The votes are still being counted in last week’s Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, with more than 3,500 absentee and provisional ballots separating leftist frontrunner Tiffany Cabán and establishment candidate Melinda Katz. Regardless of the outcome, leftists are now a mainstream force in Democratic primaries in local, state, and national contests. The moral strength of this force is built on idealism, closing the Rikers Island prison, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and financial reparations for descendants of slaves. In contrast to the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, which by design had no leaders or defined goals, today’s leftists have their national leaders, goals, and road map towards enacting policy changes.
As I disagree with the Democratic Socialists of America on policies, I admire their ability to register new voters, enlist volunteers, fundraise, gather petitions, and knock on doors to get out the vote. When a community has the discipline to treat voting as a vital civic matter, and votes as a bloc, it forces the two parties to pay attention to the community’s needs.
A day after the Queens DA race, Agudah activist Chaskel Bennett wrote an opinion piece on Yeshiva World News titled, “Orthodox Jews are Empowering AOC.” Noting that with many young members of his community registering to vote as Republicans, they are disqualifying themselves from participating in crucial primaries that are shaping the direction of the Democratic Party. “In most local elections, the Democratic primary determines the election,” Bennett wrote. “If the frum community sits out the primary, it will have no ability to impact the political process. It is as simple as that.”
My first political campaign was for State Senate candidate Dr. Isaac Sasson in 2010, who also holds socially conservative views but he ran as a Democrat, knowing that if he had won the party’s primary, he would easily win the general election. We sought to register thousands of Bukharian Jews as Democrats, solely so that they could vote in the party’s primary. Among older citizens, it was difficult to shake off the Soviet concept of party membership. “But in an American political party, there are no dues to pay, you don’t have to attend party meetings, and you can vote for the other party in November,” I told senior citizens in the community.
Younger voters also had a hard time grasping the concept of party registration for pragmatic purposes. Why register with a party that you would like to see defeated at the polls? “Many people do not want to identify with the Democratic Party, whose values on social issues do not comport with our own,” wrote Bennett. “However, political party registration does not define us. It is simply a practical tool that permits us to have a voice in the political process.”
This is exactly why, after more than three decades as a political independent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ran in 2016 – and is running now – as a Democrat in the party’s presidential primary. He understood that running on a third-party line for president would be futile, so he joined the mainstream party and is changing it from the inside.
In New York City, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a seven-to-one ratio, making it nearly impossible for a Republican to win in a local, citywide, or state seat race. An Orthodox Jewish voter in Queens should recognize that the very socially conservative Satmar chasidim are registered Democrats; they certainly do not believe in changing genders or decriminalizing “sex work.” They vote as Democrats in large enough numbers to merit the attention of the party’s elected officials.
In our community, Rabbi Hayim Schwartz (executive vice president of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim), Rabbi Chaim Schwartz (executive director of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens), and Rabbi Nahum Kaziev of Ohr Natan released a video to encourage Jewish voters in Queens to register as Democrats ahead of the next election.
Looking ahead, the Mayor, Borough President, and two City Council seats will have open seats in 2021. Our term-limited incumbents respectively, Bill de Blasio, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, and Karen Koslowitz, haven’t been in sync with the Orthodox community on all matters, but overall have been responsive to concerns on crime, education, affordability, and consistently supportive of Israel.
One cannot easily assume that their successors would be as sympathetic or knowledgeable of our community’s needs, and one can be sure that there will be leftists running and ready with an army of canvassers, a national base of online donors, and celebrity endorsements.
Those of us who can do the same should invest in good sneakers and get to work. Knock on doors, gather signatures, organize parlor meetings, and raise awareness. To switch parties in New York, one must do so at least six months before a primary in order to participate. That’s nearly a year before the next one, but why procrastinate?
Political movements take time to grow. Taking back the Democratic Party from the leftists is not easy, but it can be done if we start now.
By Sergey Kadinsky