Exit de Blasio, Stage Left

de blasio legacy
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (C) with SBCO Executive Director Rabbi Avrohom Jaffe (L) and Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Director of New York Government Relations at Agudath Israel, visiting Culver El, an affordable housing project being built in Borough Park, on October 27, 2017. (Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

As Bill de Blasio’s term comes to an end, Hamodia convened a panel of community activists and political observers to discuss the legacy of the 109th Mayor of the City of New York.

 

Rabbi Yaacov Behrman is a Crown Heights community activist, founder of the Jewish Future Alliance, and chair of the Public Safety Committee of Brooklyn’s Community Board 9.

Michael Fragin is a political strategist and senior advisor to the chairman of the New York State Republican Party. He also hosts a weekly radio show on politics on the Nachum Segal Network.

Rabbi Yosef Rapaport is a media consultant, a former contributing editor at Hamodia, and is currently editor at JP News and a Kol Mevaser commentator.

 

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What do you think Bill de Blasio’s legacy will be as mayor of New York City?

Rapaport: There’s quite a lot of criticism that could be lodged against his legacy, but as a whole, I would give him an A+ for managing the city, and especially with regard to the Jewish community. Of course, there are exceptions that we will discuss. But especially for the Orthodox community, the yeshivah community, he is due a great deal of recognition for the way he handled the community. However, his handling of COVID left a lot to be desired.

Fragin: In thinking about how to approach Bill de Blasio’s tenure, I would look at a few key dates early in his term that set the tone of his mayoralty.

It was a two-term mayoralty. He came kind of out of nowhere to win the first term — he was not expected to be the mayor despite having been the public advocate. So he’s had the advantage of always being underestimated. But once he got into office, he made many self-inflicted mistakes.

One of his biggest mistakes was confirming his tardiness/laziness. He’d always been known as being late to everything. This was the case when he was a city Councilman, public advocate and as mayor. But inexcusably, on November 12, 2014, he showed up late to the memorial for Flight 587, the plane that crashed in the Rockaways with many Dominicans on board, and it’s a really big deal in the Dominican community. Two-hundred sixty-five people died, and Bill de Blasio, for whatever reason, could not get there on time. They had to start without him. I think that and the fact that he never got to City Hall before 11:00 in the morning after working out in Park Slope every day, is just inexplicable; I don’t know how anybody’s ever come to understand why he did that, and it just was this confirmation bias. A lot of it probably was unfair, but it didn’t matter. Because if you feed into the perception and you confirm the perception, it becomes the reality.

The second date I’ll mention was before that, in March of 2014 – I believe it was March 28. It actually was a victory for Bill de Blasio, which he turned into a defeat. When the state budget was enacted in his first year in office, he got Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK). It was a huge achievement – hundreds of millions of dollars from the state of New York. But unfortunately, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by insisting — and losing on the issue — that there be a tax on the wealthy in New York, which, clearly, the legislature and the governor did not want. And he kept insisting that that should happen, even after they gave him the money.

So he got a huge win. But politically, he couldn’t handle getting a win. He had to make his policy statement of raising taxes. And from there, his relationship with Cuomo never recovered. And I think that was, unfortunately for him, a really big problem as mayor: You cannot be an effective mayor of New York City without getting along with the governor. That’s always been the case, and I don’t know why Bill de Blasio thought that he would be able to do otherwise.

 

The final date I’ll mention was specific to the Jewish community: April 28, 2020, when the mayor made his infamous tweet at the levayah of Rabbi Mertz in Williamsburg. [Ed.: The tweet read, “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: the time for warnings has passed. I have instructed the NYPD to proceed immediately to summons or even arrest those who gather in large groups. This is about stopping this disease and saving lives. Period.”]

Inexplicably, for whatever reason, he chose to make not a veiled antisemitic tweet, but an outwardly disgusting antisemitic tweet, where he called out the entire Jewish community for not following COVID rules — despite the fact that earlier in the day, there had been hundreds – if not thousands – of New Yorkers gathering to watch an airshow.

And the last thing I’ll say — it’s tongue in cheek, but it’s another self-inflicted wound — is that he would never attend a ballgame at Yankee Stadium.

There are a lot of ways that Bill de Blasio was a very good mayor. But for some reason, he gave this impression that he hated being mayor of New York City. By not going to sporting events you show that you’re just not so into being mayor of New York City. There’s something about Bill de Blasio that rubbed a lot of New Yorkers the wrong way.

Behrman: When W.C. Fields was asked about Philadelphia, he famously answered that the only good thing about Philadelphia is that there’s an hourly train to New York. I think the good thing about de Blasio’s legacy is that it’ll be remembered that Eric Adams followed him.

