Inna Vernikov, a 36-year-old attorney and conservative Republican, is running for the 48th City Council seat on a platform of getting tough on crime and restoring funding to the police budget, in a sharp departure from the policies of outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“I think that Mayor de Blasio has almost singlehandedly destroyed our city, and he is partially the reason I chose to run for office,” Vernikov tells Hamodia in an interview in her Lower Manhattan law office. “Look at what was going on last summer — with crime, with allowing looters to loot property without consequences, with fanning the flames of racism, and turning his back on police.
“The city needs to re-fund the police.”
Inna Vernikov immigrated from Ukraine as a 12-year-old, settling with her family in Brooklyn. Though Communism had destroyed much of her family’s connections with religion, she attended a Jewish school in Ukraine, and then Nefesh Academy in Midwood.
A turning point in young Inna’s religious awakening came after she got in trouble at school one day.
“I was suspended, and my punishment was to go to one of my teachers for Shabbat,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect, but the family was super-hospitable. They taught me about Shabbat. And this was an experience that I never had before, especially with my family — we never sat down for a Friday night dinner without electronic devices or anything in the way, there’s always a TV on, there’s always something going on. This was such a special experience for me that I really just fell in love with it.
“From that moment on, I started learning and being interested more in Judaism and in Shabbat, and in all these Jewish practices. That was kind of the beginning of my journey in terms of Judaism.”
Today, Vernikov describes herself as Shabbat- and kashrut-observant.
Following her graduation from Nefesh, Vernikov attended Baruch College, where she began getting involved in politics, and pro-Israel advocacy in particular, for which she was awarded by The Jewish Week. She attended Florida Coastal Law School in Jacksonville, serving as president of the Jewish Law Students Association and graduating in 2013 — after convincing the school administration to move its traditional Saturday graduation ceremony to Sunday.
An immigration and divorce attorney, Vernikov has always kept a foot firmly in politics. She volunteered on former State Senator David Storobin’s unsuccessful campaign for the 48th City Council seat against Chaim Deutsch. (Vernikov is now running for the same seat — which includes neighborhoods like Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach — and Storobin is now her campaign manager). Vernikov subsequently worked as an aide to former Assemblyman Dov Hikind, and later volunteered on the unsuccessful 2017 City Council campaign of Hikind’s son, Yoni Hikind.
Dov Hikind is an outspoken advocate for Israel and against antisemitism, issues Vernikov is passionate about as well, and working for Hikind was an important experience for the young activist. Among the issues Vernikov worked on was Hikind’s long-running, and ultimately successful, attempt to get Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi living in Queens, deported to Germany. (Palij was deported in 2018 and died the following year.)
Vernikov serves as chair of the women’s committee of Americans Against Antisemitism, the organization Hikind founded after he retired from office at the end of 2018.
On the day of our interview, Vernikov attended a demonstration organized by Hikind outside the office of the French Consulate General in New York, protesting a French court’s ruling that the killer of Sarah Halimi, a Jewish woman, could not be held criminally responsible for his actions because he was under the influence of marijuana, which he had long been using. The killer, Kobili Traoré, who reportedly yelled All-ahu Akbar as he beat Halimi and threw her out a third-floor window, is being held in psychiatric confinement.
Vernikov calls Hikind “my role model in many ways,” and the candidate, in turn, has won endorsement of the former Assemblyman.
“As far as I’m concerned, Inna is a superstar,” Hikind tells Hamodia. “She’s so lishmah, she’s so straightforward, she’s really very special, and she’s also a fighter. She’s not afraid to stand up and to speak out and do the right thing, which is, unfortunately, sorely lacking today in the society we live in. She would be a tremendous asset to our community and the entire New York City.”
While Vernikov has long been involved in political advocacy, she says it was “never my dream to be a politician.” But “because I am very frustrated about what’s going on in our country and in our city, I feel like I need to step up to the plate and contribute and fight for my community as much as I can, fight the progressive left as much as I can, because I think that the Democratic Party is exactly what’s destroying our country and our city.”
