Brook-Krasny’s Learning Curve


Alec Brook-Krasny has brought home the bacon, so to speak.

The first Russian speaker elected to higher office in the state, Brook-Krasny is beginning his second term in the Assembly, representing the largely Russian Jewish neighborhood of Brighton Beach along with the non-Russian communities of Coney Island and Bay Ridge. And while not every political watcher says he is a dynamic legislator, most agree that in his first year on the job the Democrat has repaired some rifts within the Russian community and is well placed for a re-election bid.

When Brook-Krasny, 49, was elected in November 2006, he won the Russian vote against fellow Russian-American Ari Kagan by a slim 50 votes out of nearly 6,000 cast. (The Russian vote accounts for about 50 percent of the entire district.) In the last year, Brook-Krasny has managed to change those numbers.

“Today some 70 percent of the Russian-speaking population views him positively, 20 percent negatively and 10 percent has no opinion,” said Mikhail Nemirovsky, editor of the Russian-language Jewish weekly Forum (formerly Russian Forward). “Our community perceives that Alec is still learning how to be an effective legislator, but likes the fact that he is studying at the feet of some of the best politicians in New York State, including [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver.”

Delivering for South Brooklyn’s 46th Assembly District (Brighton Beach-Coney Island-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) has been critical to reversing Brook-Krasny’s fortunes in the Russian community, observers say.

Gene Borsch, director of Local Russian Émigré Organizations (LOREO), a grass-roots political action group supported by HIAS, called Brook-Krasny “a strong and effective advocate” for the Russian community. He stated that it was thanks to Brook-Krasny’s presence in the Assembly that two pieces of legislation long sought by the Russian community leadership finally passed the State Assembly last year.

The first, signed into law by Gov. Elliot Spitzer, made available $540,000 to screen some 2000 people for thyroid cancer who came from parts of the former Soviet Union impacted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The other bill, which makes Russian one of the languages — along with Spanish, Chinese and Korean — into which the New York City Board of Elections is required to translate all voting materials used at polling stations across the city, was passed by the State Assembly after an impassioned speech by Brook-Krasny and is now being considered by the State Senate.

According to Borsch, “Very few people expected Alex to do as well as he has. He is teaching the leadership of the Russian community the importance of reaching out and forming alliances with the communities around us.”

And, observers say, Brook-Krasny has been able to form alliances with powerful New York Democrats like Silver, Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez. Along the way Brook-Krasny has convinced a large percentage of those who opposed him that he is an asset to the Russian community. It is a community he sometimes criticizes for being too inward-looking and not yet Americanized enough to appreciate the need for nuanced political positions and cooperation with other constituencies.

In that vein, Brook-Krasny built solid ties with the American-Jewish leadership from 2003-2006 as executive director of Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, a UJA-Federation funded umbrella group of Russian-Jewish grass-roots organizations. And he made as his trademark reaching out to non-Russian constituencies since his days building ties with the majority black population in Coney Island while serving on the local community board during the late 1990s. In his Assembly election victory, he won handily in that community and in heavily Italian-American Bay Ridge.

Brook-Krasny’s heavyweight political connections, (Silver showed up at a recent COJECO breakfast honoring Brook-Krasny and lavishly praised him), combined with his impressive fund-raising ability, has apparently convinced potential rivals, including Kagan, a journalist and commentator in the Russian-language media, to think twice about taking him on this year.

Kagan, during the last election cycle, characterized Brook-Krasny as a puppet of the Brooklyn Democratic political machine, which earlier in the decade used hard-knuckle tactics such as challenging the validity of ballot petitions to knock several Russian-speaking candidates, including Brook-Krasny himself, off the ballot. Later, Kagan then argued, the Brooklyn Democratic establishment embraced Brook-Krasny in order to keep the largely conservative Russian-speaking community, which overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004, from going Republican in local elections.

Speaking last week to The Jewish Week, Kagan said he “chooses not to criticize” Brook-Krasny’s performance in the Assembly because one year is too short a period to judge him on.

Stating that he presently maintains “cordial relations” with Brook-Krasny, Kagan, 40, said he is “looking at all possible options” for his own future, but signaled that he is likely to forego a return engagement with Brook-Krasny this year in favor of running for a City Council seat in 2009.

In an interview, Brook-Krasny proudly ticked off his accomplishments in office, including his co-sponsorship of two pieces of legislation he predicts “will help to provide more affordable housing for those who need it in my district and throughout the city.” One bill provides $47 million in new state and federal funding to the New York City Housing Authority to cover the rents of public housing tenants who receive public assistance. The second bill mandates a standard form and procedure for the casting of proxies or absentee ballots in any matter requiring a shareholder vote in Mitchell-Lama buildings.

Brook-Krasny took an active role in the campaign to prevent a private developer, David Bistricer, from purchasing Starrett City, a sprawling housing complex in Canarsie for low- and moderate-income people, which, while well outside the boundaries of Brook-Krasny’s district, has a large population of elderly Russian Jews. He has also been involved in the debate over the re-development of the Coney Island amusement area, favoring the plan put forward by private developer Joe Sitt against that advocated by Mayor Bloomberg, which Brook-Krasny believes will hobble city taxpayers with a hundreds of millions of dollars in costs.

Brook-Krasny has focused attention on reducing crime in the district, especially robberies and assaults directed against Russian-speaking seniors living in public housing projects and assisted living centers in Coney Island. “Nowadays, the 60th Police Precinct reports every such assault that takes place directly to me,” he said. “I have been able to play a bridging role between the police department and Russian seniors who have traditionally been reluctant to go to the police.”

Yefim Karlik, a leader of the Russian-speaking seniors in Coney Island, said, “Thanks to Alec’s efforts, the police respond quicker to criminal acts in our area and there is less crime in the area than before. I was a supporter of Ari Kagan before the election, but now support Alec Brook-Krasny, who has really delivered for us.”

Not all former Kagan supporters agree with that assessment. Alec Teitel, president of the Bensonhurst Business Club, said, “The problem with Brook-Krasny is that he is a peace maker, not a warrior. While, it is true he doesn’t make enemies, he doesn’t shake things up much either. Frankly, we don’t see noticeable improvements in the district. Alec needs to be more proactive. I don’t hear his voice enough.”

Brook-Krasny emphatically disagrees with that assessment.

“For my part, I reject the ‘strong hand’ style of leadership favored by many in the Russian-speaking community. Instead, I think a legislator needs to work closely with people of diverse opinions and backgrounds in order to get things done for all the people in his or her district.”