 

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L-R: Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, Michael Fragin, Rabbi Yosef Rapaport

 

 

Now let’s get into some specifics. Let’s start with “The Good.” What do you think were the best things Mayor de Blasio did?

Behrman: His accomplishments include Pre-K and 3-K. He also brought air conditioning to public schools. As a community-board member, I sat through many meetings in public schools. It gets very hot. He also streamlined food pantries and food to the needy, both in the schools and for the general population of New York.

Also, during the Bloomberg administration, every year there was a debate with the City Council about vouchers for afterschool programs and for other types of child care. De Blasio put it into the budgets; no longer would we have to fight for this.

He signed the David Greenfield bill. David worked with him on security for yeshivas and other private schools. I think that was one of de Blasio’s major achievements.

Finally, he hired a Chassidish Jewish liaison, Pinny Ringel. That was unprecedented.

Fragin: Also Simcha Eichenstein and Avi Fink. De Blasio had prominent frum people in his administration.

One thing de Blasio achieved is that the conflict within government was ratcheted down significantly. You didn’t have the open warfare that existed between other administrations and the City Council and borough presidents.

He didn’t do things that were inflammatory, though you generally felt that he did things that were politically dumb. The gym in Park Slope, running for president in 2020, just politically dumb. Even four years earlier, his whole forum in Iowa, and then he didn’t actually endorse Bernie Sanders, even though he wanted to, and he ended up endorsing Hillary Clinton, who didn’t want his endorsement, who didn’t even come when he wanted to endorse.

He definitely put progressive stuff at the top of the agenda. If you’re not a progressive, there wasn’t all that much to like about the administration. A lot of outer-borough New Yorkers did not feel very happy. Certainly law enforcement was not happy with him, in general. But you didn’t have some of the more divisive types of issues that plagued the previous Democratic mayor, David Dinkins.

Also, I don’t think it was his doing, but by and large the city was prosperous during his tenure. So he got lucky in that regard.

Rapaport: This might look like I’m buttering you up, Reuvain, but seriously, we shouldn’t forget – de Blasio was pestered and asked tough questions by Reuvain all the time – the attention and the seriousness with which he took your questions, which reflected the concerns of our community. He gave extensive answers for a relatively small ethnic paper — which is not usual —and many times it made the news. I think it reflects on a deeper level how he relates to our community.

A mayor who deals with issues related to our community, from yeshivos, to Pre-K — every day there was a little crisis that affected our community. The way he handled it, and the care, and the deep knowledge that he has of our community came very much in handy.

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De Blasio with aide Pinny Ringel (Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

I was present when Councilman de Blasio came to the offices of Hamodia — he represented the area. I always had a feeling that he has a very deep understanding of our community.

As far as his being late — for me it seems like a very Jewish, Chassidishe thing — I don’t think this bothers a lot of people in our community —it might look like something heimesh! But I’m not here to defend his tardiness. It is an issue, especially for government officials, making people wait.

The most important thing about him is — and I hope it will be the same way with the new mayor — that we are a community that constantly is in need of consideration, like if we want to have a hachnasas sefer Torah on a busy street, or to accommodate the garbage pickup needs in Boro Park, that sort of thing. Every single day there are special requests where the mayor has the right to say no. The mayor himself may not make each decision, but he does set the tone for his commissioners for things like that.

As a person who is very familiar with Masbia Soup Kitchen, which is run by my son Alex, I would say that the enormous attention, not only to deliver thousands and thousands of meals during COVID, but to deliver them in a way that corresponds to the needs of our community, the timing, the distribution, a lot of special attention needs to be given by his commissioners. It all comes from the top.

There was a person in City Hall that our community needs to be thankful for, that I’m familiar with. I know Pinny Ringel very well. And I just hope this will continue under the new administration.

And the mayor’s withstanding the public pressure against yeshivos that he’s being pestered on continuously is something that we will remember.

Behrman: I want to respond to one thing Yosef said that bothered me: He mentioned about Hamodia, that the mayor allowed Reuvain to ask hard questions. That’s ordinary behavior: for an elected official to treat the Chassidish community as people, as equal citizens. We do not owe de Blasio a debt of gratitude for treating us as equals.

Rapaport: Absolutely. I agree.

Behrman: Just because other elected officials have not done it, that is not something he deserves any thanks for. I will say that in many situations where I believe de Blasio made mistakes, and potentially insulted and hurt the community, Pinny Ringel was there to smooth things over and clean up the mess. Even after the famous funeral where de Blasio went completely overboard, Pinny was on the phone with Jewish leaders trying to keep everybody cool. I think that de Blasio owes Pinny a huge thank-you for his work in keeping the community together.

