New York State

Can Anna Kaplan convince Long Islanders to trust a Democrat?

The challenger to state Sen. Elaine Phillips, Anna Kaplan has a liberal-leaning district, but faces fear of taxes.

Anna Kaplan

Anna Kaplan Photo by Matt Roth

Long Island’s 7th state Senate district has all the markings of a likely Democratic pick-up: It was briefly represented by a Democrat when the party last controlled the state Senate, it has a huge Democratic registration advantage and it went for Hillary Clinton by double digits in 2016.

The district is on Nassau County’s western front, stretching to the border with Queens. It’s shaped like an unusually tall panama hat, with a wide crescent encompassing affluent North Shore towns including Manhasset, Great Neck and Roslyn and prongs on the lower east and west extremities of the district taking in more racially and economically diverse areas like Elmont, Westbury and Hicksville.

The seat is currently held by rookie Republican state Sen. Elaine Phillips, weakening the GOP’s incumbency advantage relative to state senators who have been entrenched for a generation, like nearby District 6’s Kemp Hannon.

The Democratic nominee is North Hempstead Town Board member Anna Kaplan, who netted an early endorsement from Barack Obama. But in a region wary of taxes, New York City and Democrats, can Kaplan get over the hump in a way the party’s previous candidates haven’t?

Canvassing on a recent weekend in Roslyn Heights, the kind of wealthy enclave that might not take as kindly to the left-wing wave that just swept through New York City, Kaplan’s strategy was to both embrace her party identification while conveying that she will stay an independent voice for the district. That’s an outgrowth of the district’s politics, which are predominantly typical of upscale suburban Northeastern suburbs: Democratic-leaning, but more liberal on social than on economic issues. The neighborhood Kaplan walked that day was full of multi-story single-family homes with well-manicured lawns often running all the way to sidewalk-free streets, although Kaplan warned against stereotyping a district that she admitted has “a lot of one-percenters” but also has “a lot of people who are really suffering and hurting.”

Speaking to voters on their doorsteps along with Adam Haber, 2016’s Democratic nominee in the district, the 52-year-old Kaplan stressed the need to pass Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed “red flag” law that would allow teachers and school officials to remove guns from students, while also informing Democratic voters that she was honored to get an Obama endorsement. “I think we have a lot of momentum,” Kaplan said after meeting with a voter who said he and his family would all vote for her. “Being a councilwoman serving my seventh year, there are a lot of people in this district that know me. And I think I have the right message: better gun legislation and passing the Reproductive Health Act, neither of which my opponent voted for. And I want to strengthen our public schools, make sure we level the playing field for everybody.”

Where Haber provided a high-energy jocularity that was especially helpful to connect Kaplan with people in the neighborhood who knew him, Kaplan was more earnest and low-key while speaking to voters. Kaplan is a somewhat cautious candidate, not moving too far beyond those big three items while talking to journalists or potential voters. She previously has hedged on what she thinks about legal marijuana, and didn’t take a specific position on congestion pricing when asked about it beyond saying, “I really need to know how it would be implemented and where the funding from that will go.”

Kaplan also told voters about her atypical patriotic personal story as an Iranian Jew who immigrated alone as a teenager after 1979’s Iranian Revolution. “I came to this country at 13, I'm a Jewish political refugee and now I represent 39,000 people, and that's frickin’ amazing,” Kaplan told City & State. “I think it's a testament to this country we call home.” While she said she never envisioned a life in politics, Kaplan clearly took to it, as before her successful run for North Hempstead Town Council she was a trustee of the Great Neck Public Library District and a board member of the North Hempstead Board of Zoning Appeals. Kaplan also made a run to replace Steve Israel when he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to Congress in 2016, though she lost the Democratic primary to the 3rd Congressional District’s current representative, Tom Suozzi.

Kaplan’s moderation and restraint helps in the 7th District, according to Craig Burnett, an associate professor of political science at Long Island’s Hofstra University, who noted worries about the area’s high property taxes and and “at least some undercurrent of fear if Democrats hold all of the branches in Albany,” he told City & State. The Democratic delegation in the state Senate is routinely dominated by New York City-based senators who, as one would expect, look out for city interests when it comes to things like school aid and reflect a more left-leaning population on spending and big government.

