Competitive Race Expected in 48th Council District

BROOKLYN -

She is a Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican. He is a Republican-turned-Democrat.

She is Inna Vernikov, he is Steven Saperstein, and they are running for the 48th District City Council seat, in what is expected to be one of the few competitive races in New York City this November.

The district — which includes Brooklyn neighborhoods like Midwood, Madison, Sheepshead Bay, Homecrest, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach — is heavily conservative, with Russian Jews and Orthodox Jews its largest demographics, along with Chinese, Pakistani, Italians and secular American Jews. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans at less than a 2-to-1- ratio — the city overall is 7-to-1 — and many voters register as Democrats only because most elections are decided in Democratic primaries. The district has typically voted for conservative Democrats in elections for the heavily Democratic City Council. But Republican Donald Trump got 65% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, and some political observers believe this may be the year a Republican wins the local election.

Most political observers who spoke with Hamodia about this race believe that voters will cast their ballots based on party or other identities, rather than based on the specific candidates, who may not be that personally familiar to voters and whose political views are quite similar to each other’s.

Vernikov is a fiery right-winger who rails against socialism and is socially conservative, and is also running on the Conservative Party line; Saperstein is somewhat more moderate and socially liberal. But when Hamodia recently spent a day following and speaking with each candidate and the voters they encountered — while Saperstein knocked on voters’ doors in Manhattan Beach, and Vernikov campaigned on Avenue M in Midwood — the candidates themselves struggled to describe to Hamodia the policy differences between them.

“As far as the candidates themselves, their views are almost identical,” said one observer, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race.

Regardless of who wins this election, the 48th District Councilmember will be one of the most conservative in a 51-member legislative body that currently has just three Republicans.

Saperstein previously ran two unsuccessful political campaigns, both as a Republican: for the 48th Council seat in 2017, and in 2018 for the 46th state Assembly seat.

Saperstein said he chose to run as a Democrat this year because being a member of the majority is “the best way to deliver services and funding to my community,” but that he is “the same Saperstein from 2017, 2018. My platform has never changed.”

Vernikov, who has never run for office previously, switched her registration from Republican to Democrat around six years ago, before changing back to the GOP in 2020. She said the switch to Democrat was so that she could vote in Democratic primaries, where nearly all citywide elections are decided. She switched back to Republican, she says, amid the rioting during the summer of 2020.

“The Democrat politicians allowed for these riots, they wanted to defund the police, they did defund the police,” she said. “They protect criminals instead of protecting citizens, and I could no longer on principle remain a registered Democrat, even on paper.”

Nearly all voters asked by Hamodia to name their most important issues mentioned safety at the top of their list. In the 48th District, there isn’t much support for defunding police or criminal-justice reform.

Saperstein decried public officials “bending to this mob mentality” of “hating the police,” and said, “The majority of people, especially in our district, love the police and appreciate the work that they do and the sacrifices that they made. But there are police haters out there, and the politicians are listening to the haters.”

Vernikov said Mayor Bill de Blasio “almost singlehandedly destroyed our city,” pointing specifically to the riots in the summer of 2020, “with crime, with allowing looters to loot property without consequences, with fanning the flames of racism, and turning his back on police.”

Saperstein has been endorsed by the PBA and other police unions; Vernikov was endorsed by retired NYPD Chief Joseph Fox.

Saperstein, 37, a special-education teacher, also has the endorsements of the United Federation of Teachers, the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition (FJCC), the Sephardic Community Federation, Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich, and two of the Democrats he defeated in the primary: Mariya Markh and Binyomin Bendet.

“When considering whom to endorse, a major factor for us is which candidate is supported by law enforcement,” said FJCC Chairman Josh Mehlman. “Steven Saperstein has earned the endorsement of the police unions, and for this community, public safety is most important; everything else pales in comparison. We believe Steven Saperstein is the best candidate on this issue. Steven has said and done all the right things, and has committed to working hand in hand with our community organizations to strengthen and secure the 48th Council District.”

Ulrich called Saperstein “the common-sense candidate,” whose “views accurately reflect the values of the voters of the district.”

