A Red Pocket Grows in Brooklyn
By Reuvain Borchardt
BROOKLYN — Will the red wave that swept through a swath of South Brooklyn actually wind up weakening those very neighborhoods’ influence in Albany?
That’s the question some are asking after Republicans flipped three Assembly seats in the southwestern portion of the borough this year. But while many residents of this conservative pocket in a deep-blue state are celebrating the GOP victories, most politicos who spoke with Hamodia believe the counterintuitive upshot to be diminished influence for the community in the Democrat-dominated Lesgislature.
“The people voted with their hearts, not their heads,” one conservative community leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Hamodia.
The three new Republican assemblymen are:
— Michael (Misha) Novakhov, 46, a Russian-language radio host running in his first political race who ousted 11-term Democrat Steve Cymbrowitz in the 45th district (Midwood, Gravesend, Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach) by 20 points.
— Lester Chang, 61, who defeated 18-term Democrat Peter Abbate Jr. 52% to 48% in the 49th district (Sunset Park, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and a sliver of Boro Park). Chang has worked in banking, finance, and logistics companies, is a former naval reservist who served in Afghanistan as a military analyst and is currently member of the New York State Naval Militia.
— Alec Brook-Krasny, 64, who served in the Assembly as a Democrat from 2007 to 2015, switched parties recently and beat Democratic incumbent Assemblywoman Mathylde Frontus by a 51% to 49% margin in the 46th district (Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Coney Island, Sea Gate).
These neighborhoods include large numbers of conservatives including Orthodox Jews, Russian immigrants, and a historic if decreasing base of Italian Americans. But Republican sentiment was stronger than usual this year, motivated by rising crime, a poor economy, a strong race by GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, and opposition to a lottery, rather than testing system, for gifted & talented programs and specialized high schools. The school issue is of particular importance to the Russian and Asian communities, the latter of which traditionally votes Democratic but this year flipped to the GOP.
None of the three new assemblymen appear to be ultra-conservative. All are pro-choice. Chang and Novakhov support the legalization and regulation of marijuana. Novakhov’s platforms include issues like “social equity,” animal rights and increased funding for mass transit.
But all agree on what they view as the most important issue for New Yorkers.
“Reverse cashless bail,” they answer, nearly in unison, when asked for their Day 1 priority, during a joint interview last week at the Brighton Beach office of Novakhov’s radio station, Freedom FM.
Repealing the 2019 state bail reform and lowering crime has become the chief — nearly sole — focus of New York Republicans, as well as some moderate Democrats. Zeldin’s laser-like focus on crime is credited with keeping the gubernatorial election within 6 points (in a state Joe Biden won by 23 points), and carrying in his wake a wave of GOP victories across the state, including four flipped U.S. House seats in the Hudson Valley and Long Island.
Novakhov and Brook-Krasny also heap blame for rising crime on the former mayor.
“I think that what happened in our city in summer 2020 during the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement, under our former mayor Bill de Blasio, created something that we are now trying to resolve, which is a total disrespect of police,” says Novakhov . “When the criminal knows that he will not get in jail for something that he’s done, he will continue doing this stuff, again and again and again and again. And we will have this issue until we will teach them that they need to respect the police.”
“That two-meter character,” says Brook-Krasny, mockingly relating a conversation he says he had with the 6’5” de Blasio in 2014, after Brook-Krasny had disagreed with the mayor’s opposition to the stop-and-frisk police tactic. “He told me, ‘Alec, are you a Democrat?’ I say, ‘What does it have to do with my party affiliation? It’s about safety, mayor. It’s about common sense.’
“’Alec, It’s not our ideology.’ And I said, “Bill, I’m going to bring you 10 black mothers, they will tell you that we need to do stop-and-frisk on Coney Island. Because they care about their sons. They want them to be alive.”
Rising crime in the city has dominated media headlines — particularly hate crimes against Jews and Asians, an issue that hits home for Brook-Krasny and Novakhov, both Russian Jewish immigrants; and Chang, born in New York to Chinese immigrant parents, and who spent several years of his childhood in Hong Kong.
Brook-Krasny and Novakhov view the hate-crime issue within the same lens as overall crime.
“Those who commit those crimes, they need to be caught, they need to be punished right away, and they have to go to jail,” says Brook-Krasny. “And for that, we have to re-fund the police. [But] first of all … restore the respect to the police.”
“Racial hate — it goes together with the criminal issue that we have,” says Novakhov. “I think that the core to that is the fact that the criminals understand they will not be punished.”
Chang offers an approach for dealing specifically with hate crimes.
“I’ll be bold about this,” says Chang. “Certain communities, the brown and black communities, are mostly targeting our community, Asian and Jewish.”
His proposal is as unconventional in its substance as it is politically incorrect in rhetoric.
“Hate is a learned behavior,” he says. “You have to learn from somewhere, some place, a group, social media, family.” His plan is to pay parents to attend a three-day summer class, to “teach the parents how to learn better parenting skills, and … learning about hate,” with a curriculum developed “by the Board of Ed” along with “nonprofits.”
