Last week, Anthony Weiner, the scandal-plagued former congressman, had an unusual confrontation with a heckler during a campaign stop in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the new Barclays Center. Since the revelation that Weiner, now running for mayor of New York City, had continued engaging in salacious online exchanges with total strangers after he resigned from Congress in 2011, he has been challenged at nearly every stop on the trail. But this heckler, a perfectly normal-looking New Yorker toting her shopping in one hand and an iPhone in the other, added a new twist to the anti-Weiner invective. “You are disgusting!” she shouted. “You are an embarrassment of a third-generation native.”
The woman, Jane Borock, happened to be a former supporter and constituent who, whether she realized it or not, was giving voice to a discontent sufficiently widespread in the Jewish community that the New York Times found a whole story in the fact that Weiner is attracting more support among the city’s black voters than among his own people. And he’s not the only one. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a spokesperson for the city’s gay community, has seen activists like Cynthia Nixon defect to her rival Bill de Blasio, currently the front-runner in next month’s Democratic primary. De Blasio, the city’s public advocate, has also picked up support from black leaders in Harlem—and Harry Belafonte—over former city Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is black.
It’s a phenomenon that speaks to the erosion of identity politics in New York, a city whose voters are now generations removed from teeming tenements and ghettoes filled with new immigrants and animated by party machines—a city in which candidates like Weiner, Quinn, de Blasio, Thompson and even Taiwan-born John Liu, the current city comptroller, can’t count on motivating large blocs of voters on the strength of their names alone. The slate of Democratic candidates is unbeloved—and their Republican rivals, supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis and transportation czar Joe Lhota, apparently inspire similar ambivalence. With less than a month to go before the primaries, the chances of any one candidate emerging as a hero for the city seem dim. What’s missing? The answer is Ed Koch.
In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1, the city’s voters have gravitated to larger-than-life GOP candidates for the past two decades: Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The last time a Democrat held Gracie Mansion was in 1993, under Koch’s one-term successor David Dinkins. While Koch, who died earlier this year, styled himself as a “liberal with sanity,” he came off a little crazy. As a politician, he had no fear of polarizing his constituents, brashly challenging them with his trademark question: “How’m I doin’?” But as a campaigner, he ignited New Yorkers with shared excitement for their city and excelled in finding common ground in a disparate electorate. “Ed Koch made a living out of this,” said David Luchins, a former adviser to New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and a professor of political science at Touro College. “And he was good at it.”
As a personality and a known entity, perhaps the only contemporary analogue to Koch was Weiner, who like Koch was a combative former congressman, well-known to his constituents as a legislator not so much from standing at subway exits as from his regular performances on MSNBC. “Anthony Weiner was grasping at the Koch mantle,” said Michael Fragin, a political strategist and radio host who served as Jewish community liaison for Gov. George Pataki. “I think to a certain degree, you haven’t seen the incarnation of Ed Koch in this campaign.”
Whether you bought it or not, Koch pushed New Yorkers to believe they were as big and vital in the 1970s and 1980s as they had been in the 1940s and 1950s. Then, New York still boasted the country’s highest concentration of electoral votes. New York was so influential that there wasn’t a single presidential race between 1928 and 1948 that didn’t feature a New Yorker at the head of the ticket. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt—a former governor of New York himself—ran for re-election his third and fourth times, both of his Republican opponents were New Yorkers.
New York had sway because of New York City, and within New York City, Jews, whose numbers peaked at 2.5 million in the mid-1950s, represented more than a quarter of the population. The Jewish vote may still be trumpeted as a mythological factor in New York City politics, but back in those years, it was fact. A recent analysis of data from the 1948 election shows that only 50 percent of Jews in New York City voted for Harry Truman, with some having defected to Henry Wallace. A third-party candidate, Wallace succeeded in New York by championing civil rights and rapping the incumbent Truman for not giving weapons to Israel in its fight for independence. As a result, Truman lost New York State and nearly the election to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, prompting the Chicago Daily Tribune to print its iconic, and wrong, headline.
Today there’s no such thing as “the Jewish vote.” A 2012 survey released by the UJA-Federation of New York revealed that Jewish New Yorkers—roughly 1.5 million of them—are more religious, less educated, less affluent, and less liberal than they were at the turn of the millennium, thanks to the increase in ultra-Orthodox Jews and the influx of politically conservative Russian-speaking Jews in Brooklyn and Queens. Together, those two groups make up more than half the city’s Jewish population—a new majority. “The Jewish vote is not monolithic, it’s overrated, it’s less and less significant,” said Luchins. “Jews vote less and less in special elections, and the Jewish turnout numbers have been going down in the city, not up; Jewish registration numbers are down in the city.”
Thompson, the only black candidate in the mayoral race, has gone out of his way to court the Orthodox vote in the Brooklyn neighborhoods his father, a state legislator, once represented. Weiner—a son of Brooklyn whose mother, Frances, taught at Midwood High School—was recently run out of Flatbush, and while he might have been the natural choice for liberal, secular Jews, the descent of his campaign into embarrassment has opened up opportunities for other candidates. “Chris will do well among Manhattan Jews,” predicted George Arzt, Koch’s longtime spokesman. “Bill de Blasio will do well among groups of Jews in the outer boroughs.”
But it’s going to come down to a numbers game, whereas Koch was playing at something much larger: mobilizing whole communities. “I can’t think of a candidate who’s a favorite among the universal group of Jews,” Arzt said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can coalesce such a coalition around him.” And it’s not just about personality—it’s about taking real stances on issues that matter to voters. “You don’t hear anybody in the mayoral race with a foreign policy,” Arzt went on. “Ed Koch always had a foreign policy, Israel being his key priority. But it used to be Ireland, Italy, and Israel.” Now, he said, “no one really speaks of a foreign policy except to address immigration as a broad issue.”
It’s not just the metaphorical Koch who’s missing. As a power broker, advocate, spokesman, and salesman, the ghost of the actual Ed Koch has also shadowed the summer’s campaign. Seemingly everyone who’s run for office on the local, city, state, or national level in recent times has pined for Koch’s elusive stamp of approval—an endorsement that, once won, guaranteed a candidate could count on Koch to bring a bullhorn to the ballot box.
New Yorkers seem genuinely less informed about the mayoral race without Koch there to help define the issues, whether you agreed with him or not. In this election, while his absence is to the detriment of everyone, probably no one misses him more than Christine Quinn, who won Koch’s endorsement in 2011—so early that almost no one remembers it. “He would have been a steadying influence on her campaign and would have brought many Jewish voters, especially centrist voters, to Quinn,” said Arzt. “Certainly, his absence hurts Quinn a lot.”
And it hurts everyone else, too. After 12 years, the reign of Michael Bloomberg has been too anodyne to produce a good foil for him and has endured too long for New Yorkers to want a sequel. But it’s tough to replace a titan without another titan. “I see very little passion in the election,” said Luchins. “I remember ’69. I remember ’77. I remember 1993. There was passion.”
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.