12:54 am Sep. 14, 20111
Bob Turner, a Republican former cable TV executive, has won a special election to replace Anthony Weiner in New York's Ninth Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens. He defeated Assemblyman David Weprin, the loyal, unassuming Democratic assemblyman who was picked by party leaders to defend the seat, by what turned out to be a comfortable margin.
Because the Ninth might well disappear in next year's redistricting process, the practical importance of the result is hard to assess. But its symbolic importance is something else entirely. By virtue of the unfortunately unforgettable incident that forced Weiner to vacate the seat, the competitiveness of the subsequent special-election matchup, and the made-for-national-media Obama-referendum narrative introduced by the Turner campaign, the race has attracted an enormous amount of attention, and its potential implications have been the subject of exhaustive analysis.
Here's some of what we know. The loss is an embarrassment for Representative Joe Crowley, the Queens County Democratic chair who picked Weprin to defend the Weiner seat, though it's not clear there will be any hard consequences for him. It's bad for the House Democrats, who just lost a seat, even if it's a seat they would have lost next year anyway. And the loss was a (symbolic, again) slap at the president by the voters of the district, since his unpopularity clearly figured into the result. But Weprin's loss is not a meaningful predictor of what will happen to Obama or the congressional Democrats in 2012, given the uniqueness of the district, the weakness of the Democratic candidate, and, most importantly, the fact that the political environment in 2012 will be different than it is in 2011, for better or worse.
Bob Turner, meanwhile, has made history, however short-lived his career in national politics turns out to be. He is about to become the first Republican to represent the Ninth, which now becomes both the most Jewish district in America represented by a Republican, and the most Jewish district represented by a non-Jew. If the district is indeed drawn out of existence next year, he will have the opportunity, in theory, to go upset some other Democrat.
At Turner's Election Night event at the Roma View Restaurant in Howard Beach, as it became clear that the Brooklyn portion of the Ninth had delivered their man what would turn out to be a thumping victory, a parade of current and former elected officials celebrated on a small stage flanked by the flags of both the U.S. and Israel. An Orthodox Jewish man quietly circulated among the reporters who were there, handing out fliers from a manila envelop saying the message of the election was that religious Jews were "deeply hurt and betrayed" by David Weprin's vote in the legislature in favor of same-sex marriage.
Representative Peter King served as the M.C., introducing the officials, each of whom had his own view of the message Turner's lead sent to President Obama.
"He threw Israel under the bus!" said Ed Koch, who was wildly cheered for having provided the early endorsement that sparked Turner's Israel-politics-aided win.
Koch focused much of his remarks on Turner's promise to him—"in writing"—to protect entitlement programs.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who spoke afterward, said it was "about values" and "about jobs."
Hikind, countering punditry with punditry, rejected any suggestion that the district was an anomaly.
"There is no question the people in this congressional district were speaking for the rest of the country," he said. "With God's help, this will reverberate throughout the rest of the country."
Hikind was followed by New York State Conservative Party chair Mike Long, who said the message delivered by the voters of the Ninth was to cut spending, and by G.O.P. chair Ed Cox, who taunted Obama with a refrain of "Mr. President, where are the jobs?"
Speaking later, around midnight, after the extent of the victory had become clearer, Turner took the stage, and spoke in grand terms, though softly, and not for very long.
"I am telling you," he said. "I am the messenger. Heed us. This message will resound for a full year. It will resound into 2012. The only hope is that our voices are heard and we can start putting things right again."
The scene at Weprin's Election Night event in Forest Hills was, unsurprisingly, very different. He went on stage at midnight, to tell a somewhat thinned-out crowd that he hadn't yet abandoned hope. But everyone there knew that the ending wasn't going to be a happy one.
A bit later, David's brother Mark, a city councilman, admitted that they'd campaigned hard, but "the result I see may not be the way we wanted it."
CERTAINLY, WHATEVER DAVID WEPRIN'S SHORTCOMINGS as a retail politician, he did not lose the race for lack of trying.
On the day of the vote, he kept an exhausting pace, plodding up and down the district in a last-ditch effort to drive loyal Democrats to the polls, whether they wanted to be driven or not.
"David Weprin is coming to say hello to you," said a staffer around noon today at the Selfhelp Austin Street Senior Center in Forest Hills, where patrons were getting grumbly. "Maybe we're going to have to serve lunch a little late."
The staffer's pronouncement was met with scattered boos.
"I'm terribly sorry about this," he said.
Weprin arrived shortly thereafter, in the company of Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi, Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, and state senator Toby Ann Stavisky, who also happens to be the proud mother of Weprin campaign consultant Evan Stavisky.
"It is essential that everybody comes out to vote," Weprin said, with as much energy in his voice as he could muster. "It's a special election and your vote is gonna count two and three times, because not many people come out in a special election."
Weprin proceeded to touch on all of the speaking points that shaped his campaign, when he wasn't busy responding to the other side's accusations that he was soft on Israel.
First up was the inviolability of Social Security: "When Social Security was founded in 1939, when it was signed into law by President Roosevelt, over 30 percent of seniors lived in poverty," said Weprin. "That number is now below 10 percent. But that number should be zero."
He also touched on the evil of tax loopholes, the importance of preserving "our special relationship with Israel," and the need to save agencies like the Department of Agriculture, which he said helped to fund meals like the one the seniors were about to enjoy.
Grumbling notwithstanding, Weprin's time seemed well spent.
"I wasn't going to vote for him," said Roslyn from Rego Park, who was wearing a shirt with a Maltese dog on it, and who asked that only her first name be used. "The campaign was negative. All negative. I don't like to be told who not to vote for." Even so, after seeing Weprin in the company of Councilwoman Koslowitz, Roslyn said she would cast her vote for Weprin.
"I'll vote and I'll go tell my husband to vote," she said.
William and Jackie Luciano, Forest Hills residents who also had no intention of voting, were similarly swayed by Weprin's lunchtime electioneering.
"Social Security, Medicare, all of that," are the issues the Lucianos said most mattered to them, especially since Mr. Luciano has had to take medication regularly ever since he had surgery nearly 15 years ago.
"I'm always nervous," said Senator Stavisky, summing up the general mood of the Democrats nicely. "But I'm optimistic."
Turner, Weprin's Republican opponent, was optimistic too. A short time after Weprin's lunch event at the senior center, Turner could be found on the other side of Queens Boulevard, greeting voters at P.S. 196, which is directly across the street from from the Bnos Malka Academy for Girls, where the mission is to "to provide a high quality education in both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol."
Turner, a retired cable TV executive, gamely greeted the extremely sparse procession of potential voters.
"Hello, Bob Turner, how do you do?"
"Hello," said an elegant older lady named Arnona Martin. "I'm a Democrat, I was going to vote for you. But I'm mixed up now."
"The very rich don't want to pay money for taxes," said Martin, by way of explanation. "This is why I'm against the Republicans."
"Don't buy those commercials," said a Turner aide. "They're a bunch of lies."
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