“Because I know his character and his integrity,” Ulrich said, “I’m very proud to cross party lines and urge all my fellow Republicans who live in this district to come out and vote for the person, not the party.”

Ronnie Tawil, Co-Chairman of the Sephardic Community Federation, said his organization believes “Steve is the best person for the job, who fully understands and will advocate for our community’s needs.”

Vernikov, 37, an immigration and divorce attorney, has been endorsed by former Democratic Assemblyman Dov Hikind, for whom she has worked as an aide; and Republican elected officials including Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, Staten Island Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis and Councilman Joe Borelli.

Hikind called Vernikov “a fighter who is not afraid to stand up, and will work with everyone in the City Council.”

“We are living in difficult times today,” said the former Assemblyman, “and we cannot afford to have public officials who are afraid to stand up and speak out for our community.”

“Inna is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who loves and appreciates the freedoms America brings to us all,” said Chief Fox. “She understands that to keep our communities safe, we need our brave men and women of law enforcement, and we must support them. A vote for Inna is a vote for a voice for freedom, safety and a better quality of life for all.”

Steven Saperstein grew up in Madison and Brighton Beach. He was raised in, and maintains, a traditional Jewish home. When he, his wife and two children attend shul, they go to the Chabad at the Seabreeze Jewish Center in Coney Island.

Vernikov, who immigrated from Ukraine as a 12-year-old, went to Nefesh Academy in Brooklyn, where she became Shabbat- and kashrut-observant.

***

Saperstein has declined to reveal whom he voted for in the 2020 presidential election, telling Hamodia, “The people who know me, know who I voted for.”

Vernikov, a Trump supporter, has criticized Saperstein for refusing to reveal his vote, saying, “It’s very convenient for him not to comment on whom he voted for in the presidential election, because no matter what the answer is, he would lose a lot of voters. That’s the kind of candidate he is: he’s afraid to say things that will make him lose any votes.”

While knocking on doors in Manhattan Beach along with Ulrich, Saperstein told Hamodia that “all politics is local,” and that in the Council race, “We’re not trying to nationalize the election. It’s about the local retail issues.”

As if to underscore the point, moments later Saperstein knocked on the door of voter Andrea Falack, who immediately asked if he could do something about an abandoned house on her block, which is currently in legal limbo after its owner died, and where teens loiter and drink. While Saperstein and Ulrich discussed possible ways to deal with the building, Falack said, “If you get this done, you have my vote, my six kids’ votes and my husband’s vote.”

Falack told Hamodia she is a registered Democrat who votes Republican in national elections, but that party won’t matter in a Council race. The most important issues for her are “the safety of my neighborhood and my children and my family, traffic conditions, school conditions, and [opposition to] busing in kids [from elsewhere in the city to] my neighborhood.” Pointing to Saperstein, she added, “having a rapport like I have right now, and knowing that I have somebody to turn to when I do have an issue.”

In local elections, accessibility and outreach often determine whom voters cast their ballot for.

A voter named Eva, a registered Republican who passed Vernikov’s table on Avenue M, said she’ll be voting for Vernikov. “I checked the flyers that came to my home” and only received from Vernikov, she said. A Manhattan Beach voter named Boris told Saperstein that despite usually voting Republican, he will vote for Saperstein largely because he’s the only candidate who sent him flyers and knocked on his door.

For others, party is the only factor. One Manhattan Beach resident, upon hearing Saperstein was a Democrat, said, “Well isn’t that lovely?” and promptly tore up the flyer the candidate had just handed him.

When Saperstein countered, “You probably voted for me in 2017 when I was a Republican,” the man responded, “If you were a Republican I voted for you; if you’re not, I won’t. It’s as simple as that.”

State Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat who runs in elections with the Republican and Conservative lines as well, doesn’t endorse candidates, but told Hamodia that he believes the community may be best off voting for the Democrat, regardless of the candidates’ positions.

“Any expert will tell you that it is to the benefit of the community to have a Democrat in office purely because they have the overwhelming majority in the City Council. And if you want to get anything done, you have to be part of the majority — though I believe that if Harav Avigdor Miller were alive, he would say that it doesn’t matter, that you must vote for the candidate that best represents the conservative values of the community,” said Felder, a former Councilman.