De Blasio did what de Blasio did. But the reason why some of it didn’t explode into larger issues is because he had a good staff that sort of kept things cool. That funeral could have been a total disaster, much worse than it was.

Fragin: They had permission to hold the funeral. And de Blasio shows up, and somehow …

Rapaport: You’re absolutely right, because I had inside information. I even have pictures of meetings that were held.

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The fued between de Blasio (L) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here at a press conference at Bellevue Hospital on October 23, 2014, was a storyline in New York politics until Cuomo resigned office last summer. (Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

Fragin: That’s why I listed that as one of the three defining moments of this administration. You can’t have an administration that’s so inept that the mayor, the top guy, did not know. The first question you ask is, “Was this permitted?” They had permission from the police.

Behrman: De Blasio was out of line. His tweet scapegoated Jews. But that funeral at that time was out of line also.

Fragin: But Yaacov, that’s a judgment. This is actual facts. If you’re the boss, you check with your people. And you say, “Did you allow this?” If they allowed it, then you don’t send a tweet blaming the people that had been told it was okay.

Behrman: I am not defending de Blasio’s behavior. His tweet was wrong. His language was wrong, the way he singled out the Jewish community was wrong.

But everybody sitting in that room with the police, I’m sure, understood the risks of how this was going to look. We as Jewish community members have to put safety first. At that time, it was believed to be an extremely dangerous event. De Blasio’s anger was wrong. His public criticism was wrong. But let’s not turn these organizers into saints.

Rapaport: Absolutely.

Fragin: All three of us agree.

 

 

You’ve discussed the frum people in the administration: Pinny Ringel, Simcha Eichenstein, Avi Fink. Many administrations have frum people, but not all administrations allow them the same level of influence. You’ve all dealt with frum people in various administrations. Can you discuss how much de Blasio paid attention to his frum aides, and how much influence they had, as compared with other administrations?

Fragin: They had a lot of influence.

Every administration is different. Rudy Giuliani had a Jewish person, not Chassidish, but Bruce Teitelbaum had a major role in the city administration. Bruce was a very engaged guy who understood the frum community, understood everything about us. It’s not a question of hierarchy. Mayor Bloomberg had Jonathan Greenspun and Fred Kreizman, both extremely knowledgeable, and you can’t run New York City without that.

But I think Pinny added a new dimension in that he was actually from the Chassidish community, from Boro Park. He is a Yiddish speaker, fuhn unzere mentschen. Not to take away from anybody else, because all of them are fantastic, they’re all my friends, but it’s very different to have somebody who is actually from the Chassidish community.

Rapaport: I am always concerned about liaisons, that some act like a “court Jew.” In a certain way, up till people like Pinny and Simcha Eichenstein, many of the liaisons kind of wanted to act as people who have little fiefdoms, and one of their fiefdoms is the Chassidish community in Williamsburg and Boro Park. “Don’t talk to anybody else; talk to me, everything goes through me.” That is not the type of person that Pinny is, and that’s why I think it’s very special.

Also, de Blasio appointed Simcha Eichenstein to represent the city in Albany in all matters. He wasn’t a “Jewish appointee.” The mayor appointed him to represent the City of New York. I think that’s a major advancement for a Chassidish person. Of course, when it comes to Chassidish matters, he would consult with the person who knows that best, like Simcha Eichenstein. But that wasn’t his specific role. And that is also to de Blasio’s credit.

Behrman: I think Pinny is unique in that he stayed above the fray. He didn’t get involved in petty fights within the community. He had the ability to work with everybody, respect everybody, and had great judgment. He brought the Jewish community together in common cause. He also brought the Jewish community together with the broader New York community. He arranged meetings and he brought many communities together in common cause. And I think him staying above the fray is his greatest quality and the secret to his success, and every Jewish activist in New York, and many non-Jewish as well, are going to sing Pinny’s praises.

 

 

There was recently an article in New York Magazine, which basically says that de Blasio was not progressive enough, and quotes a former aide as saying that de Blasio “thinks Orthodox Jews are the real New Yorkers.” Would you like to comment on that quote?

Rapaport: It could mean this: There are millions of people here in this town, but many are transient. Especially Manhattanites: you come from Kansas to audition on Broadway or go to college. There are millions of people who live here briefly and then move on. I think there’s a lot more permanence to the communities like Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg – people living here for generations, and who intend to stay here until Moshiach comes. So I think there is something about the Orthodox Jews that is very New York, very deeply rooted here.

de blasio legacy
De Blasio visiting the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, December 27, 2019. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Fragin: I think the context of the article was kind of de Blasio’s dual personality. I think we saw that, in general, Bill de Blasio is a gifted political strategist. He certainly did a great job getting himself elected, positioning himself to be mayor, positioning himself to win a second term, and getting some of his legislative priorities done.

