If there ever were a year for long-shot candidates, 2016 is it.
In any other election cycle, trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent in New York City would likely be a fool’s errand. But if Bernie Sanders — a Jewish, unapologetic democratic socialist — and Donald Trump, who began his campaign with a minus 32 percent approval rating, could do so much better than expected, maybe the chances of GOP hopefuls Rebecca Harary and Philip Rosenthal aren’t as unlikely as they seem.
Both candidates — Harary is running for a seat in the state Assembly from the East Side of Manhattan and Rosenthal is challenging incumbent Rep. Jerrold Nadler — are socially liberal, fiscally conservative Manhattan Jews taking on multi-term, liberal legislators. (This story went to press before the results of the election were known.) Both also have major credentials as entrepreneurs, both in business and nonprofits.
Rebecca Harary, running in the Upper East Side’s 73rd Assembly District against four-term Democratic incumbent Dan Quart, is pro-choice, thinks people should be able to use whatever bathroom best fits their gender identity, supports gay marriage, wants more funding for both private and public schools and families and better options for kids with disabilities. Her signature issue is helping the homeless.
“I personally ache when people are hurting, so if I can be in a situation where I can help other people, I want to make sure I do it,” she said in the run-up to Election Day.
The Ft. Lauderdale native has a varied career that has prepared her to take on some challenging tasks. After graduating with a degree in display and exhibit design from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and a stint designing windows at high-end department stores, she opened an event planning business that grew to 30 employees. After she and her husband had their sixth child and she had taught at FIT for two years, she founded Imagine Academy in 2004, a school for children with autism.
“We formed a board and got the school open in one year,” Harary said in a wide-ranging phone interview. Once she sets her mind to something, Harary said, she has “laser vision.”
It was the experience of creating Imagine Academy that inspired her to go into politics, she said.
“It was an incredible experience founding the school because my eyes were really opened,” she said, noting that local officials helped the school with everything from finding the right attorney to providing grants through discretionary funding. “I felt that these are people who don’t earn a lot of money and give so much more than they get,” she said.
In 2008, she founded Yeshiva Prep, a high school for teens with mild learning disabilities affiliated with Yeshiva of Flatbush. Harary next led the creation of the Moise Safra Community Center to serve the Upper East Side’s fast-growing Sephardic community, and then she co-founded The Propel Network, a nonprofit that helps Jewish women enter the workforce through career coaching. Harary most recently completed a master’s degree in business and fundraising management from Columbia University. She has been endorsed by the New York Post, The Jewish Press and The Jewish Voice.
If she makes it to Albany, she has vowed to reach across the aisle, and from everything she says, it sounds like she will try. She also promises to be a key vote needed to pass a bill increasing the tax credit for parents who send their kids to private school, something the Orthodox community has been pushing for, for years.
She also vows to hold state education officials accountable for enforcing regulations that require private schools to teach a full secular curriculum, something many chasidic yeshivas do not do. When told that not a single politician was willing to take a stand on the issue she was incredulous — “Why not?” she asked. “I’m happy to take an issue like that on. To me education is everything. Education brings jobs, stability. To me it’s all about helping a person help themselves and the first place to start that is through education.”
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Despite her experience, Harary is facing a stiff headwind.
“Quart won in 2012 with 68 percent of the vote,” said Ester Fuchs, a Columbia University political science professor and close watcher of local elections. “While Harary is running a serious campaign and should do better than the last Republican, the district has become majority Democrat. She will also be hurt by the top of her ticket, Donald Trump.”
Like Harary, Rosenthal’s experience before he entered politics was wide-ranging. He grew up in the Bronx, earned a B.A. in physics at Yale and a Ph.D. researching string theory and cosmology and then went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. In 1999, he co-founded Fastcase, which, according to his campaign website, brings big data analytics to legal research” in order to give the public access to free legal research. One of his passions is providing more funding to legal aid and other pro bono legal services through partnerships with state and local bar associations.
Rosenthal began thinking about challenging Nadler in August of 2015, after Nadler supported the nuclear agreement with Iran, going against the rest of the Jewish delegation from New York.
“The trigger was the Iran deal,” he said in a telephone interview. “When Nadler ignored this existential threat he betrayed a lot of his district.” The 10th Congressional District includes the liberal Jewish and Modern Orthodox-leaning Upper West Side, charedi-dominated Borough Park and parts of yeshivish Midwood. (Nadler won his primary challenge easily, but interestingly, his challenger, an openly gay former Republican, won in the district’s heavily Orthodox Brooklyn precincts, a sign that anger at Nadler for his Iran deal vote remains strong among Jews on the conservative end of the spectrum.)
Rosenthal’s denouncement of Nadler over the Iran deal has won him endorsements from the Democratic-leaning Daily News as well as from the Democratic Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind. He was also endorsed by Staten Island Republican Rep. Dan Donovan.
But Rosenthal is not a single-issue candidate. He also supports background checks for gun sales, as long as those prevented from buying guns are given recourse to appeal. He’s pro-choice but wants to make alternatives easier for pregnant women to find. And, while his platform includes “entitlement reform,” the only change he proposes is raising the starting age for Medicare and Social Security by a few years — a common sense solution that voters across the political divide are likely to agree on.
Like Harary, Rosenthal is passionate about helping the homeless, and has served on the board of Dwelling Place, a nonprofit that provides housing, education, financial and life skills and career enhancement to people who are homeless. Currently, Rosenthal sits on the board of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel think tank, and is a member of the Leadership Council of the Republican Jewish Coalition.