Jewish lawmaker Vernikov holds seat, Kagan loses in closely watched NYC council elections


(New York Jewish Week) — One Jewish Republican lost his New York City Council seat and another retained hers in a pair of contested elections on Tuesday.

Republican Ari Kagan lost his seat to Democrat Justin Brannan in Brooklyn’s 47th district, with most of the votes counted, and Republican Inna Vernikov held a commanding lead over challenger Amber Adler, a Democrat, in the 48th district, with 85% of the votes counted. Both Brannan and Vernikov declared victory by Wednesday morning.

Brannan and Kagan were both city council members going into the closely watched race for the newly formed 47th district, which includes Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, Coney Island and parts of Bath Beach. The majority of voters in the district identify as Democrats.

Kagan, an honoree in the New York Jewish Week’s “36 to Watch” list in 2022switched from the Democratic to the Republican party last year, saying the Democrats had moved too far left. Brannan’s ties with the Democratic party leadership frayed shortly before the race due to his alleged involvement in a harassment case, allegations he denies.

Brannan and Kagan sparred over the war between Israel and Gaza during the campaign, with Kagan accusing Brannan of taking a soft stance toward hardline pro-Palestinian protesters in the district. Brannan lashed Kagan for the comments, saying he supported both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinian aspirations for a state. The district has significant populations of both Jews and Palestinians.

Kagan accused Brannan of “radioactive cowardly silence” following “pro-Hamas chants, anti-American and anti-Semitic signs in his own backyard.”

“He’s trying to use the Israel-Hamas war to score political points,” Brannan said. “He has no shame.”

Brannan had the backing of Jewish U.S. Rep. Daniel Goldman, who said he had campaigned for the candidate the day before the race.

Kagan, who was born in Belarus, and Vernikov, originally from today’s Ukraine, are staunch supporters of Israel and are tied to southern Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

Vernikov’s 48th district covers Brooklyn’s Homecrest, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach neighborhoods. Vernikov, elected in 2022, serves as the Republican party minority whip in the council. Independent candidate Igor Kazatsker also ran for the district, falling well short of Vernikov and Adler. Democrat Adler is also Jewish, a fact she highlighted shortly before the race with a visit to the Chabad rebbe’s gravesite in Queens.

Vernikov was arraigned just days before the election for illegally bringing a pistol to a pro-Palestinian protest last month. Vernikov has a permit for the weapon, but under New York law, a demonstration is considered a “sensitive location” where firearms are prohibited.

All 51 seats in the City Council were up for election on Tuesday, although some candidates ran unopposed. Eric Dinowitz, the chair of the Jewish Caucus, is set to hold his seat in the 11th district, and Kalman Yeger is set to defeat Heshy Tischler in the 44th district in a race pitting two well-known Orthodox Jews against each other.

Voters were focused on migrants and crime more than other issues, but the Middle East war was also a factor, according to a Siena College poll released late last month.

A majority of voters — 57% — favored more aid to Israel, while 32% were opposed. Jewish voters favored more aid to Israel by a wide margin of 81% in favor and 8% opposed.

Half of New Yorkers, including a majority of Democrats and Independents, were concerned that Israel’s counter-offensive will harm Palestinian civilians, while about one-third said Israel had to make sure another Hamas attack needed to never happen again, regardless of casualties, Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a favorability rating of 27% and an unfavorability rating of 32%, with Republicans holding a higher opinion, and Democrats and Jews more opposed, Greenberg said.