On other education issues, Brook-Krasny, Chang and Novakhov are in agreement: opposition to a lottery for gifted & talented programs and specialized high schools, and support for yeshivas and other private schools to set their own curriculum.
“I have deep Hasidic roots, going back I don’t know how many centuries,” says Brook-Krasny, flipping through his phone’s photo album, looking for a picture of his religious family from before the Russian Revolution.
“I will be supporting yeshivas with everything, every power that I have, because the generations in my family, I don’t know how many, were a product of yeshivas. My grandfather, who was a religious man in the 1950s, 1960s, wearing a kippah in the Soviet Union. My grandfather was a product of yeshiva. My father was a product of yeshiva. There is no other way for me.”
“I live in this area for many years, I talk with Hasidic Jews every day, every week,” says Novakhov. “I haven’t seen one uneducated Jewish person. So I have no idea where they took [the idea that the yeshiva curriculum needs to be regulated] from.”
“This is a matter of common sense. It doesn’t make any sense. So I think yeshivas have to [be allowed to] do what they’ve done for thousands of years.”
Chang and Brook-Krasny say they also support school choice in areas like tuition tax credits or vouchers; Novakhov says he has not formed an opinion on this yet.
“I will give maximum freedom and school vouchers to the parents, middle income or below, [to] any school willing to accept that,” says Chang. “I’m a product of public school, proud of it … but I believe [in] choices.”
“I was getting less [money] from UFT [the United Federation of Teachers, a union of public-school educators] than other Democrats,” says Brook-Krasny, “just because I was always supporting this as a Democrat.”
Parenting classes is not the only Chang proposal that might be considered controversial.
Among the “examples of the aggressive ideas” listed on his campaign website is housing homeless people at Rikers Island — while also keeping the facility open as a jail.
“I will build dormitory-like facilities at Rikers, but pay the homeless to stay there, so we can house them, feed them, train them, treat them, detox them, and importantly build self-esteem and character before we properly introduce them back into society (similar to military recruit),” Chang’s wesbite says. “Our current method of an overnight shelter is not working and is wasting city resources.”
While Chang — challenging a long-time incumbent, and given little chance to win — was largely ignored during the campaign, he has faced scrutiny and some controversy following his victory.
In an interview with The Guardian published days after the Hamodia interview was conducted, Chang said he campaigned by knocking on doors in his Navy uniform. But according to the Defense Department website, “All members of the armed forces, including active-duty members, members of the reserve components not on active duty, and retired members are prohibited from wearing military uniforms at political campaign or election events.” Chang did not answer phone calls or respond to text messages by Hamodia after our interview.
Chang says he is living in Midwood. “The home I’m living [in] is my childhood home, for about 50 years,” he says, and maintains he has been living there “continuously.”
But according to an investigation by City & State, Chang voted in Manhattan in 2021.
Candidates for the state Legislature must have lived in the county they’re running in for a year prior to election day, which fell out on Nov. 8 of this year. Since election day of 2021 was on November 2, Chang would have had just a six-day window (or slightly longer if he voted early) to have established residency in Brooklyn, in order to qualify for the election.
According to the City & State article, “Chang changed his address on his voter registration from a Manhattan address to a Brooklyn address on March 1 of this year,” and he ran unsuccessfully in Manhattan for Assembly, State Senate, and City Council seats in 2016, 2020, and 2021, respectively.
Asked at the Hamodia interview how he could have lived in the Midwood home “continuously” if he voted in Manhattan last year, Chang replies, “Before I’m going to say more, because I’ve been advised by my lawyer not to make any more comment on that, because all I can say is, I’m living in Brooklyn.”
Democrats may still seek to void his victory, which could perhaps result in a special election for the seat.
For Brook-Krasny, a return to the Assembly represents a fresh start after years of personal and family difficulties.
In 2015, he suddenly resigned his Assembly seat and took a position at a medical laboratory. He says now that the reason for his resignation was that his son had become addicted to drugs, overdosed twice, and that he could no longer remain in Albany while his son was home alone with his mother.
In 2017, a doctor who used Brook-Krasny’s lab was charged with needlessly prescribing opiates and physical therapy to patients and fraudulently charging these to Medicare and Medicaid. According to news reports at the time, Brook-Krasny was also arrested, and accused of conspiring with the doctor to cover up patients’ positive alcohol tests, so that the patients could continue receiving opiates. At trial, Brook-Krasny was acquitted of conspiracy and fraud charges, and the jury hung on misdemeanor counts of commercial bribery, which were later dismissed.
Asked now if he had any knowledge of the doctor running a “pill mill,” of Medcaid fraud, phony physical therapy prescriptions or bribery, Brook-Krasny replies, “Absolutely not. Not only that, I thought, because of my son’s situation, that I’m actually doing good stuff by doing toxicology, drug test for the patients, so the doctor will make sure that they’re using that drug [properly].” He says the doctor “never” asked him to cover up positive tests, and criticizes the prosecutor in the case.
