Monday, September 14, 2009

Thinking about the 39th: why Dov Hikind causes Brad Lander to sound curiously like Charles Barkley

In the 39th District Council race, the central contest is between Brad Lander and Josh Skaller, who've had their share of mutual sniping.

Lander has endorsements, from among others, the New York Times, a host of labor unions, the Citizens Union, and the Working Families Party (WFP). Just today he got the nod from the Daily News.

Skaller has endorsements from, among others, the Courier-Life/Downtown Star, CBID, a smaller number of unions, and several people active in Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.

Lander's been endorsed by State Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, among others. Skaller's been endorsed by State Senator Eric Adams and Assemblyman Jim Brennan, among others. Both claim endorsements from Howard Dean.

Room 8 blogger Gatemouth, aka Howard Graubard, favors Bob Zuckerman --who put up an entertaining ad targeting Lander and Skaller--but concludes he can't win, so he's voting for Skaller.

The other candidates are Gary Reilly and John Heyer, who has endorsements from the Brooklyn Paper and Assemblywoman Joan Millman, and is the only candidate to support Atlantic Yards. Here are final words to the Brooklyn Paper from all five.

The AY issue

Skaller's been a longtime opponent of Atlantic Yards--hence the support connected to DDDB.

Lander has been a longtime critic, though not unsympathetic to the potential benefits, who now says the project should be scrapped; in other words, he didn't oppose the fundamental decision by the Empire State Development Corporation to declare the site blighted and to pursue eminent domain, but he's now gotten much tougher.

(The WFP has close ties to ACORN, Forest City Ratner's partner on AY. In the 33rd District, the WFP has endorsed the most pro-AY candidate, Steve Levin. Then again, the WFP also supports Mark Winston Griffith, the candidate in the 36th District who's most critical of Atlantic Yards, as well as project opponent Letitia James in the 35th District.)

Still, Lander's supported by Ron Shiffman, a DDDB board member who has a professional tie as his predecessor at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Points of comparison

On most issues, they're pretty close, as the Citizens Union notes. Lander makes a strong case to OTBKB that he has more experience on urban planning and neighborhood issues. Skaller sees himself as an activist more willing to take a stand, getting out front on issues like AY.

I've known Lander as a source for years and see him as capable. I don't think I've ever spoken to Skaller. Both have endorsements from people I respect.

The battle in Borough Park

A seemingly ancillary issue in the campaign, however, has pointed to the compromises candidates may make.

A slice part of the 39th District is in Borough Park, home to a socially conservative Orthodox Jewish population, which often votes as a bloc. The Jewish Press has endorsed Heyer, the only social conservative in the race, and specifically criticized Lander.

Lander has also made inroads in Borough Park, notably via the support of right-wing Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who clearly does not share Lander's support of gay marriage but is most interested in having a Council Member who will deliver needed services, as has Council Member Bill de Blasio.

That's led Lander into some chutes and ladders, most notably over an offensive advertisement in the Yiddish newspaper Der Blatt, which falsely claimed he opposed gay marriage. Here's Lander's statement, and Gatemouth's more skeptical take.

On the radio

Gatemouth also raises the seemingly tangential issue of Lander's position on the state of Israel, which is not a huge issue for the City Council but shows the challenges of getting elected in the 39th.

More than a decade ago, at the naming ceremony for Lander's son, he and his wife said, in part:
We believe that [Law of Return] confuses the wonderful and painful inheritance of identity with unearned advantages -- legal, political, and financial -- granted by a militarized state over other people, including so many it oppresses daily….

The issue came up during the September 5 episode of Hikind's radio show, a download of which is linked from Gatemouth's blog. The relevant action starts at about 38:50.

DH: "One of the things that boggles me is you being described by certain people... saying that you're anti-Israel."

BL: "I'm a Zionist. I'm a strong supporter of eretz Yisrael. I've been there twice... You go there, you get a real feel for what a wondrous place it is, and also for the perils that face people there, every day, from terrorist enemies, out to destroy the state."

DH: "How does it make you feel when people make these comments?"

BL: "It's painful, it's preposterous, it's a campaign. And more than a decade ago, I wrote a short piece, after my son's bris, that, as it was sort of published, doesn't well represent what I think, what I feel. It's very one-sided. It doesn't represent who I am or what I think. There's a much longer track record of my support for our people and my support for our state."

DH: "And Brad, I'm familiar with that, because you and I sat and looked at those words that you wrote... we looked at it, we discussed it and I said, 'I accept who you are.'"

(In August, before the radio show, Hikind told the Forward, a Jewish weekly, that Lander's past written statement was "beyond the pale." Lander wouldn't comment to the Forward. Clarified: I wrote that some voters in the part of the 39th District outside Borough Park might be as close to those sentiments than they are to Hikind's position. They're probably somewhere in the middle.)

DH: "In politics, people will use anything they can.... I really look at Brad and say he's the kind of individual who really will be there for people at the end of the day."

Why Lander sounds like Barkley

Lander elsewhere has said he regrets the language. But the piece he called "very one-sided" was something he himself agreed to have "sort of published."

That recalls the basketball star Charles Barkley, who famously claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography.

Is this relevant to Atlantic Yards? Well, the difference between their positions surely has narrowed.

For those looking for areas where they diverge, Lander has more institutional and newspaper support. But only Lander has gotten entangled with Hikind.

If Skaller wins, it will be a loss for Hikind. If Lander wins, the alliance bears watching.

(Updated and clarified: Pointing out that many candidates fudge, I previously cited the question in the Brooklyn Paper, as to whether Skaller's wife is a "public school teacher" or someone who works for a private organization that provides services to public schools. Skaller's communications director responds that Kelly Skaller teaches at the Audubon Center in Prospect Park, which is publicly funded and provides services to public school students from all over the city. I don't think that makes her a public school teacher in the common understanding--indeed the Audubon Center uses the term "educator"--and it's funded both by City Council and private foundations. But it's a lesser dispute than the one in Borough Park.)

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