She did show a willingness to mix it up and try to win someone over, when she and Haber encountered a hostile Trump voter. When she told the man at his door that she is a Democrat, he said, “I’m sorry to hear that, because the Democrats are full of crap.” Kaplan still tried to convince him that the state needed tougher gun control laws, which only earned a response of “You have a Constitution, I suggest you read it,” from the man.

But the relatively informed voter showed a familiarity with party dynamics in Albany that suggested he wouldn’t vote for any Democrat, no matter her specific policy proposals that might be popular in the district: “Mario will tie a rope on your hand and he'll go like this,” the man said, making a puppeteering gesture. “Who’s Mario?” a bewildered Kaplan asked. “I mean Andrew, same crap,” the man replied.

Anna Kaplan meets a Republican
David Colon

While Republican partisans are likely a lost cause for Kaplan, her campaign’s centrism seems suited to convincing people like Dave Seidler, a self-described “pragmatist” who leans right, and said he voted for Haber but no longer considers himself a Democrat despite being registered as one. Asked by City & State for his view of the party currently, Seidler said, “The socialist ideology the Democratic Party has taken on is a little much. It doesn't work in a capitalist society as well as they think it should.” He panned the ideas of “the young lady that’s a socialist that won,” presumably referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as “just not realistic.” Seidler wasn’t a completely lost cause for a candidate like Kaplan though, as he praised Cuomo as “tough” and said he mostly agreed with the way the governor has run the state, as well as demonstrating why Haber’s involvement in the campaign might be as important as Cuomo’s. “I don't know (Kaplan’s) ideas and things she wants to do, but if Adam is supporting her I know what he represents, so that's good enough for me,” he said.

Haber, who jokingly referred to himself as “a D-minus celebrity” in parts of the 7th District, barely lost his race in 2016 against Phillips. That election, like this one, was seen as competitive enough that big money got involved, including charter school proponents who sponsored ads gravely intoning that a Democratic state Senate would be a tool of Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Democrats.

But this year, with its potentially impending “blue wave” of Democratic wins powered by opposition to President Donald Trump on the left, could flip the district – but only if Kaplan builds name recognition and excitement about her candidacy, according to experts. “She has got to get a ground game; she needs to hit the pavement and talk to people,” Burnett told City & State. “She has to capture the excitement we've seen in other contests, and make the case that she's going to go to Albany to protect voters from what's happening in Washington.”

Federal issues on which 7th District voters mostly agree with Democrats, such as inaction on guns and possible restrictions on legal abortion, give Kaplan an opportunity to connect her campaign to standing against Trump. Another example is the new federal tax law, which capped state and local tax deductions, much to the disadvantage of high-income, high-tax areas like Long Island. That could drive angry voters to the polls in November. “Come April, people are going to realize how much they're getting screwed, and it'll be bloody murder,” Haber predicted.

The Nassau County Republican Party praises the tax law as helpful to most local families because of the overall rate cuts. But independent experts say that, whatever the specifics of that one law, the influence of Trump will overall hurt Phillips. Even though Phillips criticized national Republicans for the change to the tax code and praised the state budget that decoupled the state and federal tax codes, the “R” next to Phillips’ name could prove to be a liability. “There's been no real major shift in policymaking in Albany in the last two years, so it's not really a state or local force that's going to be driving much of voters' decisions,” Burnett said. Instead, he predicted, most voters may use local votes to comment on national political news, which could spell trouble for Phillips, since even without local polling figures, Donald Trump’s election has woken up activists in New York’s suburbs who reflect views that led to the president’s 12-point loss in the state Senate district in 2016.

Anna Kaplan with a supporter
David Colon
A former financial analyst at Goldman Sachs and former mayor in the North Shore town of Flower Hill, Phillips beat Haber by just over 4,000 votes in 2016 to succeed the retiring Republican state Sen. Jack Martins. The affable incumbent didn’t hesitate to interrupt her phone interview with City & State to chat with a couple of constituents who approached her, demonstrating her commitment to what she said was “always working hard and for the people of the 7th Senate District.”

