Republican Bob Turner at a polling station in New York on Tuesday. Turner… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )
Reporting from New York — Democrat David Weprin's biggest foe in the special election for New York's 9th Congressional District may not have been the ultimate victor, Republican Bob Turner.
Instead, it appears Weprin was done in by a whiny-voiced octogenarian ex-mayor, who took what might have been another Democratic rout in the overwhelmingly Democratic district and helped turn it into a referendum on President Obama's Middle East policy.
Weprin had other things working against him going into Tuesday's vote: his endorsement of same-sex marriage, which enraged many of the Orthodox Jewish voters; his membership in a political party blamed by many for the country's economic mess; his perceived lack of familiarity with the district; even his mustache. "Really … you look sleazy," said Pearl Siegelman, a Democratic district leader in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, where one polling station recorded 69% support for Turner despite the large number of voters there who are a lot like Weprin: Orthodox Jewish Democrats.
When all the votes were counted, though, Turner, a Roman Catholic businessman who has never held office, had won with 54% of the vote, ending nearly 90 years of Democratic domination of the district straddling Brooklyn and Queens.
Facial hair aside, Siegelman and others say the tide turned in July when former Mayor Ed Koch became so angered by Obama's view that Israel's pre-1967 borders should be the baseline for Middle East peace talks that he announced plans to cross party lines and endorse Turner, to send Washington a message. It didn't hurt that although Koch hasn't held office since 1989, he remains immensely popular.
And at 86, he grabbed the attention of fellow seniors when he convinced them that Weprin's portrayal of Turner — a former TV executive best-known for producing "The Jerry Springer Show" — as a "tea party" zealot who would slash Social Security and Medicare was wrong.
In short, said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf: "Ed Koch was enough to turn this around." Summing up the significance of Weprin's 8-percentage-point loss in the district, which came open after Democrat Anthony Weiner resigned in a sexting scandal, Sheinkopf said: "That doesn't happen."
Koch agreed. "In New York, that's called a blowout," he said Wednesday of the outcome, and making no apologies for his role in the vote's outcome. "The purpose of the election was to convince the president that there is a substantial number of his Jewish constituents … who are very distressed with his position of hostility toward Israel," said Koch, calling himself a "first-rate Democrat" who doesn't hesitate to cross party lines when the issue demands it.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday tried to play down the significance of the election, which comes in a district slated for possible elimination next year during redistricting. "If you're asking me, 'Are Americans in general anxious, not happy with Washington?,' the answer is yes," Carney told reporters on Air Force One. But he refused to call the election a wake-up call. "Special elections are often unique and their outcomes do not tell you very much about future, regularly scheduled elections," he said.
But voters in the district might not agree. Several interviewed said they crossed party lines for the first time based on a number of issues.
For the most conservative, that issue was same-sex marriage, something that Democratic district leader Michael Geller said Weprin endorsed with too much verve. "He went out and gave out a rousing speech that went way, way too far, even saying it's the duty of Orthodox Jews to support gay marriage," Geller said. Weprin's hammering away at Turner on the Social Security and Medicare issues also caused resentment among senior citizens, whose skepticism toward Weprin was sealed once Koch spoke up for Turner.
But it was the economy and Israel that seem to have been the most pivotal to voters who supported Turner — many of them casting their first-ever ballot for a Republican congressman.
"It's giving a sign that we're not going to stand for Obama's lack of economic [policy] and respect of Israel," said Lois Mondschein, a retired teacher who warned that she was not atypical of voters in the district. "I'm a regular Democrat, but I think about voting."
Turner's business background appealed to Mondschein, as well as to Bill Glassman, 85, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Turner and said he was embarrassed to tell people he's a registered Democrat because of the economy.
"The Obama administration and the Democrats are trying to minimize this race, but I think it has them shaking in their boots," said Joe Pascarella, citing several factors that made him vote for Turner. He called Obama's economic policy "devastating" and said his foreign policy had failed Israel.
Ultimately, said Pascarella, who went to work for Turner during the campaign, "it was a combination of things that made me do it. But more than anything," he said, "it was a message to Obama that he's taking the country in the wrong direction."