Catholic and Israel-hawk Jewish voters, rather than the agenda of the very conservative House majority Turner would be joining. So Weprin has been put on the defensive about Obama's Middle East policy, while Turner appears to have managed to avoid the drawbacks of his party association, and has largely been taken at his word when he says he would buck the House Republicans on an overhaul of entitlement programs, even though he has pushed, at times, for 30-35 percent cuts in federal spending.

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Suffice it to say that Weprin is not overperforming.

Demographic qualifications notwithstanding, Representative Joe Crowley and the Queens County machine picked Weprin to run for the Anthony Weiner seat not because of his political skill but something closer to the opposite.

Yes, Weprin is fine on the issues, as far as they're concerned. But above all Weprin is reliable, and can be counted upon to do the right thing by them, in the likely event that his district is eliminated next year, by disappearing along with it, or at least by not making trouble for his congressional neighbors. One of those neighbors, not coincidentally, is Crowley, who was sufficiently worried about his own redistricting prospects (at least before Weiner left his seat) to have hired a lobbyist to deal with the state legislative entity that redraws the lines.

Asked yesterday at a campaign event whether Weprin had agreed before becoming the nominee not to challenge any sitting Democrats if he won and then wound up without a district, Crowley's tone shifted from buoyant to severe.

"That in itself is a leading question and one that is, I'll answer it, but not really worthy of an answer, because there are no promises made, no obligation from Mr. Weprin, David Weprin, in terms of his decision to run and our asking him to be our candidate," said Crowley. "David Weprin was chosen because he represents all the issues we care about, as I mentioned before, and I won't run through the litany again."

Asked whether a more vigorous selection process might have produced a different candidate, Crowley said, "We, like the Republican Party, the Working Families Party, the Conservative Party, abide by the rule, the law, of the State of New York. So this is the process that we've been working under, and we've fully complied with that process, and we believe we produced, in that process, in the special election, the best candidate to field in this election."

Crowley's comments came yesterday during one of Weprin's last press conferences before Election Day, at which he joined dozens of volunteers, reporters and elected officials in Weprin's second-floor campaign headquarters on Austin Street in Forest Hills.

Among the attendees were 22-year-old Lyron Blum-Evitts, a congressional intern who said she came in response to an appeal from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Crowley's cousin, Councilwoman Liz Crowley; and City Council speaker Christine Quinn.

"David and I were just over at a senior center, and I said to the seniors there, I really wish actually I could go to bed tonight and say, whoever wins tomorrow, I'd rather it be David, but whoever wins it will be OK," said Quinn, who is contemplating a run for mayor. "That's not the truth. Whoever wins tomorrow is going to make an enormous difference about how well New York is represented in Congress, how well seniors are represented in Congress, how well women are represented in Congress, how well LGBT people are represented in Congress, and whether or not we have sound, honest fiscal leadership in Congress. This is a race with enormous differences between the candidates."

When Weprin spoke, he talked about what his union supporters were going to do for him.

"We're going to get out of the vote," said Weprin. "We're going to have over 1,000 people in the field tomorrow. I'm very proud of my union support, I've got every labor union in the city behind my candidacy. We have 60,000 union households in this district, and we're going to ride to victory tomorrow night!"

The crowd applauded and chanted Weprin's name.

WEPRIN COULDN'T HAVE EXPECTED TO HAVE a chance like this at getting to Congress. He has won elections to the City Council and then to the State Assembly, but he last ran in a primary in 2009, when he bid for city comptroller and mustered only 10 percent of the vote. He settled into the state legislature for what seemed like the long haul.

Then this year, the whole Anthony Weiner thing happened, and Weprin was tapped to run for the open seat, and that was that.

There are of course no primaries for New York special elections, meaning that the candidates are somewhat less vigorously vetted for political skill and feasibility than they might be under other circumstances. Which means that it's up to the bosses to pick a winner, or not.

If Weprin loses, it will be the fourth time in two years a New York special election has gone badly for a candidate hand-picked by the dominant party.

