By Larry Gordon
Amid last week’s overwhelming Republican Party national electoral sweep, local statewide elections did not receive so much attention, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important. Some of them had the ability to change the face of some communities. One of the more intriguing elections took place in our own extended backyard in Boro Park, where veteran Assemblyman Dov Hikind seemed to have some serious opposition from a local attorney and businessman, Nachman Caller.
Hikind, who has served in the Assembly for the last 32 years, is not accustomed to facing opposition. But this time was different. A local resident, activist, attorney, and an apparent man of means did not raise any money, according to Hikind, but rather, at last count, spent $1.5 million of his own resources trying to unseat the longtime incumbent.
The plan not only didn’t work, but failed miserably for the challenger. At last count, Hikind had scored nearly 80% of the vote and he says that absentee ballots are still being counted, which could push him over 82%. With all the effort expended by the other side, many people thought that the contest would be a lot closer. In a talk with Dov Hikind about the experience earlier this week, he wouldn’t say that he was surprised about the great margin of victory. He did say, though, that he was grateful and enthused and that even though he works around the clock for the betterment of his community, he has committed himself to doing even more for the people that he holds so dear.
The dynamic that exists between Dov Hikind and the large, mostly chassidic, community that he represents in Albany contains elements of fascination and contradiction. He is quick to point out that while most of his constituents are what is commonly referred to as “black hat,” he describes himself as one who represents ideals that are symbolized by his “kippah s’rugah,” or knitted yarmulke, which usually signifies Modern Orthodoxy.
I never met Hikind’s opponent in last week’s election. But in photos that were posted on some websites, it was plain to see that Nachman Caller’s dress and style is more in stride with the local population in Boro Park. The pictures I saw show him sporting a gray beard, a black jacket, and a stiff, turned-up black hat—a common form of dress in the chassidic community.
Without probing into the nature of the Caller campaign, one can see that the message emanating from that campaign was that it is time that the community be represented in Albany by someone who is a product of that same community.
To Hikind’s surprise, and he says his chagrin, Caller went so far as to publish and distribute a 32-page color glossy brochure that highlighted Hikind’s extensive involvement with the State of Israel. These involvements included his outspokenness against the Israeli withdrawal from Gush Katif in 2005 when he spent long periods in the Gaza community, and more recently during this past summer’s Gaza war when he traveled to Israel and stayed in Be’er Sheva, where Hamas rockets were falling on a regular basis.
I did not see the brochure, but according to Hikind it was meant to communicate the message that Hikind is a supporter of the Israeli government or an ardent Zionist, while many in his community oppose Israeli government policies such as drafting yeshiva students into the IDF.
Hikind says he thought the brochure was an attempted low blow, but, on the other hand, that is how the political game plays itself out for better or for worse. Listening to Dov describe what he characterized as meanness in the campaign, I asked whether Mr. Caller had called him to concede defeat. He said that he did and that they had a brief and cordial conversation.
So let’s take a closer look at what happened here. This wasn’t one of those close squeakers of an election. The numbers Hikind put up were beyond landslide proportions, which makes it seem that despite the $1.5 million spent, the community did not really take the opposition to Mr. Hikind seriously.
And that is a tribute to the unique standing that Dov Hikind enjoys. He is a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly in Albany. Still, he thinks and speaks like a Republican. On some levels, he stands in opposition to conventional Democratic wisdom but at other times he is wholeheartedly with them.
Hikind says that he has a great relationship with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, as well as with the governor and, for that matter, with the Senate leader, Republican Dean Skelos of Long Island. He says that he is a man of conscience and that he is not fearful of standing up to Democratic leadership—whether in Albany or Washington—when the wellbeing of the Jewish community is on the agenda.
He Brooklyn assemblyman represents a distinctive constituency with multifarious needs. And that can include everything from making certain that parking meters do not require money on Shabbos to assisting residents from large families navigate the myriad social programs they may need.
This is a demanding community to represent in government. Still, despite the great challenges, Dov Hikind repeatedly rises to the occasion. He points out that he will go to all extents and meet with whomever he needs to in order to get things done. So what is his formula for success? Well, he puts it this way—“I really care.”
We return to talks about partisan politics in New York, and Dov says, “I don’t think I work as either a Democrat or a Republican. I like to think of myself as working as a Jew.” He is also quick to point out that his busy office staff does not hesitate to get involved in serving anyone who comes to his office for assistance with a matter. The office is open and ready to help everyone with everything.
I throw out some political names to get his reaction. On Andrew Cuomo, he says that he has an excellent working relationship with the governor. Prior to the recent election, the governor appeared on Dov’s weekly radio show on WMCA—ostensibly to campaign for both of them. Dov says that the governor was so effusive with praise for Hikind’s years of service that, “frankly, it was difficult for me to listen to.”
The assemblyman says that four years ago, when Cuomo was first running for governor, he lost in Boro Park. This time, however, with some active and determined campaigning in the community, the governor received 70 percent of the Boro Park vote.
On Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hikind says that they too have an excellent rapport and that beyond politics they are personal friends. It was Dov Hikind who first assisted de Blasio to win a seat on the New York City Council. Hikind says that he does not share all of the mayor’s political philosophies, but that doesn’t mean they cannot work together on other areas of mutual concern that benefit the city.
On President Obama and his attitude and approach toward Israel, Dov says, “I think he’s worse than Jimmy Carter.”
Hikind is a contact that the media call on for comment on Jewish issues because they know he is adept at traversing the world of Jewish life and our community’s complex interface with the political arena. Therefore, it is not unusual in times of crisis for Dov Hikind to pop up on Fox News or local news stations.
Hikind is principled and speaks his mind. Whatever the issue is, he says, he first mentally sifts it through a thought process in which the number-one consideration is how it will impact the Jewish community.
Hikind says that during the recent reelection campaign, he encountered one of the editors of a local chassidic newspaper. The editor expressed his strong support for almost all of the assemblyman’s projects and involvements. The editor did, however, have one objection: “Why do you have to be so involved with Israel?” he asked.
In Boro Park, Dov Hikind is a Modern Orthodox Jew—by appearance, anyway—who leads, in a sense, the most vibrant chassidic community outside of Israel. And perhaps more than anything, what they have in common are their differences. Dov will go anywhere and do anything to help Israel. To him, there is no contradiction; he says that’s who he is—upfront and honest with himself and his community.
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