By Aaron Short, Special to NYJL
On a balmy evening in June, Mayor Bill de Blasio and first lady Chirlane McCray feted about 500 ganze machers at his annual Jewish Heritage Reception at Gracie Mansion.
The party isn’t a campaign event, but it may as well have been.
De Blasio begged his audience to tell state lawmakers to renew mayoral control; touted his pre-K program in yeshivas; praised a dozen elected officials and mayoral liaisons in attendance; vowed to stamp out anti-Semitism; decried the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement; and pledged to uphold the city’s “special bond” with Israel.
“When it comes to the Jewish community, I get a window into all the amazing aspects of the community, all of the extraordinary neighborhoods, every corner of Jewish New York,” he said. “And, I have to tell you, this is a place that is so great because we respect each other; we honor each other. We honor every faith here in this city—this is part of our magic.”
The Jewish community is extraordinarily diverse, but de Blasio knows he can count on one of the most conservative groups to support his reelection this November.
Brooklyn’s Hasidic Orthodox community is one of the most reliable parts of his electoral base, along with outer-borough progressives and African American and Latino families, who propelled him from the public advocate’s office to Gracie Mansion four years ago.
Facing only nominal opposition in the Democratic primary and a Staten Island GOP assemblywoman in the general, de Blasio can campaign with little effort and still, barring scandal or other revelations, win reelection, political consultants say. But he isn’t taking any of his constituencies for granted as his GOP opponent, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, is proving to be energetic in highlighting the incumbent’s shortcomings and demeanor which, many say, presents as arrogant.
“We are proud of our strong support in the Orthodox community and we will fight for every vote there and across the city,” said campaign spokesman Dan Levitan.
The appearance of a big tent, with Hasidic Jews making up the conservative corner, is good political optics, consultants say.
“De Blasio treats the City Council base as his mayoral base, and for whatever reason he’s stayed loyal to everybody he has considered part of his base,” said consultant Menashe Shapiro. “Even though he doesn’t need them he has a maddening penchant to sticking with them, and I don’t see them losing access if he gets reelected.”
But the community has given the mayor several headaches as the end of his first term approaches.
Two Orthodox Jewish businessmen who raised tens of thousands of dollars for the mayor, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, became key focal points of a sprawling federal investigation into de Blasio pay-to-play schemes after investigators found they bribed high-ranking cops for favors and sought help from the mayor and his aides for real estate problems.
The feds reportedly questioned other Orthodox leaders about an array of other favors the mayor’s office provided the community—including the reopening of a religious girls’ school that had been shuttered for safety violations—before letting de Blasio off the hook in March. Rechnitz pleaded guilty to the bribery charges while Reichberg was arrested and faces trial.
City Hall also took criticism for rolling back a Bloomberg-era requirement that parents sign a consent form before allowing a rabbi to perform a controversial circumcision ritual that some in the Orthodox community consider a foundational religious practice.
It’s all water under the Williamsburg Bridge, de Blasio allies insist.
“I don’t think the headaches are that much different from his friends in the affordable housing community or other folks he’s been close to,” said one campaign loyalist. “This is a community he’s dealt with since his time in City Council; they vote in a bloc and they still deliver votes. There have been isolated incidents but in general they have specific asks and don’t venture outside of those asks.”
This year, and for the foreseeable future, the Orthodox community’s top issues are affordable housing with more than two bedrooms for larger families, aid for tuition-paying families, expanded half-day pre-K for religious schools and public safety.
“People want a better quality of life, people want the city to be safe, but people are happy with the mayor,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group, a political consulting firm. “I like him, a lot of my friends like him, a lot of the community at large likes him. The mayor is very responsive to the community.”
But will the community respond to the mayor on Election Day?
In the November 2013 mayoral election, de Blasio stomped his Republican challenger Joe Lhota 74 to 24 percent in Hasidic Williamsburg, where 3,023 people cast ballots. The race in Borough Park was more competitive—Lhota edged de Blasio 50 to 47 percent and 11,396 people voted, according to city Board of Elections records.
But voter turnout in Borough Park was 67 percent higher during last year’s presidential election—when 18,979 people went to the polls—and more than four times as high in 2012, when 58,491 people voted. Williamsburg’s turnout was slightly higher in 2016 with 3,505 people voting, and double in 2012, when 6,153 voters hit the polls, records show. And the real race back in 2013, many say, was the September Democratic primary, when other candidates with their own electoral bases were pulling votes citywide.
Still, turnout in the 2017 general election could be abysmal despite a smattering of competitive City Council seats. And Malliotakis, de Blasio’s savvy GOP opponent, could make inroads in modern Orthodox enclaves such as Far Rockaway, Riverdale, Midwood, Rego Park and the Upper West Side, which have voted increasingly conservative in recent years.
Thanks to the Hasidic bloc, de Blasio isn’t sweating the contest.
“The most accurate predictor of how the Ultra-Orthodox communities will vote is the standings in the polls of the candidates. They generally vote for a winner,” said Jewish Community Relations Council Associate Director David Pollock. “It is likely to be less this time, but that amplifies the vote of anyone who does turn out.”