A Talmudic Paradox
The State Senate race in the 21st Senatorial District presents an interesting question.
What do you want from your elected official?
A recent forum held by Councilman Lew Fidler at his 41st AD Democartic Club put this issue into stark relief.
If the question is "Which candidate is the most thoughtful, has the best character and will likely be the best at bringing resources to the district and delivering constituent services?", then the answer is undoubtedly Simcha Felder.
Nonetheless, if I lived in the district, I’d be voting for incumbent Kevin Parker.
Why the dichotomy?
Because, ultimately, issues do matter.
Felder is bright, hardworking, and thoughtful. He is adept at the legislative process, and at bringing home the pastrami. Moreover, he inspires confidence. You would trust him to hold your wallet. I’m not sure I could say the same about either of his opponents.
He is also one of the most funny and charming politicians in the city, for what it’s worth. And to me, it is worth something, maybe even a lot.
Felder is focused both globally and locally. He genuinely appears to be obsessed with improving the quality of education in our schools, even if his family does not itself use them. And he is not incapable of taking an unpopular position.
By contrast, Parker seems to fly from the seat of his pants. He projects an air of being unfocussed, and he’s categorically refused to face up to why voters might be concerned about his issues of personal behavior. Parker may one day grow into a mensch, but he’s not there yet.
The third candidate, Councilman Kendall Stewart, seems aggressive, and no one can doubt his passion about issues facing immigrants, who make up a large part of his district’s population. But the recent indictment of two of his aides raises uncomfortable questions, questions which, by the way, have nothing to do with illegalities; questions such as why a member of the Council would be funding a program run by one of his own staff members?
Moreover, Stewart seems to have little focus for any other matter, vocational education excepted, beyond bringing home program money for his district, an obsession put into bad light by recent events. And, in quest of such funding Stewart has indicated a willingness to vote to allow the Republicans to once again organize the State Senate.
I’m afraid this must be disqualifying.
Felder, though accused by some of similar intent, seems credible in his assertions that this is not the case.
But, while Felder seems almost certain to vote with the Democrats to organize the Senate, he does not seem a reliable vote on many crucial issues which may arise in a closely divided body.
Take the budget and taxes. Felder is very conservative fiscally. He strongly supported the Governor’s recent service cuts. He also seems obsessed with not raising taxes.
By contrast, Parker was one of the few legislators who voted against the recent budget cuts, and he has no problems with a small increase in the tax burdens of those with more than $1 million in annual take home pay (It was hard to peg Stewart on such issues, or on many issues at all).
I am not saying that some cuts aren’t merited. It may very well be that the Governor is right.
But, legislating is a process, and poor neighborhoods need someone at the table during this process to protect their interests. Yes, we do need some fiscal conservative to ensure the state isn’t bankrupted and that there is money to pay for necessary services.
But, it is not the function of the Senator from the 21st SD to play such a role. It is the function of the Senator from the 21st SD to watch out for the interests of poor and working people.
If the Senator from the 21st SD does not play that role, then who the hell will?
On education, Felder had many interesting and insightful things to say, but ultimately, he seemed too concerned with giving the Mayor what he wants, and a bit too interested in alternatives to the public schools. Parker seemed focused on making the schools face the challenges of the next century, while Stewart favored more vocational programs. Probably, the two of them should split the difference.
There were issues where I found Felder and Stewart superior to Parker (both favor congestion pricing--Stewart seemingly because of the promises of last minute pork, while Parker opposes it). And while I suspect that both Stewart and Felder will vote with their party most of the time (Felder probably somewhat less so), it was clear that Parker was the one committed liberal in the race.
Finally, there are the social issues.
I expected Parker to be liberal, and he was. I expected Felder to be somewhat conservative, and he was (actually slightly more so than I expected on abortion, and less so on gay issues). I expected Stewart to be somewhat liberal and found him to be as conservative as Felder.
Parker opposes the death penalty in all instances; both Felder and Stewart favor the death penalty in some cases, though neither seemed much of an enthusiast.