At the same time, he also had this idea that he was going to be the great progressive beacon for the whole country. He was going to take over Bernie Sanders’ mantle. But he didn’t follow through. He had this weirdness about him, you know, it’s kind of this tension between politics and government.

Even on stuff like promises he made with regard to homelessness. He was really good at setting these goals for homelessness, but then we find out, of course, he cut deals with everybody and didn’t ever listen to community input when it came to siting homeless shelters, and did all kinds of things which caused him not to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish.

I think that he wanted to be a great white progressive, champion of minorities and champion of the poor. But at the same time, he also wanted to appeal to certain neighborhoods and seemed unable to clarify his priorities around that.

That’s the context of the article, and I think that it really captured Bill de Blasio’s contradictions. He wanted to be a successful mayor, but at the same time also run for something else and not be mayor.

Many frum people who are familiar with de Blasio say that regardless of what you may think of his policies, he has a real fondness for the frum community, and it has a seat at his table and he pays attention to its concerns. Do you agree with that?

Rapaport: I agree.

Fragin: There definitely is a seat at the table. I think the one shortcoming was with regard specifically to the early days of the COVID vaccine rollout. The city basically refused to put places to get vaccinated within the frum community. And his Yiddish communication was disastrous.

I don’t want to cause controversy here, but pretty much he only focused on black and brown communities. That was a big shortcoming, not thinking about the fact that our community would end up falling way behind.

Behrman: The great Chassidish sage Reb Yoel Kahn, zt”l, used to say, “Es vent zich vu mehn reht” — “It depends when.” I think there were times we had a seat at the table and there were times that we didn’t, and there were times he led us to believe we had a seat and when we came to the meeting we realized everything was decided already and it was all optics.

Fragin: But that’s the same with every mayor.

Behrman: Yes. “Es vent zich vu mehn reht.” Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Fragin: Okay, now I want to change my answer and agree with Yaacov! He’s correct. It is situational.

 

Now “The Bad.” What are some of the bad things de Blasio did as mayor?

 

Behrman: I think there are two terrible stains on his legacy.

Number one is public safety. He destroyed the morale of the Police Department. Not just policies, necessarily, but his rhetoric and his attitude totally destroyed the Police Departments. He told the story of speaking to his son that led people to believe you can’t trust law enforcement. The fireworks in the summer of 2020 happened under his rule. And New York today is lawless as a result of, I would say, de Blasio’s conduct and rhetoric, how he approached law enforcement.

The second stain relates to COVID. I blame de Blasio for the breakdown in trust in the Health Department. I sat in many of these Health Department meetings. I really feel, as it comes from a communication standpoint — Cuomo played a role in this, too, but de Blasio played a role in destroying community trust in the Health Department. Not just the Chassidish community, but in other minority communities, in the black and brown communities, de Blasio played a role in destroying trust in the Health Department. Before this pandemic, people believed in doctors, medicine and public health, and they mostly took vaccines. Now I believe that distrust and the breakdown is so terrible that it’s going to trickle down into other areas of health and other areas where people are not going to seek medical care as they should — and this is not unique to the Jewish community — because of the distrust in the Health Department, which de Blasio played a role in through his mismanagement.

De Blasio and his son Dante eat latkes after the lighting of the menorah in Grand Army Plaza in 2016. (Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office)

Yaacov, just to clarify, you were referring to de Blasio’s telling his black son how to deal with a police encounter.

Behrman: I have no issue with him telling his son; a father has to do everything to protect his son. But when you’re the mayor of New York, you are held to a higher standard. You don’t publicly tell that story the way he told it.

People who work with me have told me they’ve had conversations with their children how to respond to law enforcement. It may be unsafe when a black person is stopped by police in New York or elsewhere. I’m not saying he doesn’t have that right to have the conversation with his son.

But when you’re the mayor, you don’t talk in public about that conversation the way you spoke about it, because you basically said: I, as the mayor, don’t trust law enforcement. It sent a very bad message, and I think he brought law enforcement to its knees in terms of morale.

 

Yaacov, you said that with policing, you’re talking about rhetoric and attitude, not policies. So are you saying you believe his policies on crime were good?

Behrman: No. I mentioned his conduct and rhetoric because Department policies are written officially by commissioners internally. I don’t have any evidence of what role de Blasio played in those policies. I know the things he spoke about publicly. It’s possible he destroyed it internally also, but that’s not public record yet. I can’t talk about that yet the same way I can talk about the things I witnessed and experienced as a member of the Jewish community of Crown Heights, and as the chair of the Public Safety Committee of Community Board 9.

