“Heretic.” “Maverick.” “Opportunist.” “Advocate.” Who is the real Simcha Felder?

Brooklyn state Sen. Simcha Felder.
Brooklyn state Sen. Simcha Felder.
All photos by Frank G. Runyeon
Brooklyn state Sen. Simcha Felder.

“Heretic.” “Maverick.” “Opportunist.” “Advocate.” Who is the real Simcha Felder?

“Heretic.” “Maverick.” “Opportunist.” “Advocate.” Who is the real Simcha Felder?
October 24, 2016

As political journalists pelt voters with daily revelations about presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – be it leaked emails from the former or assault allegations against the latter – many local politicians are worried about how the fallout from that toxic race might affect their own political fortunes.

Simcha Felder is not one of those people.

Impervious to the steady thwack of newsprint-wrapped bombshells before Election Day, Felder is running unopposed for his state Senate seat in the 17th district – on the Republican, Democratic and the Conservative party lines.

Political analysts call him an anomaly, an outlier, a maverick even. He’s been called worse.

“I would say the average loyal Democrat sees me as a heretic,” said Felder, admitting that they have a point – he did defect from the Democratic Party to caucus with Republicans in 2012. “Of course I betrayed the party! The parties are not a religion.”

But despite donning a yarmulke and being ordained as a rabbi, Felder does not define himself by religious conviction either. “I don't consider myself the 'Jewish senator,’” he said. “That part is irrelevant – except that it is very important to my upbringing and my background.”

He wishes he was known by his personal qualities: “That he tries to help, that he's caring, that he's sensitive – I’m writing my eulogy here,” Felder joked in his Brooklyn brogue, reclining slightly in an office chair. The 57-year-old gestured freely, easing back into a gentle repose, his hand lightly touching his forehead. “But I hope the last thing would be, 'Oh yeah, he's an Orthodox Jewish guy who grew up in Brooklyn.”

He is a political character that defies easy labels.

Felder served two terms as a Democrat in the New York City Council beginning in 2001. He was elected to serve a third, but resigned instead to work as deputy comptroller, a position he held for two years. He then ran for state Senate on the Democratic line in 2012, beating out Republican David Storobin to win a newly-formed 17th district centered on Borough Park.

But shortly after his election to the state Senate, the lifelong Democrat announced that he planned to caucus with the Republicans.

Party leaders were furious.

Frank Seddio, chairman of the Democratic Party in Brooklyn, called it “both a disgrace and a complete betrayal of his constituents.”

Political commentators weren’t impressed either.

A New York Times reporter described the state senator-elect as “a serial political jumper, someone who makes a weather vane look like a symbol of constancy.”

But despite the vitriol, Felder has come out on top. By joining the 31 Republicans, he tips the balance of power in the 63-seat state Senate, 32 to 31. Felder’s gambit has made him one of the most influential politicians in Albany.

Simcha Felder

“He wields a lot of power,” said Ezra Friedlander, a political consultant and CEO of the Friedlander Group. “He's in a time when he's literally the deciding vote.”

“When everyone is courting you and everyone wants a piece of you, that's a good thing,” he added.” That's a very good thing.”

Indeed, perusing the political press, readers often see the names of four major players in the state Senate side-by-side: the Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, the Republicans, and Simcha Felder.

While Felder’s political play is currently paying off, there’s still the question of what’s really motivating him to break ranks with his party.

Twenty minutes into a far-ranging two-hour interview with the senator, City & State posed the question: Who is Simcha Felder?

Sitting in his office above Avenue J in Brooklyn, Felder answered.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly, adding quickly, “I don’t know who he is. I really don’t.”

He paused, sitting silently for a moment.

“I don’t know who I am.”

There were early indications that New York state Sen. Simcha Felder might stir up trouble for people in power – long before he defected from the Democratic party to caucus with Republicans, long before he ever held elected office. Perhaps, he admits, there were signs in his childhood.

From a young age, he said, “I did not have the sitzfleisch.”

