Conservative Democrat Ben Akselrod announced his campaign for State Assembly yesterday, setting the stage for a primary battle against incumbent Steven Cymbrowitz, who has occupied the seat since January 2001.
Akselrod took to a podium in front of Baku Palace (2001 Emmons Avenue), flanked by two dozen or so supporters on Sunday, touting his Russian immigrant roots and commitment to conservative Jewish values. Among those who stood with Akselrod were Russian leaders including radio host Gregory Davidzon and Ari Kagan, as well as local rabbis and Akselrod’s former boss, ex-State Senator Seymour Lachman.
(Akselrod begins speaking in the above video at the 20:00 mark.)
The campaign appears poised to seize upon the growing political clout of Southern Brooklyn’s Russian and Jewish voting blocks, which recently helped deliver wins to Republicans Bob Turner in Congress and David Storobin in the State Senate (Storobin’s win, notably, is still in court as the campaigns squabble over a handful of votes in the neck-and-neck race; regardless, the strong showing for a political neophyte in what was once believed to be a Democratic bastion can be considered a victory nonetheless).
To find a prelude to those successes one must only look back two years, to the last time Cymbrowitz faced a challenger: Republican opponent Joseph Hayon in 2010.
Spending only $615, Hayon reaped 43 percent of the vote – a narrow victory for an incumbent with a sizable warchest.
Akselrod appears to be cribbing from the GOP campaigns of his upstart predecessors – especially Hayon.
For example, Akselrod spoke of curriculum requirements in New York schools that challenge conservative Jewish customs.
“[Students are] being taught alternative lifestyles,” Akselrod stated. “I strongly object to the subjects being taught in school. We deserve to raise our children with the values that we cherish. We should be able to do what is right for us.”
That echoes the crux of Hayon’s campaign, in which he railed against a bill Cymbrowitz voted for that supposedly requires schools to “teach Kindergarten children to ‘tolerate’ or sanctify same-gender relationships.”
In reality, the bill Hayon and, presumably, Akselrod refer to is the “Dignity For All Students Act,” passed in 2010, to protect students from harassment and discrimination. The bill establishes mechanisms for schools to report and address discrimination and harassment based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, disability, gender and – the one that Hayon and now Akselrod have focused on – sexual orientation. The legislation also issued a broad mandate to school regents to develop instruction in “civility, citizenship and character education.”
Private and religious schools are exempted in the bi-partisan bill, which passed the Assembly 138-to-four, and has not yet been implemented.
Though Cymbrowitz’s name was never uttered during the announcement, other elements of Akselrod’s platform were thinly-veiled attacks on the sitting assemblymember.
“Nobody should be defending illegal construction in your backyard because of political correctness,” Akselrod declared, as he rattled off his stances on issues as varied as education (above), small business regulations and integrity.
The quote appeared to be in reference to the Sheepshead Bay mosque being built at 2812 Voorhies Avenue, which has been an ongoing struggle. Opponents of the mosque frequently mix arguably legitimate complaints about building violations and zoning with racist, anti-Muslim rhetoric – and the main opposition group, Bay People, along with the Brooklyn Tea Party, has slammed Cymbrowitz in the past for not speaking out against the mosque’s development.
Notably, at least two members of Bay People were at the announcement to support Akselrod.
Also notably, the mosque is not in Cymbrowitz’s district.
As the campaign gears up, it will be an interesting battle for political observers. If, as in the Fidler-Storobin campaign, the 11-year incumbent seeks to snap up the Jewish and Russian voting blocs by trying to appear more aligned with their interests, he’ll likely lose the battle of public perception to the candidate who is actually Russian and a devout Jew – despite the fact that Cymbrowitz has directed a bevy of funds to Jewish causes over the years and supported the community’s social agenda (such as his vote against legalizing same sex marriage).
However, an Akselrod win would blunt the campaign of David Storobin, who many believe may attempt a general election challenge for the seat as well. Party labels aside, Akselrod and Storobin appear to have almost identical stances on most issues.
However, if Cymbrowitz takes a different tack – a rather unlikely one – and mobilizes new voters from other portions of the community to pull a win, he could redefine the evolving political narrative of the area and create a new power base. But once he gets past those primaries, if Storobin jumps in the race, he’ll be pressed to make the same case twice.