While funding was cut from the NYPD budget last summer at the urging of Black Lives Matter protestors, Vernikov is critical of this move and others by government, which she sees as prioritizing criminals over law-abiding civilians.
“Stores were looted all over New York City, and the looters were not getting arrested,” the candidate says. “There was the movement to defund the police. They passed reforms and laws that were harmful to the police. And because they did that, obviously, they’re taking away protection from civilians. So right now, I feel that the politicians are, instead of protecting the civilians, protecting the criminals. All the laws that we have now, whether it’s bail reform, which is a state issue, or defunding the police, it’s putting the safety of our citizens at risk.”
Vernikov’s complaints on city leadership extend beyond the issue of policing.
“The taxes are tremendously high,” she says. “Our mayor drove New York City residents out of the city. The wealthy left — so the tax burden shifts to the middle class and the poor.”
The de Blasio administration is planning to build a homeless shelter at 100 Neptune Avenue in Brighton Beach. The plan is bitterly opposed by many residents, including Vernikov.
“Some of the people who are going to live in this homeless shelter are going to be drug addicts, they’re going to be criminals, and that is very dangerous for children who are going to school a few blocks away. I’m not saying they’re all drug addicts. And of course, we need to deal with the homeless population with compassion. They need a place to go, they need a home, they need a safe place. But I am against putting these homeless shelters in places that are harmful to children, and that are harmful to the middle class, where they bought homes in surrounding areas, and their property values are going to decrease.”
As New York government is embroiled in a debate about government oversight over the secular-studies curriculum in private schools, Vernikov says she supports yeshiva independence.
“I went to yeshiva, and I believe in very limited government, obviously, as a conservative,” says the candidate. “So I think that government should have very little oversight when it comes to the education in yeshivas.”
Hate crimes are proliferating across the city — over the last several years against Jews, and more recently against Asians. Following a deadly attack on a Chanukah celebration in Monsey in 2019, Vernikov founded a program called the Synagogue Security Initiative, in which security companies provided free armed guards and security training to synagogues.
The city only currently provides funding for private schools of at least 300 students, and none for houses of worship. The candidate says increased city funding is “something I would fight very strongly for,” to combat hate crimes.
And, she reiterates, “the city needs to re-fund the police.”
Vernikov on other issues:
Small Businesses: “One of my top issues, even before the pandemic, was to help small businesses. We have to fight for lower taxes, we have to fight against the red tape and regulations that small businesses just couldn’t handle.”
Streets: Vernikov, a bicyclist, is in favor of expanding bike lanes. But she does not support expanding bus lanes, Open Streets and Open Restaurants programs that reduce driving and parking spaces.
Summer Youth Employment Program: “I participated in the program years ago, when it was still called Youth Corps. I think it’s great to keep kids busy and keep kids off the street. It gives kids work experience. So I think it’s a great program to have, and it’s something that I would advocate for.”
Vernikov, a self-described conservative, pro-life Republican, switched her party registration to Democrat around six years ago, before changing back to GOP last summer. She says the switch to Democrat was practical — virtually all citywide elections are decided in the Democratic primary — but that her switch back to Republican was on principle, unrelated to a potential election.
“I saw what was going on in the summer, that was very disturbing,” she says, referring to riots that rocked the city. “I just could no longer stay a Democrat on principle.”
By running as a Republican, Vernikov will head straight to the November 2 general election, while her five Democratic opponents will have to battle it out in a June 22 primary. (The Democrats are Amber Adler, Binyomin Bendet, Mariya Markh, Steven Saperstein and Heshy Tischler. One other previously declared candidate, Boruch Noble, had to drop out after contracting COVID-19 during petition season and being unable to gather enough petition signatures.)
While conventional thinking is that Republicans can’t win general elections in New York, the district is among the most conservative in Brooklyn, comprised largely of Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews, who voted heavily for Donald Trump. The Democratic candidates in the race are generally running on conservative or moderate platforms.
“I believe that government should be helping the people and not harming the people,” says Vernikov. “And the government we have in place right now is only harming the people, which is why I’m running for city council. And in this district, right now, in Brooklyn, we have the best shot to win as a Republican.”