Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein announced a deal this week that the IDC would rejoin the mainline Democrats in the state Senate. If Democrats win two state Senate special elections, set for April 24, Democrats would hold a technical majority of 32 seats. The sticking point, as is often the case, is state Sen. Simcha Felder, the rogue Democrat from southern Brooklyn who caucuses with the Republicans separately from the IDC.
This year, Felder is facing his first primary challenge since his Senate district was created in 2012. Blake Morris, a lawyer in private practice, longtime Brooklyn resident and local activist, spoke with City & State’s Rebecca C. Lewis about his campaign against Felder, the IDC and what he sees as the test of the power of the Orthodox Jewish community in his district. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C&S: What made you decide to run?
BM: I’ve been part of a community group called NYSD17 for Progress. So we were not an advocacy group against Felder, we were a community-based constituent group to work with the senator to have the needs of the community heard.
C&S: During your time with that group, what did you find in working with state Sen. Felder?
BM: His office was responsive, where we actually met him many times. But the actual content of the responses were not satisfactory.
C&S: In what ways?
BM: We asked for him to have a public schedule of events where he would speak or appear and he refused. We asked him to have town hall meetings and he refused. We asked him to stop his opposition against speed cameras and stoplight cameras in school zones and he refused. We asked him to withdraw his speed-increase bill for Ocean Parkway. When the city lowered the speed limit on local streets, that included Ocean Parkway. So the speed limit dropped from 30 to 25. And Ocean Parkway is officially designated a state route, so the senator had a bill in the Senate that he wanted to increase the speed limit back, from 25 to 30, and we were opposed to that for public safety reasons. In that process of arguing with him back and forth for him to withdraw that bill, he actually amended his bill to 35 miles per hour. So that was the final straw. It got me crazed. Well, it got everyone crazed. Eventually, we had enough traction within the community, and I think other people in the state Senate realized the insanity of it, and he actually withdrew the entire legislation.
C&S: Within the community, do you see dissatisfaction with what he’s doing up in Albany?
BM: Yes. There’s a vast amount of dissatisfaction. We have a lot of issues that we have spoken with him about. We’ve spoken with him at length, so we know his positions already. So his positions are that he feels that he is doing the absolute correct thing because no one runs against him. So as long as nobody opposes him in an election, he must be doing the right thing.
C&S: His district, in some ways, was practically created just for him, in that he is an Orthodox Jew, he is a rabbi, his father was a prominent rabbi in the community, the community has a lot of Orthodox Jews and he represents their interests in Albany. Realistically, how do you see your chances to take on Felder considering he has never faced opposition and he, at least from the outside, appears to have this seat pretty well held onto?
BM: You have to go back through 2012. He actually ran against state Sen. Kevin Parker. Before the redistricting, before 2012, he ran twice against Kevin Parker. And he lost twice to Kevin, and then they did the redistricting in a way that, timewise, no one had an opportunity to put in petitions. And it was only Felder that basically had the ability to put his petitions in. And I would say that this district was not created for Felder, per se. This district was created as part of some type of political negotiation, and Felder is a placeholder. The constituents of this district were not a part of that negotiation. And, you should know, the majority of the district is not Orthodox Jewish. They are a major component, but they are not the majority.
C&S: When you say Felder is a placeholder, are you saying that he’s holding that place until someone comes and runs a proper campaign against him?
BM: No, that’s not what I mean. What I’m saying is, the seat is more of a concept. There was a political compromise made that the people in Borough Park and Midwood wanted their own Senate seat. So they just wanted someone to represent their interests. Felder happened to be available to fit into that role. That’s what I’m saying. It was designed to represent political interests in Borough Park and Midwood.
C&S: Do you see the power of the Orthodox voting bloc as essentially keeping Simcha Felder in power since he represents their interests?
BM: That is the $64,000 question. That is the question we do not know.
C&S: So your campaign is almost an experiment to see how much power they truly hold in your district?
