With the arrival of Labor Day on Monday, we mark the official beginning of the political season that will conclude with the November elections. This is considered an off-year election, mainly because there is no presidential race.
Regardless, a number of vital races are taking place around the country and in particular in our neck of the woods here in New York.
Since likeminded people tend to vote in similar patterns, things are made somewhat easier for candidates as they appear before different social or ethnic groups, focusing and emphasizing issues that are most important to them.
Now that we are six years deep into the Obama presidency, if anything beneficial has emerged from the experience, it is that we have a more profound understanding of the contrasts between liberal Democratic and conservative Republican politics.
But don’t think you are getting away easy with an elementary explanation of these differences. That is because also within those ranks are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans—to confuse us just a bit more.
On the national scale, most at stake is whether the Republicans can finally win control of the U.S. Senate while increasing their majority in the House of Representatives. Respectable polls are suggesting that Republicans at this point have the edge. Such a development would likely harden Barack Obama’s heart, which will mean that for the two remaining years of the Obama presidency, Washington will continue to accomplish almost nothing.
Here in Nassau County, an area with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, the race for a vacated seat in Congress can be considered a barometer by which to measure the outlook and attitude of the country as a whole. The Jewish vote out here has the ability to be a determining factor in the congressional election between Bruce Blakeman, a former Speaker and Majority Leader of the Nassau County Legislature, and Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County District Attorney.
Officials in both camps acknowledge that the race between these formidable candidates will be close and that it will be won or lost based on votes cast in the heavily Jewish area of the district in the Five Towns. Indicative of this reality is that Ms. Rice recently returned from a three-day visit to Israel, and Mr. Blakeman is there this week meeting with Israeli officials as well as district residents who now live either full-time or part-time in Israel. (Blakeman even took the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend, Segal Magori, in the presence of her family.)
It is interesting how a swing through Israel is no longer just a photo-op for a candidate but actually can be considered, to some extent, a campaign stop. This is particularly true during these last eight weeks, as Israel has been facing an all-out terrorist assault targeting civilians, with almost no part of the country immune to the onslaught.
On her trip of a few weeks ago, Rice met with some officials, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. In discussing her impressions about the jaunt, she said what impressed her most were the residents of her district here on Long Island who reside, or whose children reside, in Israel and whom she had a chance to meet and talk with.
Rice, the Democrat in the race, is currently considered the front-runner. In our talk a few weeks ago, as the war in Gaza was just revving up, she was emphatic about her position on Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. Rice is a friend and admirer of Hillary Clinton and is excited about the former First Lady’s prospects at being president come 2016. She did not want to talk about President Obama, as she wanted our chat to focus strictly on her impressions of Israel.
With the candidacy of Mr. Blakeman, there is a whole set of other matters to consider. The first is his uncompromising position on Israel and the Iranian nuclear threat. Blakeman speaks openly and unhesitatingly about tightening sanctions on the Iranian regime, and if that doesn’t force them to abandon nuclear weapon production, he advocates that the U.S. militarily destroy their atomic bomb manufacturing facilities. And Blakeman says without apprehension that the U.S. does not have to do this just to protect Israel, but that it is in the direct U.S. national interest that Iran not have nuclear capabilities.
On the other hand, if Rice wins, the national impact will be limited, as the House is expected to retain its significant Republican majority in any event. She has been an exemplary and effective DA and is widely recognized for her innovative accomplishments over the period of her tenure in Mineola.
Blakeman’s candidacy brings another matter entirely to the table. With the defeat of Eric Cantor in a Virginia primary in June, right now there are no Jewish Republicans serving in the House. If Blakeman wins in November, he will be the sole Jewish member in the House in the coming term. Support for Israel in Congress is outstanding, but somehow, with a Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, support for Israel would be not only political, but also personal.
By all accounts, this is an important race that is very much up for grabs.
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An even more local race of interest is for a vacated New York State Assembly seat, between Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach and Avi Fertig of Woodmere. Once again this is a race focused to a large extent on the Orthodox community and is one that still might shape up as being able to go either way.
So who are the players? Both Kaminsky and Fertig are seeking elected office for the first time, but Fertig has been working in the Nassau County political system for quite a few years. Kaminsky is the personal choice of outgoing longtime Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg and is also being highly touted by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Kaminsky is a former U.S. attorney who has worked several high-profile cases in the course of his tenure at the Justice Department.
Fertig has the endorsements of well-known Republicans, starting with Dean Skelos, the State Senate Majority Co-Leader. So as you can see, the backing for the candidates is divided along party lines, as expected.
Now, however, with the campaign about to go at full throttle, the question is how the community is going to vote. Fertig is a yeshiva graduate while Kaminsky is not. But unlike many other communities, it is not a sure thing or, as they say, a slam dunk, that people are going to vote for the candidate whose background or lifestyle most closely matches their own. For some, that is reason enough to vote for a candidate; for others, it is the exact opposite.
Mr. Kaminsky, 34, is personable and articulate, with a clear vision of what needs to be done to solidify his hold on this Assembly seat should he be elected. He’s said in public meetings as well as in media interviews that he knows he has to pay more attention to the needs of Five Towns residents. Kaminsky resides in Long Beach, as does his predecessor, the retiring Harvey Weisenberg. The criticism over the years has been that during the Weisenberg tenure, services were focused on Long Beach while the Five Towns was somewhat neglected. Then again, over the more than three decades that Weisenberg served in Albany, the Five Towns was nowhere near the community it has blossomed and developed into today. Todd Kaminsky understands well that this new reality has to be addressed.
Avi Fertig, 38, believes that he will have natural if not automatic support for his candidacy in the Orthodox community. He has been in government for at least the last five years and knows the formulas involved in delivering services and getting things done. He has worked with Nassau County legislators Howard Kopel and Fran Becker. He was a key player in the reelection of Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano last year, and today works closely with one of Nassau’s Republican leaders, Town of Hempstead Councilman Tony Santino.
Both races—Blakeman v. Rice and Fertig v. Kaminsky—are going to place Orthodox Jewish voting patterns (if there are any) under the political and electoral microscope. It is exciting to observe the Five Towns not only continuing to emerge as a leading Jewish community but as a potential political powerhouse as well. Stay tuned for much more as we cover these two and other area races over the next two months. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.