The Power Of Incumbency


Two Jewish incumbents survived challenges in Tuesday’s Democratic congressional primaries, while in a stunning upset, a Long Island representative with a strong pro-Israel record appears to have been ousted, and a Jewish Democrat has been nominated to succeed Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a freshman who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, handily defeated Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear, who had relentlessly attacked the unmarried congressman as insensitive to family values in the heavily Orthodox district, while Rep. Eliot Engel warded off a challenger in a race that strained black-Jewish relations in the Bronx.

In Suffolk Rep. Michael Forbes, a non-Jew from Quogue who has taken right-wing positions on the Mideast peace process, is demanding a recount in his race against Regina Seltzer of Bellport, a little-known Jewish grandmother, political newcomer and environmental lawyer. She appeared to have won by just 39 votes out of more than 11,000 cast in the Democratic primary.

Also in Suffolk, Steve Israel, the majority leader of the Huntington Town Board, defeated David Bishop, a member of the Suffolk Legislature, by 367 votes to win the Democratic nomination to succeed Lazio.

Forbes, a former Republican, would be the only House Democrat in New York, and one of three in the nation, to lose his seat Tuesday.

"The candidates running against incumbents did not have a rationale for the removal of those incumbents," said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on the campaign of Brooklyn Rep. Edolphus Towns, who beat challenger Barry Ford, 57-43 percent, in a Brooklyn district that includes Williamsburg, Fort Greene and Canarsie.

Weiner won 73 percent of the vote in a district he says is the most Jewish in the nation, with a 40-percent concentration. It runs from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to Forest Hills in Queens.

"Let’s hear it for Weiner values," said the congressman, surrounded by his parents and girlfriend at his victory celebration at Lundy’s restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, mocking Dear’s attacks on him.

Weiner, who won a four-way primary to capture the seat vacated by Sen. Charles Schumer in 1998, faces another contest with Dear in November’s general election. The councilman is running on the Republican and Conservative lines.

In the Bronx, Engel’s close victory, with about 50 percent of the vote, leaves a gaping wound between the congressman and his supporters and the Bronx Democratic organization headed by Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez. Engel’s victory and that of Lorraine Coyle Koppel in a state Senate race were fueled by a strong turnout in heavily Jewish Riverdale. Ramirez had supported another Senate candidate, Michael Benedetto.

The apparent schism between Jewish voters and the county organization is a major headache for Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who is closely linked to the Ramirez machine. Ramirez was said to have backed Seabrook in a deal with community leaders that would ensure minority backing of Ferrer’s 2001 mayoral bid, and Ferrer remained neutral in the contest, angering many Jewish voters.

"Ramirez has created the problem that, at least in the Riverdale community, many feel that he doesn’t care about their views," said G. Oliver Koppel, a former attorney general and current school board president in Riverdale, and the husband of Lorraine Coyle Koppel. "By going against Engel he was clearly going against someone who had heavy support here." Koppel called Ferrer’s neutrality "disappointing."

Seabrook, who had attacked Engel as unresponsive to the community and raised questions about Engel’s residency in the district, was damaged by the revelation that he had secretly divorced his wife while continuing to file joint income taxes with her.

In another heated race, Rep. Major Owens of Flatbush and Crown Heights narrowly prevailed with 54 percent over challenger Una Clarke, a city councilwoman who had the backing of the organized Crown Heights Jewish community. A political action committee tied to the area’s Jewish Community Council had said Clarke had paid more attention to its interests than Owens.

The Jewish political action committee in Crown Heights also supported Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic leader, who beat challenger James Davis, a police officer who sought to blame Norman for the 1991 anti-Jewish riots in the area. Norman received heavy Jewish support in winning with 60 percent of the vote.

In Suffolk’s Second Congressional District, two Democratic office holders battled each other for Lazio’s seat. Israel now faces Republican Joan Johnson, the Islip town clerk, who is seeking to become the first black female Republican member of Congress.

"I attribute the results to the fact that we ran a very positive, issues-oriented campaign," said Israel, former director of the Long Island office of the American Jewish Congress.

"We talked specifically about how I want to help 50,000 Long Island seniors who have been kicked out of their Medicare HMOs, how I want to modernize and improve our schools and how I want to improve our environment."

In the Senate primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton won more than 80 percent of the vote against Dr. Mark McMahon, a Manhattan orthopedic surgeon. McMahon had passionately courted the Jewish anti-Clinton vote, faulting her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and vowing to fight any further land concessions by Israel. On the night before the primary, he toured Jewish communities in Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights.The scope of Dear’s defeat, despite a potent political operation that spent millions of dollars, bodes poorly for the political fortunes of one of New York’s most visible and outspoken Jewish politicians.

Having little apparent support among Democrats, Dear (who has raised millions of dollars for Bill Clinton and Al Gore) is now in the unusual position of relying on a particularly strong Republican turnout for George W. Bush in heavily Democratic Brooklyn and Queens.

At Dear’s campaign headquarters in Borough Park Tuesday night, a walk-up office on 16th Avenue, the councilman declined to speak to the press, and Weiner said he received no concession call. Dear’s office said it would release a statement Wednesday but did not do so in time for this report.

At Weiner headquarters, he stressed that despite Dear’s attacks, he had remained positive in the campaign, stressing his own record. "At no time when we made phone calls did I even mention the name of my opponent," he said. Weiner did, however, in a televised debate on New York 1, bring up a charge from the 1980s that Dear had misappropriated funds for a Soviet Jewry charity he founded.

Forbes’ defeat would be a major blow to the Democrats, who had prized the Republican defector as a symbol of an ideologically fractured GOP. The state committee dissuaded established political figures, such as Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan’s chief of staff, Tony Bullock, from challenging Forbes, leaving Seltzer to run a grassroots signature drive to get on the ballot.

"It was a tremendous victory for regular people," she said. Seltzer faces another formidable opponent, Republican Felix Grucci Jr., the Brookhaven town supervisor, in the general election.

Forbes has in the past been criticized for trying to be more pro-Israel than the Israelis, at one point pressuring the Smithsonian Institute to cancel what he called an anti-Israel lecture that drew no objections from the Israeli government. He has also visited the West Bank to support Israeli settlers and, while a Republican, attacked the Clinton administration for its role in the peace process.