Orthodox Vote Could Be Pivotal in New Asian City Council District
By Reuvain Borchardt
BROOKLYN — Three Asian-American candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination in a new City Council district gerrymandered to be majority Asian — and the several hundred Orthodox Jewish voters could swing what is expected to be a close election.
Although the new 43rd Council District — which includes portions of the Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights and Sunset Park neighborhoods — has Orthodox pockets in the center of Bensonhurst as well as the outskirts of Boro Park above 60th Street, overall it is comprised of 54% Asians, 27% whites, 15% Hispanics and 1% blacks, according to data reported by City & State. It was fashioned from portions of old Districts 38, 43, 44 and 47, after the 2020 U.S. Census showed a growth of 345,000 Asian Americans in the city over the past decade.
“This is the only new Council seat in New York City; that’s why it’s so competitive and that’s why it can be decided by a few dozen votes,” Democratic former Councilman David Greenfied told Hamodia. “We have a lot in common with Asian voters, and the Orthodox community could easily pick the winner of this election.”
The three Democratic candidates are: Susan Zhuang, 37, who immigrated from China in 2007, and has served as chief of staff to Assemblyman William Colton; Wai Yee Chan, 49, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1995, and has worked in community nonprofits and served as a staffer for Councilman Justin Brannan; and Stanley Ng, 63, a retired programmer born in Manhattan’s Chinatown to Chinese immigrant parents. Proudly casting himself as the political outsider, Ng has never worked in any political office, but has years of education-related activism in support of Asian students and the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is the sole admissions criterion for the city’s prestigious specialized high schools.
All three are self-described moderates who say they will not join the Council’s Progressive Caucus, currently comprised of 20 left-wing Democrats. Chan and Zhuang say they will join the Common-Sense Caucus, currently comprised of eight Republicans and moderate Democrats. Ng would not answer directly as to whether he will join the Common-Sense Caucus, stating only that “if it makes sense, I’ll consider any avenue to help me accomplish [my] important goals for my constituents.”
There has been a general crime spike since the summer of 2020, and although there have been some declines, the rate remains higher than pre-pandemic.
Zhuang, Chan and Ng, in separate interviews with Hamodia last Thursday at each candidate’s respective campaign headquarters, expressed opposition to the “defund the police” movement.
In 2022, the first year on the job for Democratic Mayor Eric Adams, who ran a campaign centered on a law-and-order approach to crime, New York City saw a 22% overall increase in the seven major felony crimes, with only murder declining (by 11%). In 2023 through June 11, index crimes have risen just under 1% overall, though murder decreased by 13%.
Zhuang and Chan approve of Adams’ job on crime, with Zhuang saying, “He’s doing much better than the previous mayor; we have to give him the credit” and Chan grading him as “doing a fair job.” Ng says Adams is “not doing enough when it comes to crime,” then elaborates that Commissioner Keechant Sewell’s “quitting after one-and-a-half years is not a good sign.” Crime is “the one area [in which] I thought he was doing well,” says Ng, “but after her resigning, it seems like it’s going backward now.”
Differences on crime also emerge when the candidates are asked whether they believe a New Yorker confronted with someone acting threateningly on the subway should be allowed to use physical force.
“I think you have to protect yourself, yes,” says Zhuang.
“There’s no choice,” says Ng. “Because it’s either that or we get hurt.”
“If a person doesn’t feel safe, of course that person needs to protect themself and needs to fight back,” says Chan. “But excessive force is not acceptable.”
Asked specifically whether Daniel Penny should have been indicted (on May 1, the ex-Marine placed in a chokehold, and inadvertently killed, Jordan Neely, a mentally ill man allegedly threatening passengers on the subway), Chan and Zhuang offer differing views but also say further investigation is needed.
“Choking a person for 20 minutes — I believe this is excessive,” says Chan. “It just is too long for me to understand that how he could do it.” (Actually, a witness reportedly said Penny held the chokehold for 15 minutes; Penny himself said it was far shorter.)
“I believe so [that he should have been indicted] in a way,” says Chan. “But of course we have to look at all the evidence.”
We need “more investigation of what really happened,” says Zhuang. “We only see the video; we don’t know the whole story. I think if he [was acting in] self-defense then he should not have been indicted.”
Ng doesn’t give an opinion on the matter, saying, “I don’t know enough” because he doesn’t trust that the media’s depictions of the incident have been complete and accurate.
“The only thing I would say is let the system take its course,” Ng says. “Let the police do their work. Let the DA do their work.”
However, Ng says, the indictment, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, is “suspect, because he brought the indictment after people began protesting.”
All three candidates oppose efforts to get rid of the SHSAT in favor of a racially equal admissions process — a chief concern for the Asian parents and students in the district.
The Orthodox community is fighting its own education battle with government: the state Education Department passed regulations last September on the secular-studies curriculum at private schools, including yeshivas. (The regulations are currently being challenged in court.) Enforcement of the regulations in New York City would be the duty of the city’s schools chancellor.
The candidates all expressed support for yeshivas having the right to set their own curriculum, with several comparing the respective battles being waged by the Orthodox and Asian communities.
“If the [yeshiva] system is working, the state government should not break it,” says Zhuang. “Why do you always want to change something that’s working? And the same thing with SHSAT. It’s working now … This is not something we should change.”
Chan says, “Leave it to the parents and the schools to decide” each school’s curriculum.
“The problem the Orthodox community has with education is the same problem we have with SHSAT” says Ng. “Because the reporter who’s reporting on this [for The New York Times] is a woman by the name of Eliza Shapiro. And she’s been after the SHSAT for at least four to five years … the last article on us was in 2021, then she turned directly and went after the Jewish community with those articles [critical of Hasidic yeshivas]. So we have a common reporter who’s against us.”