Phillips has cross-party appeal, demonstrated by her 2016 endorsement by the liberal-leaning New York Times editorial board and from the New York League of Conservation Voters that year and again this year, based on her environmental record. 

Phillips thinks that enough anti-Trump voters in her district will still pull the lever for a Republican in a state legislative race. “People have to understand that this race, this Senate race, will impact their way of life for at least the next two years,” Phillips told City & State. “It will impact whether it’s affordable to live in New York state, how much public schools are funded and where the money goes. My job is to protect the citizens of this district, Nassau County and New York state,” sounding themes of fiscal responsibility that state Senate Republicans are running on in the suburbs.

Reflecting a district with more Democrats, and therefore more likely to move on social issues, Phillips doesn’t shy away from her support for abortion rights. In addition to her work on the tax code and sexual harassment legislation that prohibited secret settlements and mandatory arbitration for harassment complaints, Phillips also defended herself as staunchly in favor of abortion rights, telling City & State “I have always supported a woman's right to choose, hands down.”

However, she opposes the Reproductive Health Act, the top current top priority of abortion rights advocates in New York state, which would decriminalize abortions in New York State after 24 weeks and expand the types of medical professionals who could perform the services. She said that’s because she believes it legalizes abortions beyond the second trimester. The bill’s proponents dispute that, arguing it’s too broad of a reading of the language that would allow abortion in New York state beyond 24 weeks should a fetus not be viable, or a woman’s health or life is at risk. Phillips’ position has been enough to get herself an endorsement from the strictly pro-choice National Women’s Political Caucus, while Kaplan has found support from the National Organization of Women.

And instead of looking at D.C. when they vote, Phillips suggested voters in the 7th District look a little closer to home, though still outside the district when considering what their vote will mean.

“If you look at the makeup of the Senate Democratic Conference, anyone can clearly see who is going to be in charge,” Phillips said. “Who is the leadership of the Senate Democratic Conference? New York City. And on top of that my opponent is on social media asking New York City Democrats to come to the 7th Senate District and help knock on doors, and help take back the New York state Senate. That is all New York City she is asking for help from and she is going to be indebted to New York City,” raising the specter of the 2009-10 Democratic state Senate majority that instituted the MTA payroll tax, which taxes businesses in the city and the surrounding MTA-served counties of Rockland, Nassau, Suffolk, Orange, Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester based on their total payrolls. That measure, unpopular in the suburbs, helped roll back previous Democratic gains on Long Island.

Kaplan, though, is predicting more Democratic state senators from Long Island; currently only two of the 11 from the region are Democrats but analysts think up to two or three more could win this fall. In 2009-10, Democrats had only two seats on Long Island and Kaplan said that a larger Democratic bloc from there would have more power to prevent measures that would conflict with the area’s interests.

“I look forward to winning this seat and working with Sen. ToddKaminsky and Sen. JohnBrooks,” she said, reference the two Democrats currently in office, “and hopefully with candidate Jim Gaughran, to be a force for Long Island.”

The Democratic Party in Albany is also no longer rife with internecine squabbles and its corrupt leadership has been replaced in the state Senate with a respected majority leader-in-waiting in Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who hails from Westchester and knocked off a Republican incumbent as well. Cuomo, meanwhile, is no left-wing firebrand and no great benefactor for New York City. He has focused much of his career on winning the hearts and minds of suburbanites and upstaters, and an ad he just funded for Kaplan and Gaughran is focused on the themes of legal abortion, gun control and the SALT deduction cap while arguing: “For Long Islanders, it’s not red or blue, it’s right or wrong.”

And so that relentless focus on Washington by the governor might be enough to get Kaplan over the top this year, if a blue wave does crescendo. Local accomplishments or not, “it looks like, in a place like New York, it's better to be a Democrat than a Republican this year,” Burnett said.

Correction: This article has been corrected to note that Phillips won the NYLCV endorsement again in 2018.