That translates, roughly, as the ability to sit still. And for a rabbi’s son growing up in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community, where long hours studying sacred texts is expected daily, that meant he was bound to clash with the higher-ups.

“I made trouble all the time,” Felder said with a playful smile, the hallmark of a youngest child. "I was the bane of their existence.”

“Example number one: We had this rebbe whose constant mantra was, 'No one can fool me,’” Felder said, lowering his voice and wagging a finger.

Young Simcha, then in 10th grade, couldn’t resist the challenge.

He took a photo of the rabbi as he padded the hallways of the shul, smoking with his tongue hanging out. Simcha blew up the image, printed the picture and showed the rabbi, who sternly admonished him.

Days later, he pulled his friends into the prank. “I told the guys in class to tell him I made thousands of copies of the picture and hung it up all over the streets."

Only he hadn't.

The rabbi stormed across the street, grabbed Simcha – who was wielding only a stapler and a stack of blank cardboard – and dragged him into the principal’s office, ranting about the scurrilous schoolboy.

The principal was amused, but he posed a blunt question to the boy: Would he fall in line? Or did he want to be transferred to another school? Did he want to stay – or go?

“I don’t know,” the future senator told the principal. “Flip a coin.”

Now, 40 years later – with little more than a mile between his yeshiva and his Senate office – Simcha Felder has come a long way for someone who never went very far.

The boy who couldn’t sit still pushed through his classes at Yeshiva Karin Stolin, completed rabbinical studies at ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, picked up a bachelor’s in accounting at Touro College, then got an MBA at Baruch College.

But it turned out he was neither best suited as a rabbi or merely an accountant.

After serving as a tax auditor for the New York City Department of Finance, he began his political career as chief of staff to Borough Park’s veteran Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a fellow Orthodox Jew. Politics, Felder said, is the way he hopes to carry on his father’s ministry of helping others, by doing what he can for the people in his community.

It’s a community that needs a lot of help.

Felder’s district centers around the Borough Park, Flatbush, Midwood and Kensington neighborhoods. A 2011 UJA community study showed that 60 percent of all Borough Park households were poor or near poor, with 68 percent of household incomes falling below $50,000. The Flatbush/Midwood/Kensington area fared only slightly better.

That’s why Felder has done his best to bring money home to the district.

“I would say I love slush, every flavor. What people criticize as slush is the engine that allows government to help in areas which would never ever get the help.”

A prime example, he said, was his role pulling down $42 million in funding for door-to-door privatized busing citywide to accommodate students who get out after 4 p.m. – primarily yeshiva students. Otherwise, Felder said, parents would have had to pay for that busing, have their children take public transportation, or let them walk home in the dark.

Going forward, he is continuing to push for the Education Investment Tax Credit, which would bring further funding to religious schools.

While some have criticized such earmarks as pork barrel spending or pandering, Felder is not opposed – but he has another name for it.

“I would say I love slush, every flavor,” an outgoing City Councilman Felder explained to The Jewish Star in 2010. “What people criticize as slush is the engine that allows government to help in areas which would never ever get the help,” he said, citing funding for parks, libraries and local nonprofits.

“What comes to my mind first are the people who are the most vulnerable,” Felder told City & State when asked about his district, highlighting the large population of elderly residents, young children and people with special needs.

But a half dozen political analysts consulted by City & State were skeptical that his political jockeying is driven by compassion.

Dr. Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence University and an expert on political sociology, has a very different theory for what could be motivating Felder.

“Ruthless ambition,” Abrams said. It’s possible that Felder simply took advantage of the newly-drawn district, Abrams explained, by exploiting weak party organization there. Now, he’s simply playing them off one another to enhance his position. 

Simcha FelderAs long as the state Senate remains closely divided, Felder is in a position to play kingmaker.

But several associates of Felder’s dispute the image of a self-seeking politician. “Simcha is not your typical player,” Friedlander said, explaining that Felder has repeatedly rejected offers to be honored at community events. “He doesn’t demand the limelight. He shuns it.”

But when considering the political risk Felder is making, Abrams said, “This whole thing is just bizarre.”