“I believe in separation of church and state; there’s no reason why government should be telling religious schools what to do,” Ng continues. “When I read the articles and it said that certain people are failing, not doing well — guess what? Public schools have that same problem. They’re failing and not doing well, either. So the thing is, they should clean up their own house before going after somebody else’s house.”
CUNY and Israel
A Muslim student delivering the commencement address at the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School last month was critical of police and of Israel, alleging that Israel “indiscriminately rains bombs and bullets on [Palestinian] worshippers” and murders “the old and the young … even at funerals.”
The substance of the speech was criticized by many Jews and Israel supporters, even as some defended the student’s free-speech rights.
Ng says, “I do believe in free speech,” but that CUNY “should have issued a statement afterward” disavowing the speech. “The problem is that they waited until the uproar and the protests came before doing anything or saying anything. And that’s not right.”
“I have heard similar speeches in the past,” Ng says, pointing to a speech “almost 30 years ago” by Prof. Leonard Jeffries about how Jews have harmed blacks.
“And back then, we would have to say, yes, we’ll let him speak for the freedom of speech even though we don’t agree,” says Ng. “It’s America, freedom of speech is really important. But that doesn’t mean that we agree.”
Zhuang, by contrast, says the speech never should have been allowed.
“I believe in freedom of speech, but you don’t say something against other people,” Zhuang says. “That’s not called freedom — you are hurting the other people. And the hateful speech against Jewish people, the hateful speech against NYPD, and also our veterans who serve our country, that’s wrong.”
Asked whether banning a speech due to its message didn’t raise any First Amendment concerns, Zhuang replies, “That’s not part of First Amendment. Freedom of speech is based on you are not hurting other people. The freedom should be based on [that] it should be good for the community, not [that the speaker is] saying, ‘Oh, I hate you. I hate this. I hate that.’ That’s not called ‘freedom of speech.’”
When this reporter suggests that her view was at odds with U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence, Zhuang replies, “We have to make sure we do good things. And, especially for those [engaging in] public speaking, we need [to have a] good influence on people. If it’s not a good influence on people, even if you say it’s freedom of speech, what’s the effect of that?”
Chan, whose endorsements include PSC-CUNY — the school’s faculty and staff union — was criticized by Zhuang last week for not having condemned the speech or renounced the endorsement. In the Hamodia interview, for the first time, Chan condemned the speech.
“The speech is not acceptable,” Chan said. “Antisemitism is not acceptable.”
Chan said the commencement address was “a very individual case” of antisemitism at CUNY.
When this reporter asked about the allegation that there is actually a pattern of antisemitism at CUNY including by the professors’ union, Chan replied, “This allegation, of course, is not true.”
This reporter then showed Chan two anti-Israel resolutions passed by CUNY faculty, as reported by the New York Post: one passed by the CUNY Law faculty council last year supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and accusing Israel of “apartheid, genocide, and war crimes … against the Palestinian people.” The other, in 2021, passed the full PSC-CUNY and condemned “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state.”
Chan replied that she “was not aware of these resolutions,” but did not specifically condemn the resolutions or criticize her endorser.
“I support Israel and do not condone BDS,” she said. “My loyalty lies with the voters of this district I’m running to represent, independent of any endorser.”
Each candidate was also asked during their respective interviews, whether, if elected, they would join the periodic trips to Israel for lawmakers sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Zhuang replied, “I think so. I support Israel. I think that’s the value there.”
Ng replied, “If other people are going, I would go along … The whole idea is to learn. If other people are learning, I will go along with them to learn.”
Before Chan could reply to the question, an aide sitting in on her interview said to this reporter, “I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. She’s trying to get elected first.”
When the reporter pointed out that Chan was happy to discuss, regarding other topics, what she would do if elected, and pressed Chan for an answer to this question, the candidate replied, “There are a lot of things to learn in Israel culture-wise. If I have the opportunity, if this is non-political trip, I’m more than happy to learn.”
Following the interview, the aide texted this reporter to “clarify” Chan’s answer: “Yes,” she wrote. “She would go on the Israel trip.”
The new 43rd District is part of a growing Republican pocket in a broader Southern Brooklyn area that includes large numbers of Orthodox Jews, Asian and Russian immigrants, and a historic if decreasing base of Italians. Republicans flipped one Council seat and three Assembly seats, in 2021 and 2022, respectively, in South Brooklyn.
Whichever of these three self-described moderate Democrats wins the primary will likely face a tough battle in the general election against either Ying Ying Tan or Vito LaBella, who are vying for the Republican nomination.
The Republican Curtis Sliwa won 60% of the new 43rd Council District in the most recent mayoral election, according to City & State. (Sliwa won just 28% of the vote across the city.)
And in the 17th state Senate district, a newly formed majority Asian district which overlaps the new 43rd Council District, Democrat Iwen Chu defeated the Republican Vito LaBella last November by just 215 votes.
Greenfield, the Orthodox former Councilman who is now Met Council CEO, doesn’t make political endorsements but works actively to encourage voter turnout, and says turnout will be particularly crucial this Primary Day in District 43.
“Everyone who lives in this area should vote next Tuesday — and if you are going upstate or won’t be in town, vote early,” Greenfield said. “The only way that our community is taken seriously is when we vote. Your vote can very well make the difference in this low-turnout race.”
This is a ranked-choice primary, so voters can vote for more than one candidate, ranking them in order of preference.
Voters can find their early-voting and Primary Day pollsites by clicking here https://findmypollsite.vote.nyc/
Early voting is open now through Sunday, June 25, and Primary Day is Tuesday, June 27.
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