Queens Shocker as Orthodox Jew May Win Council Seat

NEW YORK -

A special election to choose a new City Council member to replace the state Senate-bound James Sanders was too close to call yesterday, a day after an Orthodox Jew shocked the system and came within 26 votes of winning against seven other candidates in the 90 percent black district.

Donovan Richards, a protégé of Sanders’s who got the bulk of endorsements and campaign cash, was leading over Pesach Osina, 2,513 votes to Osina’s 2,487, in unofficial returns Tuesday night. The other six candidates trailed far behind.

A missing memory stick containing several dozen votes scheduled to be counted late yesterday, along with about 400 absentee ballots that will be counted late next week, could determine the outcome. If the final result remains below 41 votes, or half a percentage point of the total, state law mandates an automatic manual recount, stretching finality into the spring.

But both Richards and Osina lost no time in declaring victory.

“Congrats to my dear friend and colleague Pesach Osina on his hard-fought victory in tonight’s City Council election,” Goldfeder posted online shortly before 9:00 on Tuesday night.

“Happy to announce I am the Councilman!” Richards posted shortly afterward.

“I’m calling on the community tonight to put aside their differences. Those who ran in this election, let’s not be bitter against each other,” Richards said Tuesday night at his campaign headquarters.

“If you are really for the community, if you are truly for the community,” he added, “whether it is the Orthodox Jewish community, whether it is the African-American community, whether it is the Jamaican community, whether it is the Haitian community, whether it is our white brothers and sisters, I am calling on you to get your hands dirty and get in here.”

“While we are still uncertain of the total numbers,” Osina, flanked by Goldfeder, told supporters at his election night event, “when every vote is counted, we will be victorious.”

The winner will represent the Sandy storm-damaged 31st Council District in southeast Queens, Far Rockaway and Bayswater until November, when there’s a general election for the Council.

The superstorm that hit the east coast in October played a domineering role in the election for the district, which suffered the brunt of the hurricane. Hundreds of homes are abandoned across the district, and residents are frustrated at the delayed response to their plight by state and federal agencies.

“Just as the council member to Lower Manhattan was an important part of the discussion following 9/11, the council member in the Rockaways is an important part of the discussion as the city, state and federal government spends billions in rebuilding,” Evan Stavisky, a political consultant with a longtime history in Queens, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

“The storm obviously touched every part of the city, but probably nowhere quite as profoundly as the Rockaways,” he said.

Election experts said that the post-Sandy frustration probably lead to the low turnout. Tuesday’s election only drew 8,364 voters, half the number that turned out in 2009, when Sanders won handily.

The election emerged after Sanders defeated scandal-tarred state Sen. Shirley Huntley. The Queens Democrat pleaded guilty two weeks ago, and again yesterday, to two charges of felony embezzlement of state funds.

Richards was Sanders’s former chief of staff and was endorsed by Sanders. Osina, a former aide to Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, an Orthodox Jewish Democrat representing the area, has been active in the Orthodox Jewish community in Far Rockaway where he helped with storm relief efforts.

Jewish music played from a truck in Far Rockaway, with intermittent calls to get out the vote. That probably is what made Osina competitive against the better-funded Richards.

The race, which pitted Osina against seven black candidates, took on a racial tinge in its final days. Bishop Charles Norris, founder of a popular Jamaica church and a local powerbroker, threw his support behind Jacques Leandre, an attorney of Haitian origin, citing the need to prevent the “young Jewish boy in the Rockaways” from winning.

Norris tried getting some of the long shots to drop out of the race to prevent Osina’s victory but had no success. His candidate, Leandre, ended up with 1,160 votes, or 14 percent.