The parties’ political machines are simply too strong to allow a single politician to switch teams the way that Felder has done, Abrams said. So, it’s only a matter of time before one of the parties targets his district.

"That's very dangerous politically,” Abrams said. "You can't operate as a free agent anymore in any legislative body. It's too difficult.”

And at the moment, the Democrats have the clearest motive to target the senator’s district. After all, the Democrats would have a majority if Simcha Felder caucused with them instead of the Republicans.

"Simcha is the best example of loyalty to one's self,” said Seddio, the chairman of the Brooklyn Democrats.

But despite Felder’s snub to the party in 2012 and his caucusing with the Republicans for the last four years, Seddio said, the Democrats have no plans to unseat him. Not least of all, because they can’t.

“Well, it’s too late now. But we couldn't find someone to run against him if we wanted!” Seddio said, chuckling. “No one will run against Simcha in his community,” he explained. His community now sees him as “the exemplary elected official that cares about them more than politics.”

After stridently denouncing Felder in 2012, Seddio has changed his tune. “Nothing wrong with being angry,” he said of his past comments. “There's something wrong with being vengeful.”

“For the good of the party, you have to work together to make things happen,” Seddio continued. In fact, he’s happy to welcome Felder back into the fold if the Democrats win enough seats in November to take back the majority.

The feeling is mutual.

“I would do it,” Felder said. “If tomorrow it made a lot more sense for me to caucus with the Democrats” and it would better serve his constituents and New Yorkers, he said he’d have no problem switching teams again.

“I am not a faithful, loyal Republican and I’m not a loyal Democrat,” Felder said, explaining that he’s always been clear: His policy positions don’t fit neatly into either party’s box.

Perhaps then, other political analysts said, Felder is simply a “party switcher” driven by his own independent political ideology.

He would not be the first.

There’s Richard Shelby, the Alabama congressman who safely flipped from Democrat to Republican in 1994.

And Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania senator who pulled the trick off successfully once, turning Republican in 1965, but lost his Senate seat after he crossed the aisle again in 2009.

Then there’s Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic Connecticut senator and onetime vice presidential candidate, who never changed parties but voted conservative on social issues – not unlike Felder.

Simcha Felder’s legislative record shows that he is no party-line Democrat.

In the state Senate, Felder was the only no-vote on the $15 minimum wage. He cast pivotal votes killing the immigration-friendly DREAM Act as well as shooting down the pro-abortion Women’s Equality Act. He called the elimination of stop-and-frisk policing a mistake. He helped torpedo 5-cent plastic bag fees and won himself the 2016 “Oil Slick Award” from the advocacy group EPL/Environmental Advocates. Felder also supported pro-Israel policies like anti-BDS legislation and Iran divestment.

“I am not a faithful, loyal Republican and I’m not a loyal Democrat.”

But Felder takes his cross-party ideology to a new level. This election he’s wearing three hats – Democrat, Republican and Conservative – and running on each party’s ticket.

“What's unusual about this case is to have somebody who's done this and still surviving in all parties,” said Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies party switchers in congressional politics.

Felder is not party agnostic or impartial – far from it. If he could, he would abolish them.

“Political parties? I don’t see the purpose,” Felder said. “I’m not claiming there was never a purpose for them.”

“If I could, I would rather there be causes,” he said, advocating for political clubs organized around a single policy goal. “For example, if people were in favor of family leave, if they had a line. If people were in favor of cutting taxes, if they had a line. Issues like that are much more important to me.”

But as much as Felder might wish they didn’t exist, political parties aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. A growing partisan divide is making parties more powerful, not less, research shows.

“State legislatures are becoming increasingly divided by party,” said Marjorie Hershey, a professor at Indiana University and an expert on party politics. “And that's perfectly understandable because the voters and the candidates who are elected are becoming much more polarized by party."

With voters and candidates hewing more closely to party lines, there’s little hope that either major party with vanish anytime soon, Hershey said.