Fragin: The criminal-justice system-reforms mostly come from Albany. But I think much of the tone, as Yaacov was alluding to, was set early on in the de Blasio administration.

Yes, stop-question-and-frisk was a controversial thing, there was a court case, etc., but ending it right away; and ending the plainclothes gun-seizing unit in 2020; and in the beginning of his second term, four of the city District Attorneys said they’re no longer going to prosecute low-level crime like turnstile jumping, small amounts of marijuana, all these petty crimes that much of the time would lead to more serious arrests, because people carrying guns were committing these crimes, etc.

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De Blasio and then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill (3rd L) hold a press conference on crime statistics on June 4, 2019. At far right is Dermot Shea, then-NYPD chief of detectives and currently commissioner. (Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

And then, of course, we have the debacle of ending cash bail. And at no time did Bill de Blasio ever fight back against any of these things. In fact, even as it was making the public safety record of his own city decline, and you had other New York state municipalities fighting against this — you had Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a neighboring Democrat, saying this is this is ridiculous; you had other upstate Democrats saying the same thing — de Blasio never used his bully pulpit to say, “This is a little bit too far.”

On top of that, you had the riots after the George Floyd tragedy. You had the riots right in the middle of Manhattan, where COVID didn’t matter, and looting didn’t matter, and lawlessness didn’t matter. You’re the mayor: There were people out there looting, burning, pillaging, and the police were standing by. We don’t know for sure, but it’s pretty evident that they were handcuffed, and they were unable to do something because racial justice was obviously much more important than keeping people safe. To me, that is the biggest failure.

And that’s why you have Eric Adams. Yaacov pointed that out correctly. That’s a reaction. Every mayor is the reaction to the previous mayor. De Blasio was definitely a reaction to people not liking the end of Bloomberg and wanting something different. De Blasio was definitely different. But public safety became the biggest issue.

Remember, as we started the latest mayoral campaign, everybody assumed that we were going to have a far-left progressive mayor of New York City, because the progressives were ascendant, etc. And that didn’t happen. The winner of the mayoral race, Eric Adams, was probably the most conservative Democrat —certainly on criminal-justice issues.

That was de Blasio’s biggest failure — certainly a question of tone, certainly a huge failure, and his inability to get along with the NYPD. You can’t be mayor, you can’t be a good CEO, without getting along with the people who work for you.

Rapaport: I’m going to be a bit of an outlier here, and I know that my views about the NYPD don’t represent the majority opinion in our community. But there are enough in our community who don’t believe they have to agree with the police unions on everything.

We all heard from the police unions that if stop-and-frisk is discontinued, crime will skyrocket. It hasn’t. The evidence is not there. As for having a more humane Rikers Island: We all are for being tough on crime until some in our community end up entangled with the law. We all know the telephone numbers of the askanim and try to get inmates out of there, because it’s sakanas nefashos. Why should that be? There are bad apples in every community, and when the bad apples in our community end up in that system, we don’t want them to be treated in the way that everybody else is treated. The way to do that is to have reforms that make sense. It doesn’t mean that everything is hefker. It’s not an “either-or” choice. I wouldn’t put that as a huge negative on de Blasio.

There are negative aspects. But we have to remember that if we want civilian control over the people who have guns, you can never have hundreds of officers – paid officers who have to answer to this mayor’s command – turning their backs on him. That’s a city that Jews should be afraid to live in.

On the other hand, regarding what Rabbi Behrman said is about the mayor’s failures in COVID: I think there were very bad failures, especially in communication. And I want to emphasize what Rabbi Behrman said about the mistrust that exists now in our community in matters of COVID, about the vaccines. Yes, it could be placed at the feet of de Blasio, and we shouldn’t ignore this failure. It is a huge failure. And it is a direct result of the way he managed this affair, in all its aspects with our community.

They used a group of people that have no connection to our community, as translators, as communicators. Then they had messages in laughable “Yiddish” spread out across Williamsburg and Boro Park, where Yiddish is a first language for people. That is telling people, “Hey, look how incompetent we are.” Well, who are you going to trust now? It’s even worse than not saying anything.

But that is just one aspect.

It was also pointed out that their attention was on minority communities. And I have no problem with that. But there should have been the same attention given to this community. So I think it’s a huge failure on the part of de Blasio.

 

Now I’ll hit you with a few topics. Some of them were touched upon earlier, but these are important issues, so I will ask about them in case anyone wants to add anything.

Firstly, COVID has dominated much of the public discourse for the past two years. Are there any other COVID-related issues you’d like to discuss?

