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.
I visited Storobin last week at his campaign office, on Neptune Avenue in Brighton Beach. He was 20 minutes late for our meeting. While I waited for him, I asked his cleaning lady if she was voting for him. “Nice! Young! Handsome!” She said, stroking one of the many posters emblazoned with his likeness and then quickly shpritzing it and wiping it down. “Very perspectiv man!”
When he arrived, he was wearing a striped polo T-shirt, jeans, and loafers. He has big brown eyes, a receding chin, and a great smile that emerges when he describes the thrill of the win and that is only hinted at in the equivocal grin captured on his posters. Storobin, who is 35, came to this country in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He was born in Dagestan, and after years of getting a blank stare at the unfamiliar name, he now delights in telling people, “I’m from the same place as the Boston bomber.” He was raised by a single mother after she divorced his father and speaks with only a hint of an accent. Anna Storobin, a former medical-school instructor, cleaned apartments until the year David got into Rutgers Law School, and she found a position as a social worker. “My mom’s the most active person in my campaign,” he told me. I met Anna Storobin outside the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center before a candidates’ event a few days later. A striking woman in a turquoise top, she looked every bit the proud mother. She came with a cadre of friends. “We’re very nervous,” she told me, looking around at the gathering audience. During the debate, she sat near the podium with her friends and clapped vigorously whenever her son spoke.
David Storobin is also a great storyteller. He told me about escaping Dagestan after things began to “blow up” there in the late 1980s—his uncle, he says, was tortured to death by men who committed a string of such attacks, leaving a chicken on the stove of each home they targeted. But like every good storyteller, he sometimes has to backtrack. “He called me a pedophile,” Storobin told me of Davidzon, referring to a recent radio broadcast on Davidzon’s station. Davidzon strongly denied saying any such thing, and when I asked Storobin again, he softened the point: “The language they used was clearly intended to leave the impression that I am a pedophile. They called me a defender of pedophilia, as if I defended the concept of rape of children.”
Did he order the robocalls smearing Kagan? Storobin denied having anything to do with them. “My phones aren’t even set up,” he told me. A registered Democrat who lives in Brighton Beach, who asked not to be identified, told me he went to Storobin’s campaign office shortly after receiving the call to ask the candidate if it had come from Storobin’s office. Storobin, he said, angrily denied the allegations, and then said, “But after what they called my mother, no one could blame me if I broke Kagan’s legs!” It was an apparent reference to an episode in which Storobin angrily claimed in a letter to the website Politicker that Fidler’s “paid agents” had compared his mother to farm animals on Davidzon’s radio show. (A different source who heard the radio show told me that the term actually used was “mother hen.”) When I asked Storobin about the incident, he said he didn’t recall the language but said he certainly didn’t mean to threaten Kagan. “I wanted to say that nothing I could ever say about him would give him reason to cry foul after the way he and his associates assaulted my mom, my supporters, etc,” he clarified via email. Storobin also told me his issues with Kagan have nothing to do with the KGB. “I don’t even think he’s former KGB,” he said. But he was happy to supply his own criticism. “Kagan needs the job. He’s never had a full-time job,” Storobin insisted. “He’s struggling financially.” He blamed Scavo for the KGB calls, saying he was certain it was her.
Scavo vehemently denied the accusation. “That is a downright lie. Coming from my office? What office? I don’t have an office, I have a cellphone, and it’s my cellphone that’s listed as my campaign number, and I answer it,” she told me when I reached her on the phone. I asked her why she thought Storobin was accusing her. “Who are they going to accuse, themselves? The one pointing the finger is the one doing it,” Scavo replied.
Kagan’s campaign office is 500 feet from Storobin’s on Neptune Avenue, in Brighton Beach. When we met, Kagan, who is well over 6 feet tall, 46, and improbably handsome, wore a suit with an off-white shirt and dark tie. He has an eagerness to him that feels at odds with his height, the desire to be liked written all over his face and ready smile; he asked my permission before removing his jacket.
He had just come from his radio appearance on Davidzon’s show, his day job—for which his campaign now has to pay Davidzon, since Igor Oberman made a complaint to the Board of Elections that Kagan’s broadcast presence gave him an unfair advantage. “I lost my radio show, my TV show, even though I’m not campaigning there. I was so careful never to say, I am running for City Council. But Oberman said, is unfair advantage. It’s OK, I have savings, my wife is working part-time; I will survive,” Kagan said in his hoarse, Russian-accented English. He gave me a Cheshire-cat smile and then repeated, “I will survive.”
In Belarus, Kagan worked as a military journalist for three years then left the Communist Party and joined the Independent Belarus press. It is this fact, he says, that led his opponents to allege that he is a former KGB officer—the worst possible insult for a former Soviet. The allegation was first raised in a State Senate election in 2006 when Kagan was running against Alec Brook-Krasny, who is now State Assemblyman for District 46 and has endorsed Kagan for City Council, Kagan said.
So, was Ari Kagan—formerly known as Arkady, until he legally changed his name in 2002—a member of the KGB? Kagan burst out laughing when I asked him. “Yeah, and I’m also in charge of Japanese Intelligence, and the Neo-Nazis,” he quipped. “I will not lie to you,” he said. “I was not a dissident. But I was honest with myself, with my family, with my readers.”
He seemed unworried, even jubilant, about the robocalls. Rather than hurting him, he said, the calls have outraged Democrats to such a degree that they will come out in record numbers on his behalf. Who does he think is behind the calls? “It’s very hard to say,” he replied. “It’s obvious to me that I am the only Democrat who can beat David Storobin. But I do not want to diminish my opponents. I will not attack Storobin’s character. I respect his achievements.” When I mentioned Storobin’s jibes about his employment, Kagan responded incredulously. “I work part-time?” he replied. “It’s an insult to all journalists, especially those working in ethnic media.” He proudly showed me his plaques, honoring him for his work on the radio and as Democratic district leader, the volunteer position he won last year with 62 percent of the votes, he repeated more than once.
If Kagan is wrong about his voter base, no one stands to gain more in the Democratic primary than Igor Oberman, Kagan’s Russian Jewish challenger in the Democratic primary. “As far as I know, Kagan doesn’t deny the allegations,” Oberman replied, somewhat elliptically, when I asked him about the robocall. I met him at El Greco Café on Emmons Avenue, a symbol of Sandy-recovery efforts on the canal that overflowed during the storm. Oberman, who immigrated from Belarus as a child, wore a striped shirt and a red tie. The president of the co-op board at Trump Village in Coney Island, Oberman has the build and demeanor of a person who has made it comfortably into the upper-upper middle class. He is relaxed, he has time for a cup of coffee and a joke or two. He told me the Jackie Mason joke about the difference between a Jewish mother and a pitbull: The pitbull eventually lets go. I mentioned that some people thought he was a stalking horse for Storobin. “That was Gregory Davidzon’s theory. I like David. I love my wife and kid. But yesterday, I was knocking on doors for five hours straight. You don’t do that for anyone else.”
Davidzon, for his part, said he had no idea where the calls were coming from. He has endorsed Ari Kagan. “He’s a good guy. A smart guy,” Davidzon told me, when we spoke on the phone. “His view is like my view. He has a lot of community involvement.” Like Kagan, he said the call about the KGB has, in fact, only helped Kagan’s campaign. “This call energized people to vote for Ari. It will be big backfire,” Davidzon told me. “People don’t like this. Russian people are smart enough to understand.”
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