“The exception was several years ago in the Senate when I, a Democrat, caucused with the Republicans and gave them their swing vote for a majority – then I was the kingmaker, and that was a benefit to our community. But any expert will tell you that in the City Council under normal conditions, being part of the majority allows you to accomplish things that you can’t accomplish in the minority.”

***

The race for the 48th Council seat has at times gotten rancorous.

Vernikov has called for Saperstein to debate her, but he has not agreed to a debate.

Then, shortly after an attempted hack on Vernikov’s personal Facebook account, her personal Facebook and Instagram accounts were removed. Vernikov said, “First someone reported me for being underage, and then a bunch of my posts were flagged as being dangerous to groups or individuals.” Also, a Hamodia profile article of Vernikov posted by her staffer Izzy Weiss to his own Facebook page was removed as “spam.”

While Vernikov won’t directly accuse Saperstein’s campaign of being behind the attempted hack or getting her removed from social media, she tells Hamodia, “I find it very suspicious that my accounts get taken down the day I post a video asking why he won’t debate me.”

Asked by Hamodia whether he had anything to do with getting Vernikov’s personal accounts banned, Saperstein replied, “No, I don’t have [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg on speed dial. I had nothing whatsoever to do with this, nor, to my knowledge, did anyone associated with me or my campaign.” Saperstein suggested that the Vernikov campaign may have had its own accounts removed in an attempt to engender outrage against him, to which Vernikov responds, “I filed a formal complaint with the NYPD so that they should go into my Facebook and investigate. Why would I make a formal police complaint to investigate myself?”

***

The 48th District election is one of very few Council races this November expected to be competitive.

“It’s very close in my opinion, but I think Steve has the advantage,” said one Democratic political activist, who has not made an endorsement but is supporting Saperstein. “Steve has run in the district before. He just won a very competitive primary, beating an establishment candidate by a large margin, so he has developed a network of people in the district. Inna didn’t really put her boots on the ground until after the primaries. On the other hand, Inna has an advantage in that she is a conservative Republican and running in area that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016 and 2020.” The activist said he believes the FJCC endorsement of Saperstein “will give him a big bump,” and that though Vernikov herself is a Russian speaker, “I think Steve has done a good job cultivating support in the Russian community.”

Another political observer, who has not made an endorsement but is supporting Vernikov, said that “since both Saperstein and Vernikov are not well known to much of the district, both will rely heavily on endorsements to secure support and turn out voters. Saperstein’s police union endorsements are a huge plus for him, but his support from the United Federation of Teachers hurts his chances in a district that has a large Orthodox population.” The UFT opposes school choice, and is therefore at odds with yeshiva advocates, though Saperstein has told Hamodia he believes government should increase funding for all schools, both public and private.

“Vernikov, who is a new face to many of her potential constituents, hasn’t pulled out any major endorsements, and is counting on voters gravitating towards her simply because she is the Republican candidate,” the observer continued. “That could be a mistake, because policy-wise, the two candidates don’t have much differentiating them. If the election were today, I think Saperstein has it, just based on the fact that he is running a far more sophisticated campaign. That said, facetime with voters could be what pushes this race in favor of Vernikov. She already has the support of former Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is extremely popular among Russian and Orthodox voters. A few other key endorsements could also help swing the race in her favor.”

A Democratic observer told Hamodia he believes that the outcome will depend on voter turnout.

“If there is heavy turnout — at least 30,000 votes — that bodes well for Inna, because it indicates that this Republican-heavy district is energized and motivated. A low-turnout vote would indicate that people aren’t paying attention to this election — and that favors Steve, because in heavily blue cities like New York, Democratic voters are more used to voting in non-presidential elections.”

Ask experts to comment on just about any election, and you’ll hear some variation of the “it all depends on turnout.”

“If you look at the demographics of this district, I think that the frum community will likely determine the victor of this race,” said David Greenfield, a former Councilman of a neighboring district. “I think it’s an especially important seat because whoever has occupied this seat in the last 20 years has always been immensely helpful and has advocated on behalf of the Jewish community’s needs, not only in Brooklyn but across the entire city.”

Election Day is November 2. Early voting begins October 23.

rborchardt@hamodia.com