Fragin: I think the administration’s edict mandating that all nonpublic school staff be vaccinated was haphazard and poorly planned, at best. It’s indicative of the lack of thorough thinking and good management that characterizes this administration on so many issues.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison and other city leaders meet with Jewish community leaders at City Hall to discuss recent acts of anti-Semitic violence, May 21, 2021. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The lockdowns themselves, the red zones, were done by the state. Those did not come from the mayor. But by doing what he’s doing in the closing days of this administration, to leave schools trying to figure out whether they have to, potentially, fire teachers — I am extremely pro-vaccine, but this is a case where the community was not at the table.

Yes, the mayor had a meeting with several askanim. But it was basically after the policy was already done and gift-wrapped: “Here’s your Chanukah present.”

That is characteristic of how they’ve gone about things in general: haphazard, poorly planned, poorly conceived, possibly illegal. And it’s unfortunate that that’s how he’s closing out his administration. It’s kind of unclear where we go from here on that specific issue.

Rapaport: We see that in Israel, and we have been told by epidemiologists, that we’re not going to get more than 60% of people vaccinated without mandates. So, reluctantly, I would not oppose constitutionally sound mandates. I would agree with Mr. Fragin that it has been clumsily and haphazardly implemented, but we should remember that those police officers and teachers who threatened to resign rather than get vaccinated mostly didn’t follow through on their threats.

 

Next issue: Pre-K, 3-K and afterschool vouchers.

Fragin: It’s definitely one of the signature successes of this administration. No question. In fact, it’s kind of interesting that we continue to tout that as being the signature success when it happened seven years ago.

 

Now a couple if issues specific to the frum community: metzitzah b’peh and yeshivah independence.

 

Rapaport: I think metzitzah b’peh and COVID are a little related.

As a commentator, I’m stopped in the street — this is all anecdotal, but we don’t have internal surveys — and I’m constantly confronted, “You see what happened with metzitzah b’peh, the city wanted to stop it, but lost in court. Nobody’s dying. Why should we believe them now with COVID?” So the campaign to regulate and fight against metzitzah b’peh sowed the seeds of mistrust in our community.

The way de Blasio handled metzitzah b’peh, it’s kind of off the table these days. But it can always come back.

It’s important to take into consideration how the mayor has withstood public and media pressure on yeshivos. The pressure on him is enormous and extremely unfair. He deserves a lot of credit for withstanding that.

The incoming mayor has been quoted as saying he wants to look into yeshivos. I hope this is not accurate. We have to make him feel, as strongly as possible — and he generally has the community’s backing — that we will fight for our rights.

Fragin: I think it’s worthwhile to point out on the metzitzah b’peh issue that the city had already lost in court by the time de Blasio became mayor. So continuing to litigate that probably would have been a failed effort anyway.

On the issue of chinuch, I am astounded as an observer of politics as to how this issue has risen to the top of the consciousness of the progressive elites in this city. And even many in the non-Chassidish Orthodox community have this idea that thousands of Chassidishe yingerlach don’t get an education and are condemned to a life of abject poverty. That is the narrative that is out there — so much so that Brad Lander, even before he takes office, already says he’s going to tackle this issue as comptroller. And it has nothing to do whatsoever with that job. Zero.

We have a wonderful community, we have an incredible education system, we educate more children successfully than the New York City public schools do. And it’s incredible that the spotlight continues to be shined on what they’re saying is, at most, like 20 schools out of 500. Nobody ever stops to look at the actual facts when it comes to this issue. It’s really incredible how this became the premier issue when you talk about the Orthodox community.

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De Blasio campaigning with Simcha Eichenstein, his former aide then running for New York State Assembly, in Borough Park, November 2, 2018. (Benjamin Kanter)

This has become an issue among progressives, though de Blasio does not seem to share the typical progressive view of this. Another such issue is Israel: The progressives are generally anti-Israel, but de Blasio has been pro-Israel.

Fragin: I was going to get to that. I don’t want to give him excessive praise for being pro-Israel, because I think that not to be pro-Israel as the mayor of New York, I think you would have a political hot potato. But as the Left has gotten increasingly negative toward Israel — when the DSA wanted to throw out Congressman Jamaal Bowman for going to Israel with J Street — Bill de Blasio has definitely held the line on that and said that you can be progressive and you can love and respect Israel. And that if you’re a left-wing Democrat, you don’t have to be antisemitic.

On that score, de Blasio has actually been really wonderful on calling out antisemitism where he sees it, and being incredibly pro-Israel.

Rapaport: It’s important for our community to remember that we need to have friends in all corners of the American body politic. Whether it’s people like Mayor de Blasio and Congressman Ritchie Torres, who are progressives, we should have good connections and representatives in all aspects of political life in America.

