Sephardic Power Drive


The race to fill a vacant Assembly seat this September has produced a rift between a powerful Brooklyn Democratic club and a Sephardic political action committee it helped form.

Egyptian-born Lena Cymbrowitz, who is seeking the seat now held by congressional candidate Dan Feldman, is expected to be backed by the recently founded, grassroots Sephardic Voters League.

The league and the Kings Highway Democratic Club have close ties. District leader Mike Geller, who heads the club, is a cousin of League chairman Gerry Wygoda. Geller says he helped found the league to increase Sephardic participation in local politics.

But Geller’s club, which gave Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani 19,000 votes last year in the 45th Assembly District — the most in Brooklyn — is endorsing another candidate, Joel Garson.

“I approached Lena to be our candidate,” said Geller. “She said at the time that she was working with Jeff Reznik,” a Jewish activist who ran against Councilman Anthony Weiner last year and is expected to enter the Assembly race.

According to Geller, Cymbrowitz later changed her mind about running — after Geller had chosen Garson.

“Absolutely untrue,” says Cymbrowitz, who said she hadn’t given Geller a firm answer.Feldman’s 45th District includes Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach and other areas of southern Brooklyn. The September primary, conditioned upon Feldman’s resignation from the Assembly to run for Rep. Charles Schumer’s seat, would pit Cymbrowitz against Reznik, Garson and attorney Alan Sklar.

Expelled from Egypt with her family in 1962, Cymbrowitz, 41, is a veteran political fund-raiser who has played a role in the elections of Giuliani and former Assemblyman Jules Polonetsky. She claims support from numerous non-Sephardim, including members of the Democratic club. The endorsement, however, is made by Geller and his co-leader, Anne Levine.

Reznik declined to comment, but a supporter alleged the club was plotting to split the Orthodox Jewish vote between Reznik and Cymbrowitz to ensure Garson’s victory.

The election comes at a time when Brooklyn’s affluent community of Jews from Syria, Egypt and Morocco — long seen as a source of generous donations — is seeking a more up-front role in the political process. Although they have been active in lobbying on the Mideast peace process and freedom for Syrian Jewry, as well as local zoning and business issues, they are only recently beginning to feel their political oats.

“They are still at the tip of the iceberg in terms of using their political power,” said Suri Kasirer, a political consultant and member of the Syrian community, who is not involved in the Cymbrowitz race.

A key issue is the high cost of private school tuition in a community where five or six children is common. The Sephardic Voters League has been lobbying for tax credits for education related expenses to ease the burden.

Wygoda, of the Sephardic Voters League, said members of the community had been elected to the local school board, but “the time is long past due” to elect a candidate for higher office.

# Freshman City Council member Martin Golden (R-Bay Ridge) “categorically and emphatically” denies reports this week that he disparaged a local developer with remarks that border on anti-Semitism.

Golden, who is not Jewish, was accused by Rabbi Israel Steinberg — a politically active chasid with an appointed job at the city Housing Authority — of referring to Charles Katz as “that Jew from Borough Park … who wants to destroy all our businesses” by building a shopping mall in Golden’s district.

The Orthodox Katz has been alleging that anti-Semitism is blocking the 1,000,000-square-foot project. Opponents, including some Jews, say it will cause traffic problems and harm small businesses.

Rabbi Steinberg’s allegation, published last week on the front page of the Brooklyn Paper community weeklies chain, serves Katz’s claim that he’s the wrong developer from the wrong community. Bay Ridge is overwhelmingly Irish and Italian.But Golden, a caterer and ex-cop who succeeded Sal Albanese last year, said he has “tremendous friends and relations in the Jewish community” and charges that Steinberg is a tool of Katz. “Unfortunately, some people have resorted to this type of mudslinging and low-level confrontation [as part] of the larger picture,” he said.

Rabbi Steinberg told The Jewish Week he stands by his story.

# On May 13, the City Council will vote on a resolution calling on the state Legislature to pass the long-delayed bias crime bill.

The resolution is sponsored by Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Queens), a candidate for governor, who is surely aware of criticism that George Pataki has not passed his version of the bill, despite his assurances that it is a top criminal justice priority.

Democrats say the governor has failed to sway his fellow Republicans in the state Senate from blocking the bill, which has been passed in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.

The bill, strongly supported by Jewish groups, would impose stiffer penalties for crimes motivated by bias. But it is opposed by the state’s Conservative Party, which delivered Pataki’s margin of victory in 1994.

“The governor’s foot-draging on this is deplorable,” said Vallone’s spokesman, Peter Ragone.

Pataki’s spokesman, Patrick McCarthy, called the bill a “a vital component to his commitment to public safety,” and insisted he was “totally committed” to it. “The Legislature should not make this a political issue,” he added.

Vallone also sponsored a bill requiring police to collect bias crime statistics and report them to the FBI. That bill is still in the General Welfare Committee, pending discussions on its language.

# Did Councilman Noach Dear convince Vice President Al Gore not to meet with Yasir Arafat during Israel’s jubilee celebrations?

That’s the spin from one Dear partisan, who said the Borough Park pol and candidate for Congress, who has raised megabucks for Gore’s campaigns, convinced the veep it was bad politics to meet the PLO leader during Israel’s 50th anniversary festivities.

Gore’s press office confirmed that he did not meet with Arafat on the first leg of his trip, but only after a side trip to Saudi Arabia on May 1. The meeting took place two days later in Ramallah, said a spokeswoman, who said the meeting was arranged according to Gore and Arafat’s schedules.

Dear declined to comment.