My story from the print issue:
For political insiders, the Democratic primary in Queens’ 6th Congressional District has been something to behold: It has featured internal spats within Queens’ most powerful political family, intrigue over alleged stalking-horse candidates and dustups over looking up debate answers on cell phones.
Yet when voters go to the polls on June 26 to choose among Assemblyman Rory Lancman, Assemblywoman Grace Meng, Councilwoman Liz Crowley and allergist Robert Mittman, most political experts agree that northeast Queens voters will be vaguely, if at all, aware of
So what are the campaigns really thinking about as Election Day approaches?
Political experts and the campaigns agree that the path to victory rests on the grassroots efforts of the three major candidates in the race—Meng, Lancman and Crowley—to bring out their bases in one of America’s most diverse congressional districts. For all the talk among the small group of political insiders on Twitter or in blogs about this intriguing election, it may well be old-school ethnic politics, money and labor support that rule the day.
“This district is a real question mark,” said top Democratic consultant Bruce Gyory. “You have three credible candidates, each with different ethnic and racial bases and little differences on the issues, and it’s turned into who can best bring out their bases. Polling the race wouldn’t even be helpful because it’s all about who has the best organization and the best turnout.”
According to Gyory, just as important as a candidate’s base turning out will be efforts to cut into other candidates’ bases.
“A big question will be whether Meng can cut into Lancman’s Jewish vote, or will Crowley finish second?” Gyory said. “And who can finish second in the Asian vote?”
This year will mark the first time since 1979 that New York’s congressional primaries will be held in June, and turnout is expected to be extremely low. Out of about 186,000 registered voters in NY-6, the campaigns predict that only about 32,000 will actually come out to the polls.
Of the district’s overall population, about 31,000 people have Hispanic last names, 31,000 have Asian last names and 31,700 have Jewish last names, according to Jerry Skurnik of renowned voter-file vending firm Prime New York. But in Democratic primaries since 2007, Jewish voters have slightly outperformed Asian voters, while Hispanic voters, despite having roughly the same number of registered Democrats, have voted in less than half the number of those two ethnic groups.
On paper that has made Lancman, who is Jewish, and Meng, who is Asian-American, the presumed front-runners, given the often tribal nature of New York politics. Some Asian voters are likely to be excited by the notion of New York’s first Asian-American congresswoman; some Jewish voters regard the seat, which was previously held by Rep. Gary Ackerman, as inherently Jewish. Crowley, who is Catholic, also has a base in neighborhoods like Glendale, which is more politically conservative and smaller. She also has the “Crowley” name, which is well-known throughout the district, primarily through its association with her cousin, Congressman Joe Crowley—though Rep. Crowley, in his role as Queens County Democratic Leader, is supporting Meng against his relative.
Throughout the campaign, Lancman has focused on the issue of Israel to try and turn out his Jewish base; Meng has also professed strong support for Israel, while Crowley has termed it a “distraction.”
Israel matters more to some voters than others; the district includes both a substantial secular Jewish population and a smaller high-turnout Orthodox population that will likely be more prone to vote based on the issue. The efficacy of the older, Jewish population is also a major reason the solvency of social security has become such a major point of contention among the candidates.
Courtesy of her support from the Queens Democratic machine, Meng has a trump card for cutting into Lancman’s Jewish base that Crowley does not: the backing of prominent Jewish elected officials, including Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz and State Sen. Toby Stavisky.
“Grace Meng has the support of various elected officials that could help her [with the Jewish vote], from [Congressman] Gary Ackerman to [Assemblyman] David Weprin to [Councilman] Mark Weprin,” said Skurnik.
Then there is Meng’s support in the district’s sizable Asian-American community, where a largely supportive media more intensely covering the campaign than English-language newspapers and television should drive up Meng’s support. By contrast English-language media has taken a more impartial tone, and the big dailies have not extensively covered the race.
“Most people in the City of New York know half or 60 percent of the story of what’s going on,” said Evan Stavisky, a Queens district leader who personally supports Meng but whose political consulting firm, the Parkside Group, is neutral in the race. “A substantial number of people in this election not only don’t get most of their news in English but don’t necessarily speak English at all.”
Still, the Asian-American community is far from monolithic. Meng is of Chinese descent; her rivals have specifically tried to court the city’s substantial Korean-American population.
Crowley, meanwhile, is seen as best being able to cut into her opponents’ base through her union endorsements, which include virtually all the building-trades unions, as well as uniformed labor. That ties in well with Crowley’s campaign message, which is relying on a blue-collar appeal and pushing the fact that she is a former restorative painter running against two attorneys.
But the other campaigns question whether her base of Catholic voters is really large enough to carry Crowley to victory in a very low-turnout election.
The money and muscle of organized labor will be a big help to Lancman as well. Perhaps the highlight of Lancman’s campaign thus far was landing the endorsement of the Working Families Party, whose robust field operation prevailed over the Queens Democratic Party’s in numerous 2009 low-turnout primaries.
“I expect the Working Families Party to go out gangbusters for him,” said one rival operative.
The biggest problem for Lancman may simply be money; Meng’s better-funded campaign has been able to paper the district with mailers, which in a low-interest election can prove more effective than the spate of media coverage that Lancman has received through his near-daily press conferences.
The race could well be a testing ground for Lancman’s claim that the Queens Democratic Party, with all its money and political muscle, no longer knows how to win campaigns. He has an aggressive campaign, while Meng’s has featured a battery of highly paid, prominent consultants who have often not proven quite as nimble.
But Evan Stavisky, an operative who often works for the party, predicted that traditional factors—money and ethnic politics—would ultimately carry Meng to victory.
“In Democratic primaries, the importance of ethnic pride and fundraising can’t be underestimated,” Stavisky said. “Grace Meng has both of those things going for her.”
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