Behrman: I agree that Mayor de Blasio is a friend of Israel. But I disagree with Michael that we should take it for granted that a New York City mayor is pro-Israel. There are elected city officials who, I don’t want to say they’re anti-Israel, but you can question their support for Israel. I think that the mayor does deserve credit in today’s climate, and I agree that his progressive credentials made his pro-Israel stance more meaningful.

Additionally, when it came to Ben & Jerry’s, de Blasio took a stance in support of Israel, and there were other elected city officials in New York who did not take the same stance.

Fragin: As Reuvain knows, the famous Scott Stringer incident: Scott Stringer, the beloved Jewish leader from the Upper West Side, refused to say he would actually do something about BDS.

 

de blasio legacy
De Blasio puts a note in the Kosel, October 18, 2015. (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

It is widely assumed that de Blasio will run for governor. Do you believe he has any chance of winning? Whoever wins the Democratic primary in New York is likely to win the general election.

Fragin: I think he has a chance of winning the primary, though I see his path to victory as being very slim. I disagree with the premise that a Democrat will certainly win. I think if you look at the elections that we just had, it probably tells you otherwise.

Rapaport: I agree with Michael on all those points.

Behrman: I would say de Blasio has no chance if we’re going to look at it on his own merits. The only chance he would have is if some really scandalous stories come out very late in the game when there’s no way for anybody else to join the race. But then again, if de Blasio wins the Democratic primary, I think there’s actually a good chance that the Republican will win, especially if the Republican is a moderate like Lee Zeldin.

Fragin: Let’s not forget that Bill de Blasio back in 2013 was given no chance whatsoever to become mayor.

 

Well, Yaacov did say that a scandal could upend the race. And in 2013, there was indeed a scandal, involving Anthony Weiner, who had previously been leading the polling.

Fragin: That can happen. There are all kinds of things that can happen.

Rapaport: If the race comes down to a strong progressive who threatens our interests, there will be a mass mobilization of Orthodox Jews in the state. And that could be somewhat decisive.

Fragin: I think that de Blasio as governor would be a terrible thing for New York state.

 

 

De Blasio probably has built the deepest ties in the frum community of all the Democratic candidates. If he does join the race, do you see the askanim endorsing him, or another candidate?

Behrman: I think he’ll get maybe two Orthodox Jewish endorsements, and two votes: Ezra Friedlander and Yosef Rapaport.

Rapaport: That’s a compliment!

Seriously, I think our community has to learn to go with the most practical endorsement. And if Hochul runs against de Blasio, the way things look now Hochul will win hands down, and we shouldn’t place our bets on a losing horse. So I don’t think anybody will endorse somebody who is running against Hochul, even if they think the other candidate is better. It depends how the polls will look. We should hold our cards close to the vest until very late.

de blasio legacy
De Blasio visiting Williamsburg on December 12, 2019, to discuss the city’s response to the deadly antisemitic attack in Jersey City. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Behrman: I think it’s important to note that the Jewish community has changed over the last 40 years. And I think in the gubernatorial race, especially, there’s a lot of anger with Hochul’s policies, which are a continuation of the Cuomo policies, so it really doesn’t make a difference whom much of the Jewish leadership is going to support. I think that if some of the Democratic candidates, and especially if Lee Zeldin, play it right, he will get the Jewish vote without Jewish leadership endorsement.

Rapaport: I agree.

Behrman: And it would be foolish to endorse a candidate when you know that your community won’t vote for that candidate. It would just make you look weak when everyone votes the opponent. It’s early, but I would say that the smart Orthodox leaders will either endorse an opponent of Hochul’s or stay out of the race, because it’s going to be very embarrassing for them otherwise.

Rapaport: But in the meantime, we have a primary, and most Orthodox Jews are registered Democrats, so the general election is kind of irrelevant now.

In the end, I think you’re right. Times have changed. Endorsements have less and less meaning in the time of social media, social upheaval, divided politics and the politics of the young. There’s a huge disconnect between the leadership and the people. People feel independent.

Behrman: And they have access to information. The Orthodox Jewish community is very well-read politically.

 

 

Somebody who’s close to de Blasio told me the following, and I want you to comment on it: “While de Blasio was very close to the Jewish community and things went well for the first six years, things fell apart somewhat during COVID. Then it seemed to be going okay again, but with the vaccine mandate in private schools, the relationship is ending on a sour note and he’s unpopular in our community now. But in a few years from now, looking back on things, the community may feel that they actually had a friend in City Hall. So while no one will vote for him for governor right now, maybe if he were to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand for U.S. Senate in 2024, he would get support.” Would you like to comment on any or all of that analysis?

