A Koch endorsement, explained: House Repubs are ‘scoundrels,’ but Weprin must be sacrificed to get Obama’s attention

Bob Turner and Ed Koch. (Dan Rosenblum)
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This morning, 86-year-old former mayor Ed Koch crossed party lines (as he periodically does) to endorse Republican candidate Bob Turner for Congress at a press conference this morning.

Koch has said that he is mostly doing so in order to register his displeasure with the White House over Barack Obama’s attitude toward Israel; he wants voters in what was until recently Anthony Weiner’s district to “send a message” to Washington by electing a Republican in the September 13 special election.

In a written statement that Koch handed out and referred reporters to, he said, "Many in politics think this is a quixotic effort—tilting at windmills. I do not. I have hope and faith that the people of the 9th C.D. will rise to the occasion and opportunity presented to them. We will soon see. September 13 is almost upon us."

The 9th congressional district includes neighborhoods like Forest Hills, Howard Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Kew Gardens, and is heavily white and Jewish. It votes for Democrats, particularly in national elections, but it is not predictably liberal or partisan, having provided the not-Democratic mayor Michael Bloomberg his biggest margin of any congressional district in the city over Bill Thompson in the 2009 mayoral election.

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The Democratic nominee in the upcoming special election, Assemblyman David Weprin, would seem to be a collateral target of Koch’s desire to prove a point.

Weprin is, in general, quiet and uncontroversial, and in fact was chosen by local Democratic bosses in large part because he’s so unlikely to cause trouble for his prospective congressional neighbors if and when the Weiner district is broken apart during next year’s redistricting process.

More to the point, Weprin is an orthodox Jew who has relatives in Israel. And he is an unimpeachably hawkish Israel supporter, who has echoed purposefully imprecise criticisms of Obama’s position on Israel’s borders.

(The criticisms, which Weprin articulated, and then reminded reporters of after the fact, are an expression of opposition the president’s call for a return to pre-1967 borders. In fact Obama called for a negotiated settlement between Israel and an indendent Palestinian state that has as its starting point the old borders plus “swaps” that would theoretically allow Israel to hold onto heavily settled parts of the West Bank.)

Turner is a retired businessman from Rockaway Point. He is running a standard-issue anti-tax-conservative campaign based on spending cuts; he is against “Obamacare” and in favor of ending government dependencies. He was the Republican nominee against Weiner in 2010 (which was a very good year for Republican congressional challengers) and got 41 percent of the vote.

“I accept this endorsement with humility and gratitude,” said Turner. “This, I think, may be the single factor, when the votes are counted on the 13th, that will say, ‘this is what put him over the top.’”

Inside Turner’s tightly packed campaign headquarters, a former pizza place on Cross Bay Blvd in Howard Beach, a faux-Italian brick archway separated most of the reporters from cheering supporters. The candidate and his endorser stood next to an Israeli flag.

Weprin has been vouched for the state’s Israel-supporting Democratic leadership. But still, Turner hopes the Koch endorsement will attract some Jewish independents and Democrats into the Turner camp.

In terms of what’s in it for Koch to endorse a candidate who is generally lots more conservative than he is, it’s not clear there’s anything there except the aforementioned message to Obama. He says he has nothing against Weprin. (Weprin’s father, Saul, endorsed Mario Cuomo over Koch in the 1982 primary for governor; on the other hand, Weprin’s brother, Mark, argued loudly for the Queensboro Bridge as the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. And in any case, Koch says he has “given up” his grudges.)

Koch said he believes Turner, unlike the Republicans currently fighting in Washington to shrink entitlement programs, will not support privatizing Medicare or Social Security, despite the fact that Turner has said in the past that he would like to “dramatically cut the [federal] budget by 30 or 35 percent.”

At the press conference, Turner said the debt-ceiling needed to be raised, but did not expand on what he would do to encourage compromise if he were in Washington.

“Today we’re here to talk about another matter,” he said.

Koch jumped in to offer a more interesting response to the question.

“I think the Republicans are scoundrels, the way they’re handling the matter,” he said, before clarifying. “The Republican leadership, I mean.”

Turner, standing next to him, suppressed a grin and looked around the room.

Koch’s larger point seemed to be that the endorsement didn’t have to make sense, entirely. Turner’s election would be a means for the district to express an opinion.

“If David Weprin is elected, you think that sends a message? You think Obama’s gonna say, ‘Oh my God! They repudiated me, they sent David Weprin.’ You think the Democratic Party is going to say, ‘Oh gee, David Weprin was elected, we’ve got to get into shape?’ If Bob Turner is elected with the same issues, it means something.”

Koch said Weprin was upset when he spoke to him, but he had other things to worry about.

“I know that David is never going to forgive me, but I’m sorry,” Koch said. “Sometimes an issue is more important than the candidate and certainly more important than me. Sometimes party, as Jack Kennedy said, demands too much, so I’ve done what I’ve done. “

Reacting to the endorsement, Bob Weprin’s campaign manager Jake Dilemani said, “It doesn’t hold water because Bob Turner has no record on Israel. No one really knows anything about where he stands on it and David Weprin has a well-known record on Israel for his entire life. And if you want to go back to his public career, it spans spans a decade as a public official in New York City. He’s been a Democrat in support of Israel.”