But for a maverick welding as much political clout as he does, Felder has remarkably humble goals. He counts cutting down on parking tickets, outlawing unsolicited mailers and his attempt to ban the feeding of pigeons among his great legislative stands. Tackling public nuisances and local concerns are what he wishes to be known for – perhaps by a title like “Senator Pothole,” to borrow from U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, Felder said.

Voting behavior experts say that Felder’s political maneuvering is best explained by the unique cultural group that makes up the majority of voters in his district – conservative Jews. In fact, the Borough Park, Flatbush, Midwood and Kensington neighborhoods, south of Williamsburg and east of Sunset Park, may have greatest density of Jews in the country.

“It is the most Jewish Senate district in the state,” said Jerry Skurnik, an expert on voter data at Prime New York. He estimates that about 44 percent of the nearly 131,000 active voters in the district are Jewish, based on the number of voters with a Jewish last name.

Other estimates are higher.

David Pollock, director of public policy at the Jewish Community Relations Council, estimates 57 percent of all active voters are Jewish, since voters with less “Jewish” names are often missed in Skurnik’s count.

And based on data in the 2011 UJA report, Pollock estimates that 66 percent of all residents in Felder’s Senate district are Jewish, 42 percent of residents are Orthodox, and 26 percent of residents are ultra-Orthodox. And those numbers appear likely to increase, driven by large and growing families in the Orthodox community.

Still, Felder objects to labeling his district an Orthodox Jewish district.

“I hate that. I hate being characterized that way,” Felder said, his voice rising. “I don’t think people identify districts as Catholic districts or Muslim districts – which they shouldn’t!”

“But the facts are the facts,” he said. “I’m not trying to make something not exist that exists.”

While his district is certainly a multi-ethnic area, it is hard to miss the Hebrew lettering on many storefronts on Avenue J, the street vendors selling essentials for the High Holy Days, or the fact that Felder’s district office shares a building with a high school yeshiva.

Moreover, a large and growing percentage of his district belonging to ultra-Orthodoxy might explain Felder’s focus on local issues and getting the most for his constituents, several experts in Jewish political behavior said.

"The ultra-Orthodox practice what we call patron-client politics,” said Kenneth Wald, a professor at the University of Florida who studies Jewish voters. “That is to say they basically look at their representative as someone who is going to achieve very specific group-centered goals that they have. In exchange for which they'll provide the vote. It's a kind of trade."

This transactional politics aims to preserve the cultural enclave of a community that values separation from mainstream American society but needs help tackling poverty and safety concerns. They wish to be separate, Wald explained, but they need outside support.

"I think the ultra-Orthodox tend to be fundamentally concerned with things that will affect what they see as group survival,” Wald explained. And while this socially conservative group can appreciate a candidate who makes a stand against a broader political issue like abortion, he said, "Larger issues don't really matter. It's a question of will you give us this tangible thing that we need."

“It's almost like (the ultra-Orthodox are) fixed in that same 19th-century style of American politics,” Wald said. It would be true of the Amish too, he added, if they voted.

Quid-pro-quo politics, whatever the reasoning, raises eyebrows. Deals struck between influential community leaders and politicians smack of machine politics, good government groups warn. There’s a potential for influential religious leaders in the Orthodox community to command votes in exchange for favors.

“I hate (when my district is characterized as an Orthodox Jewish district). I hate being characterized that way. I don’t think people identify districts as Catholic districts or Muslim districts – which they shouldn’t!”

Felder regularly seeks advice from prominent rabbis, but played down any political significance.

But Orthodox Jewish news site Vos Iz Neias? reported that Grand Rabbi David Eichenstein, of the Burshtin Hasidic dynasty, endorsed Felder during his hotly-contested 2012 state Senate campaign. The story featured a photo of them affixing a mezuzah to the campaign office door. The Forward highlighted the act as a sign that New York’s ultra-Orthodox leadership is now more willing to be public in its political involvement, calling the move “something that would have been unheard of less than a generation ago.”

Yehuda Meth, Felder’s communications director, said Eichenstein is not a figure who could deliver votes.

Friedlander, an Orthodox Jew who has been very active in the community’s political life, brushed off insinuations that rabbis deliver votes.