“You know, she was so persistent, that prosecutor of mine,” he says. “Her name is Tess Cohen. Google her. She’s running for Bronx DA. She wants to build her name on the idea of punishing me and my family for something that I never done.”
Brook-Krasny says his son is now doing fine and working as a drug counselor. But the ex-Assemblyman, now Assemblyman-elect, says his son’s addiction to hard drugs began with the use of marijuana, a substance Brook-Krasny wants to ban, except in cases of medicinal necessity.
“I hate that smell [of marijuana] like I hate antisemites,” he says.
“I want to get rid of this marijuana completely, totally. And some of my friends are saying, ‘Alec, what are you crazy, you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re just an Assemblyman. It’s everywhere already.’ You know, sometimes I’m doing something in my life that other people are saying [is] absolutely impossible.”
Brook-Krasny, then still a Democrat, first tried his comeback with a City Council run last year, but finished third in the Democratic primary for the 47th District.
Of his Democratic past, Brook-Krasny says, “If you wanted to change the world to the better and get elected, you had to be Democratic at that time.”
But in South Brooklyn, not anymore.
The newly elected Republicans may have ambitious ideas, but many politicos believe that ideas are all they’ll remain. Despite picking up several seats in the Assembly and state Senate, the GOP is still in the super-minority. And in the state Legislature — even more than in the city Council or U.S. Congress — minority members are considered virtually powerless.
“The community is about to learn the challenges of having Republican representatives who are in the minority party in Albany. They simply don’t have the ability to deliver for their constituents or communities,” says Democratic former city Councilman David G. Greenfield. “That’s just the way the political system works. This is an interesting experiment. We’ll see if the voters are happy.”
One Democratic legislator, who spoke with Hamodia on condition of anonymity, said Republicans have so little power in the Legislature that “we find out about what’s going to happen before the minority leader does.”
“These communities electing Republicans was a clear repudiation of some of the hard-left policies that Albany has enacted over the past few years,” said the legislator “But, unfortunately, by electing Republicans and taking out moderate Democrats, they have moved the Democratic conference further to the left and significantly reduced their own community’s influence in the Legislature.”
According to this view, conservative communities are better off with moderate Democrats in office who can actually deliver for their constituents.
But Brook-Krasny calls these moderate Democrats “fake and phony.”
“They’re yielding to the socialists and communists in their party,” Brook-Krasny says. “And if they think that they know something before the minority leader knows, I have a surprise for them: They know nothing about what they’re promoting now: socialism, communism, one-party ruling, all they’re promoting now is so bad.”
Asked how in fact they expect to get any priorities passed, the interviewees mention Democrats who serve in other governments.
“It’s really about common sense,” says Novakhov. “For example, I see our mayor, Eric Adams, as a person of common sense and I’m sure that we can work with him and communicate with him regardless of him being a Democrat.”
“Hakeem [Jeffries, the incoming U.S. House Democratic Minority Leader] was in the Assembly since 2007 with me,” says Brook-Krasny, arguing that that the large, conservative Russian population in Jeffries’ Brooklyn district will ensure Brook-Krasny has Jeffries’ ear. “And Eric [Adams, in] 2007 he joined the [state] Senate. So you know, they’re personal friends. And let’s just talk in a year from now, what we’re going to be able to achieve as Republicans.”
When this reporter points out that Jeffries is in Congress, Brook-Krasny replies, “It’s alright. I’m ready to work with Hakeem Jeffries every day of the year!”
Brook-Krasny later quips, “I’ve been voting for Carl Heastie [as Assembly Speaker, when Brook-Krasny was a Democrat]. He owes me!”
Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant and a moderate Democrat, tells Hamodia he disagrees with the view that New York voters must vote for Democrats.
“The public is not happy with Democrats in certain portions of Brooklyn,” Sheinkopf says. “Either the politicians will get the point, or its likely that Russians and Orthodox Jews and other communities will continue to elect Republicans.
“The voters should just vote in who they feel is right. And the community won’t be hurt; the other elected officials, like state senators, will do everything they can for the community because they, too, stand for election. For decades you had Republicans in elected office in Brooklyn, and it’s hard to see how people suffered.
“The way Democrats fix this is not by lecturing voters to vote Democrat, but to start paying attention to the electorate.”
Chang says wistfully, “It would have been so much easier if Lee Zeldin had won.”
But he maintains that the very fact of Republicans gaining seats should force Democrats to pay attention to them.
“Just the three of us being in here, the Democrats are definitely surprised how we got here. The sentiment of the voters got us here,” Chang says. “I knocked on over 1,000 doors. And people who are Democrat whispered to me, ‘I will vote Republican’ because they’re just angry with the policies, especially crime. So the best we can do is compromise. Take a piece. We may not win all the war, we can win a piece of a battle, that maybe makes some common sense. That’s the best we can do.”
Brook-Krasny cuts in.
“Just don’t tell them that,” he warns, “before the war starts.”
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