Democrat Sam Berger Wins Queens Special Assembly Election

By Reuvain Borchardt

Sam Berger points to a screen displaying his victorious election results (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

QUEENS — Democrat Sam (Shmuie) Berger defeated Republican Dovid (David) Hirsch in an Assembly special election in Central Queens on Tuesday, keeping the seat formerly held by Daniel Rosenthal in Democratic hands.

“To have the support of my community, of my district, that means the world to me,” an initially emotional and nearly dumbstruck Berger said to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Flushing Tuesday night, just as his victory became apparent.

With 99% of scanners reporting, Berger led by 55% to 45%, or 468 votes, out of 4,438 cast. Hirsch called Berger to concede 39 minutes after the polls closed at 9:00. On the call, Hirsch told Berger he hopes Berger does what’s best for the community, and Berger replied, “That’s the plan; we’re here to make a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name). Rabbi Hirsch, I wish you the best of luck.”

Berger gets a hug from his new boss, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

Berger and Hirsch are both first-time political candidates and Orthodox Jews. Berger, 25, who graduated St. John’s Law School this year and will be the youngest current Assemblymember, is the son of Paula Berger, the Democratic district leader and a long-time teacher at Shevach High School. Hirsch, 34, is a political consultant who learns in Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim and is a member of the socially conservative Coalition for Jewish Values.

The moderate district, which includes the Flushing, Kew Gardens Hills, Whitestone and College Point neighborhoods, is heavily Orthodox Jewish and Asian-American. It has historically been a Democratic stronghold, but has been trending rightward in recent years. Rosenthal, a moderate Democrat and Orthodox Jew, won his last election, in 2022, with 58% of the vote. But in the same election, the 27th Assembly district went 56% for Republican Lee Zeldin in his challenge to Democratic incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The seat became vacant when Rosenthal, 32, stepped down earlier this summer to take a position as vice president of government relations at UJA-Federation.

Within the politically conservative Orthodox Jewish community, this election was the latest installment in a long-running debate over whether the community is best-served by electing a Republican who fully embraces and forcefully advocates for its values, or a moderate or conservative Democrat who can advocate for its needs within the super-majority caucus in an Assembly where the minority party has little power.

Amid discontent with Democrats locally and nationally over issues ranging from crime to education, Republicans flipped four downstate Assembly seats last year — as well as four congressional seats in New York — including several in districts with heavy Orthodox populations, and were looking to do the same in this race.

But Berger rode strong communal support, the endorsement and political infrastructure of Rosenthal, and a fundraising advantage of more than 10 to 1, to a 10-point victory in a race that most political insiders who had spoken to Hamodia had said would be too difficult to predict.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, speaking at Berger’s campaign headquarters, alluded to the challenges currently facing Democrats. “Running a race as a Democrat is so difficult right now, because some of the challenges that aren’t even the state’s … [or] even necessarily the city’s problem or issue,” Heastie said, in an apparent reference to the large numbers of migrants living in city shelters. “This was not an easy environment.”

“The country was watching this race,” Heastie said. “The White House was watching this race.”

Both parties pulled out the big guns for this election, with Heastie and Queens Democrat Chair Rep. Gregory Meeks campaigning for Berger, and New York GOP Chair Ed Cox and former gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin stumping for Hirsch.

Berger also received a congratulatory phone call Tuesday night from Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Hirsch speaking to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Whitestone on Tuesday night. (Daniel Marans)

In his own comments to supporters at his campaign headquarters in Whitestone, Hirsch said, “It was an uphill battle; this is New York City.” Referencing Berger’s massive union support and financial advantage, Hirsch said, “We did the best we could.”

“We were underdogs from the start, outspent, up against a powerful Democrat machine and dozens of unions, but we did our best, and I’m proud of my team,” Hirsch later told Hamodia. “I wish Mr. Berger the best, and hope he does a good job for our community.”

Republican Councilwoman Vickie Paladino, speaking at Hirsch’s headquarters, said she was heartened at how the GOP put together a competitive race in the few weeks since the special election was announced in late July, against an established Democratic infrastructure in the district. “You did a great job,” Paladino told Hirsch. “And what I say to the Democrats is: we’ve only just begun to fight,” Paladino continued, saying that with more time to mount a campaign for the 2024 election, “we’re going to look forward to a Republican taking back this seat [for] the first time in 50 years.”

Asked by Hamodia whether he is considering running again in 2024, Hirsch replied, “I do not know my future plans yet. I’m thinking about what I will do, talking with people. But also, this was hard on my family, and I need to consider them as well. Right now, I’m focused on the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays), and after that helping Republican City Council candidates as part of my position on the county committee.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a conservative Democrat and veteran political consultant who has been critical of his party’s leftward shift in recent years, said Democrats should be concerned about the result despite the victory. “Special elections — especially in Queens — are typically won easily with limited effort by the Democratic candidate. The relative closeness of this election tells you something about the cultural, religious and political changes taking place in the city. This election is a warning to those in power and to Democrats: the disaffected are less afraid, more vocal, and more willing to publicly express outrage.”

Berger with future colleagues Assemblymen Simcha Eichenstein (L) and David Weprin. (Reuvain Borchardt/Hamodia)

Asked by Hamodia for his first priority to work on in the Assembly, Berger replied, “We’re certainly going to work against anything that would be antisemitic, anti-Asian or anti-anybody. Baseless hatred has no room in this state. And I will work tirelessly, and I will stand up to it as much as I can.”

While Berger will be one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus, he told Hamodia he doesn’t envision problems with his future colleagues.

“I think one of my strengths is my temperament, my ability to talk to people who I may not agree with,” Berger said. “And I think that I’ll be able to work with people because … I’m coming from a place of not what I think is what’s right, but what I’ve heard from my constituents as what they believe, and I’m doing my best to represent them. And when you’re coming from a place like that , and you’re willing to talk people who may not agree with you, you can work with people and you can find solutions.”

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