"The notion that you have a handful of rabbis that control the vote is a myth,” he said emphatically. The idea that a rabbi with the long white beard gives nodding endorsements to pick a candidate is false, Friedlander said. "I'm not telling you my opinion. I'm telling you a fact."

Still, Yeruchim Silber, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council, said that some of the larger ultra-Orthodox sects are very successful with bloc voting.

“They usually vote one way,” Silber said. “The leaders will endorse a candidate and most of them will follow along with the endorsement of the leaders. That is a big deal.”

And while there’s always the privacy of the voting booth, religious leaders are generally trusted as liaisons with the government who understand what’s best for the community, Silber explained.

“In an election they can turn out a couple thousand votes – 2,000 votes, 4,000 votes – some of the big groups can turn out,” Silber said. “That’s pretty significant in a local election.”

Simcha Felder

And while that level of bloc voting is powerful, it’s worth noting that Felder handily won his 2012 state Senate election by almost 20,000 votes – besting Storobin by twice as many ballots.

“The bloc vote exists,” said Meth, the Felder staffer. But it’s broken down into small segments, he said. “The Orthodox vote is not a monolith, it’s a bunch of little Legos.” The simple fact that Storobin was not Orthodox was significant, Meth said.

Felder maintains that “bloc voting was not a factor at all” in his election with Storobin.

And of course, there were many other factors in play. Felder received significant backing from Borough Park’s elected leaders, including Assemblyman Hikind, his former boss, and City Councilman David Greenfield.

Amid any discussion of political influence and power in Borough Park’s Orthodox community, there is the specter of a federal corruption probe involving a prominent businessman there accused of bribing senior NYPD officials in return for official favors.

Unfortunately, Felder said, corruption in his home district and in the state Capitol is not news. Nothing has changed, he said, and he doesn’t expect it will.

“I see corruption on Avenue J,” he said. “I see corruption everywhere.”

When asked, Felder said he has “never knowingly” done anything corrupt himself.

“That’s like saying, ‘Did you ever do anything wrong?’” Felder said. “‘I hope I never did.’ That’s what I can say. But I can’t emphatically say, ‘No, I never did.’”

But despite the corruption swirling around New York politics, he reasons, that doesn’t mean you stay out of it altogether.

“When I first was in the Council there were a lot of things that I noticed – I don’t know if they were corrupt but – were certainly not right,” Felder said. “And at one point I came home and I said to my wife, ‘I don’t think I can take it. This is really bad.’”

“As long as you can’t take it, it’s okay,” Felder recalled her saying. “Once you start being able to take it, get out.”

But Felder’s experience hasn't made him an advocate for ethics reform or greater accountability in politics. In fact, he’s wary of those efforts.

People who hold public office should be held accountable, Felder said, but over-regulation of legislators – include proposals for publicly financed elections or banning outside income for politicians – won’t help. “The deterrents exist already and adding more deterrents aren’t going to dissuade someone who is determined to steal and lie from doing so. All you’re doing is making it more and more and more difficult for people who are honest to do their job.”

“I don’t think I really know who I am.”

By the end of the interview, Simcha Felder appeared to best be defined as a remarkable stack of contradictions. Who is this state senator who freely flips parties without any consequences?

And in the absence of an easy answer, perhaps his own is best.

Nearly a month after the first interview, Felder told City & State, “I don’t think I really know who I am.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to know who I am,” he added. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I don’t know who I am.”

But while he cannot define who he is, he’s more than happy to say what he does. “I try to help people,” Felder said. A job, he quipped, that is currently called “senator.”

“But if it was called something else,” he said, “I’d like that as well.”

One recent October morning, on a shady street by the Midwood Branch Library, Felder greeted the many pedestrians who recognized his face.

One elderly woman he greeted warmly by name – Clara Bishop – holding her hand and hunching over, bringing himself to her level.

After a few minutes, she set off down the street. But then she stopped and turned around. “Felder, you should run for president!” she hollered back to him.

“I am! I am!” the state senator said with a wry grin and a wave. “Just wait!”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is a freelance investigative reporter in New York City.