Catholics and the Special Election in New York’s 9th Congressional District
New York’s 9th Congressional District has been in Democratic hands since the Harding Administration. So Republican Robert Turner’s victory last month is worthy of discussion.
Much commentary focused on the Orthodox Jewish rejection of President Obama’s Israeli policy. While accurate, this reporting failed to account for the impact of two crucial demographics, and thus does not adequately assess what this election means for today’s electorate.
The coverage made it seem that the district is majority Orthodox, which is untrue. The core Orthodox Jewish area is near Borough Park. There are also large Jewish neighborhoods in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. The Jewish Data Bank says the district is approximately 25 percent Jewish. Conversely, some of the most densely populated areas of the district include Middle Village, Maspeth, Bayside, and Howard Beach. The first two neighborhoods are heavily German, both Catholic and Protestant. Bayside has large Italian and Irish populations. Howard Beach is mainly Italian.
Smaller neighborhoods in District 9 are similar. Parts of the Rockaways such as Breezy Point and Belle Harbor are nearly all Irish, with many police officers, firefighters, and skilled laborers summering there. In Brooklyn, Gerritsen Beach is almost entirely Irish; Marine Park is Irish, Italian, and Greek. Far from being an Orthodox Jewish district, District 9’s residents are predominantly Catholic.
Turner defeated Assemblyman David Weprin, son of former Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin, who are Orthodox Jews. Weprin’s notoriety made him the favorite, and his Orthodox Jewish faith made him likely to dominate in Borough Park. How did he lose?
Obama has equivocated on the issue of Israel. The mainstream media, based across the river in Manhattan, concluded, “Orthodox Jews were mad at Obama.” This analysis is oversimplified and overly convenient.
A major factor has been overlooked or denied.
Orthodox Jewry is opposed to same-sex marriage (SSM). In June, New York legalized the practice. Weprin, though Orthodox, voted the party line dictated by Governor Cuomo. This infuriated his co-religionists, giving them a clear target to demonstrate their anger.
The legalization of gay marriage motivated the far larger Catholic population, too. Catholics wondered aloud why they had so little political muscle in that fight. For example, State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D) of Middle Village, a Catholic, said he had received 4,800 petitions in favor of SSM from his district and 1,100 against, which made him change his vote to “yes.” In a Catholic diocese with 1.4 million members, the Chancery was only able to muster 1,100 letters and calls to a senator in a Catholic neighborhood who was known to be undecided. Along with the law itself, this failure surely angered many traditional Catholics. Again, this election came at a perfect time for them to vent their spleen.
The evidence indicates gay marriage was a crucial factor in Turner’s win. First, there was the high turnout in the Rockaways and, second, the fact that a popular Orthodox politician Dov Hikind endorsed Turner because of Weprin’s SSM vote.
Also underreported, yet with the most political significance, was another demographic: The district is 86 percent white or Asian, and has the smallest black population in New York at 4 percent. Furthermore, while urban, the district has many married, middle-class homeowners over 40 who are regular churchgoers, making it demographically similar to a suburb. Overall, the district can be described as primarily white, working-class, and mature.
This is why I say Democratic pundits conveniently blamed the loss on Orthodox Jews. Were that true, the election would have little consequence. What really happened was that when a middle-class Caucasian district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 voted on two Democrat pet projects — gay marriage and the President’s agenda — the Democrats lost. In New York City, of all places, Obama and the legalization of gay marriage harmed the Democrat candidate and helped the Republican.
So what does this mean for the state of the electorate now? First, it means socially conservative voters, Catholics included, are anxious to vote. Their leadership may be hesitant to raise their voices on social issues, but these voters will ignore party lines and vote with their conscience.
More importantly, there are dozens of seats with demographics that look like New York’s 9th Congressional District — majority white, middle-class, traditional. Recent polls show the President’s approval under 30 percent with married whites over 40. If anger at the President’s economic, foreign, and social policy can cost Democrats a seat they’ve held for 88 years in the media capital of the world, they can lose anywhere. As an example, consider Senator Bob Casey, who was able to win the blue-collar vote in Pennsylvania by billing himself as Catholic first and Democrat second. He voted for Obamacare and thus taxpayer-funded abortion. He must be looking at NewYork’s District 9 and wondering.
By Vincent Giandurco of Fairfield, Connecticut, a graduate of Catholic University active in New York and Connecticut politics.