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NYC Could Have Only Two Jewish Reps. (or One)

Redistricting, retirement remove two Jewish outer-borough seats

Marc Tracy
March 21, 2012
Rep. Gary Ackerman with his former intern, Ilan Grapel.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Rep. Gary Ackerman with his former intern, Ilan Grapel.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid the redistricting shuffle and the news out of Queens and Brooklyn—that Rep. Bob Turner, his district disappearing, will run for Senate; that Rep. Gary Ackerman will retire; that Rory Lancman, who was going to run for Turner’s seat, will run for Ackerman’s; that the Democratic Party is backing Grace Meng for Ackerman’s seat—here is something that flew under the radar: where one year ago, four Jewish congressmen represented various parts of New York City, by 2013 there is a very good chance that that number will have fallen to two, and even an outside chance that it will go to one.

Here’s how it happened. One year ago, those four House members, all men and all Democrats, were: Gary Ackerman; Eliot Engel; Jerrold Nadler; and Anthony Weiner.

You know what happened to Weiner. His traditionally Jewish and Democratic seat was won, in that famous September special election, by Turner, a non-Jewish Republican (he defeated David Weprin, a Jewish Democrat). And then there were three.

You might have hoped that Lancman would have brought the number back to four, but toward the end of the redistricting process—which was performed by a federal judge (see the old and new districts here)—it became clear that Weiner’s old district would disappear. Still, and then there were three.

Interlude: There was a rumor on Twitter that Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz would run to unseat Democrat Yvette D. Clarke. His office told me that’s crap.

Then, last week, Ackerman announces he will retire. More than one Jew—Lancman as well as Mark Weprin, the ill-fated David’s likely ill-fated brother (Ed Koch-endorsed!)—announce their candidacies. While even the new district contains plenty of Jews, it also contains plenty of Asian-Americans, and into the ring Grace Meng throws her hat, with, crucially, the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement (as well as, implicitly, Ackerman’s) and the historical claim to becoming the first Asian-American to represent New York in Congress, making her the favorite to win. Lancman is a great candidate and is going to fight, but the prognosis can’t be too good. So, theoretically, and then there were two.

And, so, it is not only conceivable or plausible but actually likely that there will be zero Jewish representatives (federal level) from Queens or Brooklyn. Queens or Brooklyn! Brooklyn! Nadler’s old and new districts include parts of Brooklyn, including the traditionally Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park.

Finally, Engel. His district was originally Staten Island’s, and it has steadily moved northward so that, currently, it contains mostly Rockland County and only a small slice of the Bronx, including the upscale Riverdale neighborhood. Under redistricting, his district is radically changed: Rep. Nita Lowey, also a Democratic Jew, is losing most of her Westchester district for Engel’s old Rockland County stomping grounds; Engel is actually gaining some Bronx turf but will have to reckon with much of Westchester and, overall, a district with a majority of voters who are not currently his constituents.

It is plausible that Engel will face a challenger, either from Westchester or the new parts of the Bronx. And given that Lowey is 74 and facing a new district of her own, isn’t it possible she’ll retire and there will be calls for Engel to represent her district, which isn’t in the city at all (though it does contain the Hasidic enclave of Monsey)? Given that he is a lifelong resident of the Bronx, this is far less likely. Still, we can agree that it is not completely out of the realm of possibility for Engel to be left without a chair, or at least one in the Bronx.

Which would leave New York City only with Nadler, whose Eighth District is becoming the 10th, and snaking further up the Upper West Side. Just Nadler. And the attorney general. And the downstate senator. And the mayor. And pretty much, you know, a lot of other people.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.