This was, until now, thought to be a Republican curse, after the G.O.P. struck out in three straight conservative-leaning upstate districts. In each of those elections, as in this one, the situations were special, and the chosen candidate was hurt by factors that went beyond any lack of skill.

In January of 2009, Republicans nominated the longtime assemblyman Jim Tedisco to run for the House seat being vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand when she became senator. Tedisco tried to make the race a referendum on Obama, but with Election Day only two months into the president's term, the Democrat, Scott Murphy, drafted on Democrats' big 2008 win, and eventually won by less than a thousand votes.

Three months later, eleven upstate county chairs contemplating a special election settled on Dede Scozzafava, a thoroughly moderate Republican who had previously been endorsed by the Working Families Party. The pick set off a firestorm, as conservatives branded Scozzafava an unwelcome emblem of an overly compromising party, rallying behind the third-party candidacy of Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava pulled out before Election Day and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens, who went on to win.

Most recently, in May, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin lost a heavily Republican district when her opponent, Democrat Kathy Hochul, exploited Corwin’s support for Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan.

Likewise, in NY-9, the tightness of the race has a lot to do with factors that are bigger than either of the candidates, like the fact that the district is more conservative than it used to be, and that the election is happening at a particularly grim time for Obama.

But the fact that the candidate is Weprin, a nice man who is utterly lacking in the ability of, say, Anthony Weiner to drive press coverage and shape the dialogue of a campaign, hasn't helped.

“I think that Weprin comes across as very bland,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “Turner, though he’s certainly had his share of gaffes, seems to be a more interesting candidate.”

A HALF HOUR AFTER WEPRIN'S EVENT with Quinn and Crowley, and just around the corner from it, reporters and volunteers gathered under the beating sun to see Bob Turner appear with former mayor Rudy Giuliani. The setting was the neighborhood's bucolic Long Island Rail Road station, which is hemmed in with flowers and surrounded by Tudor-style apartment houses. Giuliani was scheduled to appear at 2 pm.

He didn't.

"He must still think he's mayor," muttered an irritated cameraman.

At 2:24 pm, as reporters and volunteers scrounged for scarce scraps of shade, Bill O'Reilly, Turner's spokesman  announced, "We're looking at 15 more minutes. I'm so sorry. It's hot as hell."

At 2:44, O'Reilly began passing out bottles of water.

At 2:55, Giuliani finally arrived.

"There a lot of checkpoints coming out here," said Giuliani, an excuse that has become something of a trend at campaign events in recent days. "Just because I'm the former mayor, they don't just let me through. But I guess I should be thankful for that. But I'm more thankful that Bob is running again for Congress, because this is a really fine candidate, just exactly the kind of person we need representing us in Washington."

Then Giuliani attacked.

He said it was important to send a message to Obama on jobs, because Obama's jobs plan amounts to "warmed-over spit."

"We've got to come up with a new plan," said Giuliani. "Someone like Bob, who's been an enormously successful businessman, understands the private sector. That's exactly what we need in Washington. Not another career politician."

"The president," said the almost-70-year-old former mayor, "has had the worst record in job creation of any American president in my lifetime."

Then Giuliani moved on to another key talking point in the election: Israel.

Giuliani called the notion of a Palestinian state a "romance."

"The president seems to consider that the Palestinian Authority should be given more consideration, more benefits, more concern than the state of Israel," said Giuliani. "Nor for the life of me can I figure out what benefit there is to the United States to have a Palestinian state. Why would America want to create another terrorist state?"

Giuliani then began to reminisce fondly of that time, back in 1995, when to the consternation of the Clinton administration, Turner supporter Ed Koch, and diplomats everywhere, he ejected Yasir Arafat from an event at Lincoln Center

Then Turner took the podium, and said almost nothing at all.

"We have a job to do, we're going to get that vote out, we're going to win," he said. "That message will come soon, loud and clear tomorrow, to be interpreted as anyone wants. But I have a viewpoint, I'm sure you do, and we'll wait to hear what the voters have to say. Thank you."

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