Council District 23 Election: Why Everyone Has it Wrong

The Council race to replace Mark Weprin in the easternmost reaches of Queens has attracted sparse, puzzled coverage in the mainstream, non-local media. With six candidates running for the Democratic nomination it is not surprising that Manhattan has sought a familiar, comprehensible narrative to explain the race in the distant 23rd District.

Thus the race has been boiled down by a naïve press to a proxy battle between the two competing wings of the city Democratic Party. On one side, Barry Grodenchik, former one-term assemblyman, long-term habitué of Queens Borough Hall, purse-carrier for yentas from Claire Shulman to Helen Marshall to Nettie Mayersohn to current avatar Melinda Katz, represents the traditional Queens County Dems, who have all lined up behind him. Grodenchik is the archetypal time-server, ready for his long-awaited reward.

On the other side, according to this narrative, representing the self-described Progressive wing of the Democratic Party, stands Rebecca Lynch, princess of labor steeped in union politics from the cradle, a labor lobbyist from the age of 22, and recent de Blasio staffer. Backed by the Progressive Caucus and an impressive roster of trade unions, Lynch has raised copious cash and hopes to join the ranks of the Council as a WFP-approved regular.

One could make the mistake of assuming that the battle lines are indeed so drawn. Of course, the press has also taken notice of upstart Ali Najmi, a lawyer and former Mark Weprin staffer who appears to have had a falling out with his old boss. Najmi, of Pakistani descent, seeks to be the first South Asian elected to the Council. The 23rd CD has a substantial number of Asians, though the percentage of Asian voters is substantially lower than their share of the overall population. Najmi won the endorsement of the New York Times and of left darling Zephyr Teachout, though some wags have noted that those two endorsements and fifty cents will still leave Najmi fifty cents short of getting a cup of coffee in the 23rd CD.

The problem with looking at this election as a calculus of endorsements and backers is that the voters of eastern Queens aren’t particularly attached either to Joe Crowley’s machine, or to the de Blasio/WFP left, and both Grodenchik and Lynch are perceived as outsiders. The blog Queens Crap has done a fantastic job detailing the candidates’ campaign contributions, and demonstrated that neither of them has raised a significant amount of money from inside the district. Grodenchik has received more than ten thousand dollars from other politicians’ campaign committees, for example, and Lynch has taken close to $50,000—more than half of her contributions—from labor unions.

The dark horse in the race, and the one that City Council Watch believes to have the inside track to victory, is Bob Friedrich. Friedrich, who has run previously in the district, is the only candidate currently running for whom voters in the 23rd District have pulled the lever, and in fairly large numbers at that. For instance, in 2009 Friedrich ran against Mark Weprin for the Democratic nomination for the council seat that David Weprin was vacating. Friedrich polled about 2,300 votes versus Weprin’s 4,400. But then, running as a Republican in the general election, Friedrich got 7,300 votes out of a total of almost 25,000, in a district where Democratic registration runs 5-to-1 against the GOP. In a race with no Weprins, Friedrich’s odds only improve.

Why does Bob Friedrich have a base in the district, where Grodenchik and Lynch have none? The key to comprehending the 23rd CD is to understand that about 50% of the district’s voters live in garden apartment co-ops, which are middle-income housing units mostly owned by the occupants. The people who live in these co-ops are fiercely committed to preserving the middle-class, suburban lifestyle they have worked to achieve. The area has more in common with Nassau County than it does with Sunnyside. The co-op denizens are unimpressed with the county political machine, and distrust the de Blasio administration.

The largest of these co-ops is Glen Oaks Village, which has almost 3,000 units and about 10,000 people. Bob Friedrich has been the president of Glen Oaks Village since 1991, and is well-known throughout the district as a civic leader, particularly on co-op related matters. His fundraising consists largely of smaller-sized donations from individuals inside the district, with no union or campaign war chest grants. Friedrich received a surprise endorsement yesterday from the Queens Tribune, which has typically been known as a mouthpiece for the Democratic machine. Also, Mark Weprin, who is officially supporting Grodenchik, has apparently let it be known that he thinks Friedrich is likely to win.

The election will be very close. It will be held on a Thursday, which is rather unusual, and the council vote will be the top of the ballot. Turnout is expected to be about 10%, with perhaps 6000 people casting ballots. Friedrich, according to a councilmember who has been following the race, is estimated to be starting with 1500 votes, which is a solid leg up. Obviously it will be tight, and probably decided by a margin of hundreds at most, but remember that you heard it here first: Bob Friedrich, who has never been a staffer or a lobbyist, and is thus unknown to the City Hall cognoscenti, will win.

NB: An interesting twist in the race concerning Ali Najmi is his relationship with Mark Weprin. Apparently annoyed by his former staffer, Weprin supposedly leaned on Satnam Panhar (a Sikh), and Celia Dosamentes (a Hindu) to enter the race in an effort to split the Asian vote and wreck the Muslim Najmi’s chance to get a lock on it. Both Panhar and Dosamentes have long-established ties to the Weprin family, so whether this is just conspiracy bluster or not, it does have the ring of truth.