 

Fragin: Number one, Kirsten Gillibrand is definitely vulnerable to a primary challenge — much more so than Chuck Schumer. But will people really rethink the de Blasio years? I will be gratuitous and echo former Congressman Max Rose, in his very pithy ad, which I thought was one of the best political ads I’ve ever seen: “Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City. That’s it.” I’m not that old, so I don’t remember any mayors before Ed Koch. But among those, I think he is the worst mayor that I’ve had in my lifetime. And I think that, unfortunately, is his legacy.

de blasio legacy
De Blasio who had worked in the administration of former Mayor David Dinkins, at a ceremony at which the Municipal Building was named for Dinkins, October 15, 2015. (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

Behrman: It would depend on whom de Blasio would be running against; he may be the better of the two. But three years is a little short for people to forget. Especially because I have high hopes that Eric Adams will make positive changes.

I will say, however, that I’m a survivor of Crown Heights of ’91. I wasn’t there for the actual pogrom — my father was attacked. But I was attacked after the riots, and I went to the Rosenbaum trials. I became close with Norman Rosenbaum, z”l, the brother of Yankel, Hy”d. And we saw David Dinkins resurrected. I don’t want to speak bad about the dead, but some Jewish outlets write about the man like he’s some kind of hero and leader and peace lover, when he was a complete disaster and contributed to the first pogrom in American history.

So is it possible that somebody like de Blasio will have his reputation restored? It’s possible. He did some good. Dinkins was a lot worse than de Blasio, and Dinkins today is written about as if he were a good mayor. So yes, it’s totally possible, but it’ll take more than a few years.

Rapaport: If it’s a one-on-one matchup between Gillibrand and de Blasio, I definitely think she’ll get a run for her money. In fact, from our community’s point of view, anybody could run against her and she’d get a run for her money. Has anyone heard or seen anything relating to our community from Sen. Gillibrand in the last few years? We’re not on her radar.

 

All right, distinguished panelists, it’s time for closing statements.

Fragin: They say being mayor of New York City is the second-toughest job in politics. Some make it look like they enjoy it. Clearly Mike Bloomberg loved it — so much so that he took an extra four years! Rudy Giuliani obviously loved it. Ed Koch clearly loved it. Bill de Blasio never seemed to enjoy being mayor. I’ll go back to his unwillingness to go to Yankee Stadium. How can somebody ignore one of the great perks of being mayor like going to a game?

His absolute refusal to embrace the job is unbelievable.

de blasio legacy
De Blasio and Rabbi Moshe Weiner, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, during a pre-Rosh Hashanah food distribution in 2020. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Rapaport: Well, he didn’t go to Yankee Stadium, but I think he came to 19 Kislev and 21 Kislev. I won’t hold it against him!

But it is very telling, in my opinion, that during this entire conversation we barely touched on Israel. It used to be that people who wanted to get the Jewish vote had to come and eat some latkes and say that they believe that the State of Israel should exist and say that they are good for the Jews. We talked here about substantive issues that affect the community, and which politicians need to pay attention to. We might not agree about police, about progressives, about economic policy, housing, whatever it is, but these are real bread-and-butter issues that affect our community. It is very telling and refreshing from a historical perspective that we have arrived, as Orthodox Jews, not as some odd community living here that cares about whether you like latkes.

Behrman: Both in Eric Adams’ and Bill de Blasio’s mayoral races, the Orthodox Jewish vote made a big difference. In de Blasio’s case, the Orthodox Jewish vote, particularly the Satmar community, gave him a margin of victory that ensured he wouldn’t need a runoff. In Eric Adams’ case, I would argue that without the Orthodox Jewish vote — perhaps even without the Crown Heights Jewish vote — he would not have won this election. We see in some of the local races as well that the Orthodox vote made a difference.

I’m making a plea to Hamodia readers — and Michael’s going to get mad: Register as a Democrat and vote. Our vote will decide the future of New York City.

 

 

I have to give Michael the final word here. Many people make the argument that Yaacov just made: “Since the vast majority of elected offices in New York are decided in the Democratic primary, by registering as a Republican you’re wasting your vote. Register as a Democrat, vote in the Democratic primary — and if you like the Republican, you can vote for him in the general election anyway.” What is your response to that?

Fragin: We’re blessed to live in a wonderful country that affords us the ability to pick our elected officials, and people should do things that are in line with their values. I don’t see any reason that I should have to compromise my values or my politics when I make these decisions. These are personal decisions. I don’t know that I can specifically say who these people are who say you have to do it this way. I don’t pretend to make any general pronouncements as to what people should do or must do. If people ask me, obviously, I can express my opinion. But as for general pronouncements, every general pronouncement said that you must vote for Steve Saperstein, the Democrat, in the 48th Council race. Well, most of the community seems to have disagreed with that. So let’s dispense with those types of general pronouncements.

rborchardt@hamodia.com