On abortion, Parker is pro-choice all the way. Felder stopped me in mid-question and said I knew where he stood. I said I was not going to make that assumption based on his religion, since Shelly Silver was pro-choice. He said, “I’m not Shelly Silver” (some would regard this as a blessing, though perhaps not in this context), and apologized. I said that no apology was necessary. We did not go into details, but given halachic law, I will assume Felder would not ban abortions to save the life of a mother. More than that I cannot say.
Stewart said he found abortion troubling, but would permit them for rape and incest. He did not mention a mother’s life, but I will spot him that as well.
Parker favors marital equality. Stewart opposes it, but favors Civil Unions. Surprisingly, that is Felder’s position as well.
My position is for marital equality. But, if it cannot be achieved, I think proponents should go for an immediate vote on Civil Unions, as an intermediate step which will improve the lives of some, while helping wear down future resistance to marital equality.
I mean, if Simcha Felder will support Civil Unions, then half the battle has already been won, no?
Not that Felder is a homophobe. In fact, Felder played a crucial role in electing Christine Quinn as City Council Speaker. Felder's support was especially notable, not only because of his ultra-Orthodoxy, but also because Quinn’s main rival, Bill DeBlasio, was a former Felder ally (supported by Felder’s mentor, Dov Hikind), who represented the adjoining district. Felder’s public support of Quinn at a critical juncture in the race sent a signal which spoke volumes and may have put her over the top. Once Felder actually delivered this exquisitely executed coup de grace, his actual vote itself was unnecessary and irrelevant, and, mindful of his conservative constituency, he didn’t bother to actually deliver it, claiming a sudden attack of political dysentery and heading towards the men's room (not that Quinn particularly cared at that point).
Nonetheless, it is clear that anyone who dares call themselves as a progressive must support Parker for Senate. The ideological contrasts here are far, far greater here than, say, in the Harrison/McMahon race.
It is a disgrace that so-called progressives have largely run away from this race for stupid reasons like Parker’s support of Atlantic Yards (which echoes that of his opposition). Of the progressive bloggers, only Michael Bouldin has even hinted that a vote for Parker would be preferable (though typically, the reason Bouldin cites, that Felder is a shill for Dean Skelos, is a lie).
At the Democratic Convention, Chris Owens told me that CBID did not take a position in the race, but defended this because, at the time, Felder was not in the race.
That’s almost despicable, since not only is Stewart as conservative as Felder on every issue where they differ with Parker, but on the crucial question of voting to organize the Senate, Stewart is worse. Felder’s entry in the race did not make Parker’s re-nomination more imperative; if anything, it made it slightly less so.
Since I am not a “progressive”, you may ask, “how can you support Parker when he shares the problems you complain of concerning Kevin Powell?”
It is a good question, especially since Powell, if anything, seems more willing to face his demons than Parker. Let me explain.
Parker clearly has a bad temper, but unlike Powell, there seems no evidence of gender issues. A small comfort at best, but that isn’t all.
The difference between Towns and Powell on the issues is not serious, and on a few of the issues where they differ, I prefer the Towns position (better a foreign policy ignoramus who will vote the party line, than a Barbara Lee type leftist who will oppose the use of US force anywhere for any reason), although I do give Powell kudos for a better position on net neutrality. That may be a dime’s worth of difference, but not much more.
On the other hand, the differences between Parker and his opponents are serious, and except for Congestion Pricing, I strongly prefer where Parker stands.
Finally, Powell in Congress would be national story and a national embarrassment for both New York and the Democratic Party; in the New York legislature, the Parker embarrassment factor is only slightly worse than average.
I know that, given his genius for publicity, the election of Powell to Congress would ensure seeing him spout his blather nationally nearly every night; there seems no similar danger with Kevin Parker, who will surely never go to Congress.
In the context of conservative Borough Park, Simcha Felder is far and away their best and brightest; I might even back him for City Comptroller (there’d be some big caveats), but not in this race, for this seat.
Sometimes there are things more important than thoughtfulness, good character, initiative, wit and intelligence.
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