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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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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.”

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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