BM: Yes, absolutely. And I actually think it’s an experiment, that I have confidence, will be successful to my campaign.
C&S: Now, he’s kind of his own thing up in Albany.
BM: He’s a party of one.
C&S: And people have said that has worked to the advantage of his constituents because he’s not really beholden to either party and he’s also in a very powerful position giving Republicans their narrow majority. I assume that if you are elected, you will caucus with the Democrats?
BM: Yes, I support the Democratic conference leadership.
C&S: Would constituents be giving up some the leverage they have through Felder and his unique position?
BM: Actually, not at all because the senator says he brings home the pastrami, but there is no evidence that he’s doing that. That’s his claim, but there is no evidence. There is nothing tangible that our district has received from state government having Felder as our senator. Actually, if anything, it looks like we’re actually getting less than everyone else. There’s a lot of talk of all these great benefits that Felder, the turncoat Democrat, has when he made his deal with Flanagan, but there is not tangible benefit within the district.
C&S: If the mainline Democrats and IDC do actually reunify and Felder becomes that one sticking point, do you see that helping your campaign, if he literally becomes the one vote giving Republicans a majority, if Democrats win both special elections?
BM: This is my opinion on this: I think the IDC should be abolished immediately and go back to the Democratic conference. And Felder should also, immediately, go back to the Democratic conference. So I am completely supportive of reunification, immediate reunification. Even though they’re offering ice in the winter, the IDC should be abolished, Felder should still go back to the conference and there should be, on Thursday, Sept. 13, a vigorous challenge to all eight IDC members and Felder, and let these nine rogue Democrats explain to the public what they’ve done in the past. They have a lot to account for. Let them go tell the voters why they did the things that they did and explain why they should be trusted in the future when they were actually untrustworthy in the past.
C&S: If Felder doesn’t sign onto the reunification plan, will that help you in your campaign?
BM: I have two thoughts about that. One thought is, I do not prefer to speculate about future events. I stay focused on the present. And the other thought I have regarding this, is that yes, I’m running for state Senate, for the 17th Senate District, but this is really not about me at all. This is about democracy and the voting rights of people because people vote in party primaries and they expect the candidates in the party primary are going to be participating with the party when they get to the state Legislature. So if you want to be a Republican, you should run as a Republican.
C&S: And have you found that community members do want a tried and true Democrat?
BM: Yes. The 17th Senate District is 62 percent registered Democrat, 21 percent Republican and like 20 percent non-affiliated. So through party registration, the district has expressed their interest to stay with the Democratic Party. And all our elected representatives within the 17th Senate District are Democrats. Felder’s the only one who’s the turncoat Democrat who actually votes for the Republican majority in the state Senate.
C&S: Why do you think Felder has never faced opposition before?
BM: I think there are two, independent reasons. The first reason is because of that political compromise in 2012, they call it the Grand Bargain. I don’t have the particulars of it. One of the consequences of that Grand Bargain in 2012 was this 17th Senate District, the way it was drawn. So when I spoke to elected Democratic officials, that was always what they pointed to, that there would not be any support for anybody to challenge Felder. And actually, it would upset this Grand Bargain, which is a secret. Nobody would tell me what it was. Reason No. 2 is that the 17th Senate District has almost no Democratic clubs. There just wasn’t the organic support for a candidate. … So now, we’re in a completely new dynamic that has never existed before, now with the recent steakhouse event (where the deal for IDC reunification was made), a lot of things are now in play.
C&S: Are you planning on uniting with the anti-IDC candidates?
BM: Yes, absolutely, that is the plan. I am friendly with many of them already. We have not finalized our arrangements, but yes, we are on the same page. We all want the same thing. Felder told us, one of the main reasons he likes to be with the Republicans is that he just likes their values more. So basically, Felder is a Republican in Democratic clothing. And one of the reasons he doesn’t want to change party affiliations is he knows what’s going to happen to him as a Republican in the 17th Senate District.