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In Brooklyn, Robocalls Charge Candidate Was a KGB Spy. But Who Made the Claim?

With a chance to finally elect one of their own to New York’s City Council, Russian politicos let their suspicions run wild

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Left to right: Ari Kagan, Chaim Deutsch, Theresa Scavo, and David Storobin. (Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Ari Kagan for City Council, Chaim Deutsch for City Council, Sheepshead Bites, New York State Senate, Jeannine St. Amand/Flickr, Didi/Flickr, Shutterstock.)
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It started with phone calls made at 6 p.m. one Monday late last month to registered Democrats with Russian names in New York’s City Council District 48, a district in the midst of a heated campaign ahead of next month’s primary elections. “Ari Kagan was a KGB agent,” a rather unpleasant female voice said in Russian. “We should not allow this person to become our City Councilman.” The Communist Party past of Kagan, who is running as a moderate Democrat, would seem ancient anywhere else but here in the 48th, where longstanding suspicions about people’s past loyalties have lately been transposed into equally fevered speculation about people’s relationships to the Putin regime. There were follow-up calls on Friday—same voice, same message.

Almost immediately after the calls began, so too did speculation about who could have been behind them. Was it Igor Oberman, a first-time candidate and, like Kagan, a Russian Jew running in the Democratic primary—perhaps trying to score all the Russian votes for himself? Or maybe Chaim Deutsch, an Orthodox Jew and aide to the current City Councilman Mike Nelson, who is being term-limited out of office? Perhaps the call came from Theresa Scavo, chairperson of the local community board, who is widely believed to have the Catholic vote locked in and an interest in making sure Kagan wouldn’t make the Democratic runoff. Or was it David Storobin, the Republican hopeful, who briefly represented the district as a state senator in Albany before losing his seat last year after redistricting? Like Kagan and Oberman, Storobin is a Jew from the former Soviet Union, giving him an interest in splitting the Russian vote in the Democratic primary so he can have it all to himself in the general election.

Other rumors were floating around Brighton Beach. Some speculated that a pact had been sealed between Oberman and Storobin. The two are known to be friends; though running as a Democrat, Oberman contributed to Storobin’s last campaign. Storobin’s mother’s name came up, too, as a possible suspect. She is a huge supporter, very involved in his campaign, and very involved in the community.

Intrigue is nothing new for the 48th, a super-Russian district that folds Brighton Beach—nicknamed “Little Odessa”—in with Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and parts of Midwood, the neighborhoods whose populations contain the majority of Brooklyn’s estimated 88,000 former Soviet immigrants. District 48 is about 45 percent Russian, 25 percent Orthodox Jewish, and 20 percent Catholic. But it’s especially crucial to the Russian community. The Assembly and the State Senate districts covering the same neighborhoods have been broken up, splitting the Russian community and creating a “super Jewish” (read: super Orthodox) district, but the City Council district remains intact. It is the city’s only politically unbroken bloc of Russian voters, most of whom are Jews. But the triumph of finally being able to select an elected representative from within their own ranks has descended into a democratic commedia dell’arte.

***

A stroll along the Brighton Beach boardwalk on a recent evening revealed that while many didn’t recognize the candidates’ names, most insisted they would vote only “Republikanski”—in other words, for Storobin. But when it comes to local government, the Russians are as pragmatic as any other voters. They elected Democrat Mike Nelson six times. “Everyone says they are Republican, but when they go into the voting booth, 95 percent of them vote Democrat,” said Victor, a 73-year-old sharing the evening breeze on the boardwalk with his friend Lev. Why? “Democrats give more privilege,” he sneered in accented English. In other words—Russians talk conservative talk, but when they walk to the polls, they vote for the party that will offer them the most of what they want.

Kagan, a 46-year-old community activist and journalist who immigrated from Belarus as an adult, has the crucial backing of Gregory Davidzon, a radio talk-show host and local power broker whose prominence in Brooklyn’s “Little Russia” is roughly equal to what Rush Limbaugh’s once was among conservatives. Kagan and Davidzon are more than friends: Davidzon is Kagan’s employer. Kagan appears on Davidzon’s radio station every morning. When I asked Davidzon about Storobin, he told me he wasn’t objective enough to comment. “I am Ari’s biggest supporter,” Davidzon said. “But my very strong view is, if Ari loses primaries, Storobin will be next council member.”

But Davidzon’s power has its limits. Last year, the man he backed in a special State Senate election, City Councilman Lew Fidler, lost by 13 votes—to David Storobin. The campaign was ugly and ended with a two-month court battle over voter fraud allegations. At the time, Storobin claimed his posters were ripped down and replaced with Fidler posters, something he says has been happening again this time around, but with Kagan’s posters. Storobin has threatened legal action if Davidzon and Kagan don’t stop their “crimes.”

“Everyone who knows them knows that Davidzon is running the operation, not Kagan,” Storobin told me.

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In Brooklyn, Robocalls Charge Candidate Was a KGB Spy. But Who Made the Claim?

With a chance to finally elect one of their own to New York’s City Council, Russian politicos let their suspicions run wild