March 6, 2011
New York Dems Divide and Conquer Conservative Immigrant GroupBy David Storobin
An substantial immigrant community is experiencing political disenfranchisement, much to the indifference of immigrant rights groups and the media. Coincidentally, this group gave roughly 90% of its votes to John McCain in 2008.
According to the latest demographic data, Russian immigrants are now the second-largest group in southern Brooklyn. They are also wealthier and better educated than the general population. So why do they remain almost completely unrepresented in political circles?
Other than Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, who represents Brighton Beach, there are no Russian-American elected officials, despite the hundreds of thousands of Russians living in other parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island. In fact, there are hardly any Russian staffers in the offices of our legislators, and none of them have high- ranking positions, such as chiefs of staff.
The lack of political representation is particularly curious considering that Russian-Americans tend to live in close proximity to each other: southern Brooklyn and right near the Verrazano Bridge in Midland and South Beach in Staten Island.
While other communities that are lesser in number, poorer, and more spread out across various neighborhoods are electing Assemblymen, City Councilmen, State Senators and Congressmen, the Russians are shut out of the political process. Why?
The answer begins ten years ago, when Dr. Oleg Gutnik made the first run for political office by a Russian-American as a candidate for New York City Council. Despite losing, he had the best showing in the district of any Republican in almost a century -- on the shoulders of an overwhelming share of the Russian vote.
The Democratic establishment panicked. Why would Russians who are registered Democrats vote for a Republican? Displaying total ignorance of not just the Russian community, but of immigrants in general, they mistakenly believed that Russians would care about abortion, taxation and "community outreach" more than they cared about electing one of their own.
Immigrants go through three stages. First, as a new immigrant, you try to learn English and get a minimum-wage job. Then you try to get a middle-class job and a condo. As the final step in the integration process, immigrants attempt to join the mainstream by getting "their own" installed on corporate boards and to become elected officials.
Russian-Americans have completed the first two steps. The most important issue for them now is to be seen as equals who can break through the political glass ceiling.
Thus, Russians vote for Russians, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, and will continue to do so until a legitimate number of their representatives are in political office. Before they can afford to vote on "issues," they need to get a few of their own in positions where they can address the concerns unique to the Russian community.
But this problem is more acute for Russian immigrants than anyone else. A large majority of the so-called "Russian" voters are Jewish and were completely excluded from any political power in the Soviet Union. (The exception being a brief period in the 1920s until Joseph Stalin executed nearly all Jewish government officials in the 1930s.)
In the Soviet Union, the Jews were at the top of the socio-economic status in terms of education and income, but at the very bottom of political scale. Being a Soviet Jew meant that no matter how educated and wealthy you may be, you will never be respected.
Soviet Jews left behind their jobs as doctors and lawyers in Russia to become maids and cab drivers in the United States, so that their children could someday be treated as equals. Being able to get the worthy in their community elected was part of the American Dream they sought.
The dream was denied when Dr. Gutnik lost, but the Russian-American community could console itself in the knowledge that most of them were not yet citizens in 2001 and that their time will come very soon.
But in the early 2002, a political assault struck the Russian-American community at the hands of the Democratic Party.
In the second year of every decade, the government re-draws every district based on the data received from the previous census. Usually, ethnic, religious and racial communities are kept together to the degree possible to allow them to have a voice. This is particularly so in New York where ethnicity is something many people are very proud of.
But the old-guard was not interested in having Russians get elected to office. Dr. Gutnik's opponent, Dominic Recchia, then a newly elected City Councilman, whose party dominates the New York political landscape, spearheaded the effort to divide the Russian community into shreds, so that it would not have the ability to elect candidates who understand their concerns. He split the Russian blocks in his district with another new City Councilman, Michael Nelson, who previously served as a chief of staff for State Senator Carl Kruger. (More on Senator Kruger's criminal abuse of the Russian community below.)
Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay were split between two City Council, three Assembly and three State Senate districts. This ensured that Russians can never be a majority the in the same way that Italians, Irish, American Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and others are majorities in some New York districts.
In addition, Russian areas were often placed together with neighborhoods whose needs are vastly different from that of the Russian community, usually poor housing projects. Thus, Senator Diane Savino's district consists of Coney Island and Staten Island projects, together with the Russian South Beach and West 8th Street buildings in Brooklyn. Their power in Savino's district is so miniscule that she openly called the views of Russian-Americans "absurd" in a recent interview in the Staten Island Advance, knowing that her Russian constituents are too outnumbered to do anything about the insult during the next election.
Other local politicians went even further. A Village Voice article "Carl Kruger's Russian Secrets" published on July 6, 2010 concluded that Senator Carl Kruger, who represents most of Brooklyn's Russian population, is an outright "threat" to Russian small businessmen.
"What we really should be worried about is protecting our own Russians down in South Brooklyn from our own politicians. This threat comes in the fireplug shape of State Senator Carl Kruger, who has been relentlessly soaking them for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign booty for years."
Around the same time this Village Voice article was published, Russian-American attorney Michael Levitis -- the owner of the Rasputin restaurant -- was arrested after he was taped explaining to another business owner that to solve his problems, Carl Kruger would require a large "donation" and a "fundraiser," something that he has already done for the Senator.
Michael Levitis is expected to plead guilty to a lesser charge, with multiple media sources reporting that he probably received a favorable plea bargain because he cooperated with the FBI investigation of Carl Kruger.
In another case that did not yet land Senator Kruger in trouble with authorities, he reportedly harassed the Russian-owned Cherry Hill Market for not receiving a "donation."
Even the most well-known and politically-connected Russian businessmen find it impossible to address their concerns. A Russian businessman, whom I consider to be a friend, recently submitted the lowest bid for his services, and thus should have been awarded a government contract. By law, the contract must go to the business that is willing to work for the least amount of money.
But no, the bidding was suddenly extended, and the $6 million contract was given to someone else, someone not Russian. Several well-known Russian-American figures tried to intervene, but to no avail.
"They told me they were my friends," complained one well-known Russian businessman. "They told me they would look out for our community if they got elected. But when it was time to right an injustice, nobody moved a finger."
Another very successful Russian-American businessman remarked, "To them, we are nothing."
In other communities, such disregard and abuse would be unthinkable. Politicians, even the most corrupt ones, cannot harass local small businesses, nor ignore their legitimate concerns. At the very least, they have to pretend they are trying to help their constituents.
Not so for Russian-American voters. Russians are "absurd." Russian are told to "donate" to avoid harassment and solve problems. Russians are ... disenfranchised.
In early 2012, another redistricting will take place. Once again, the old-guard is seeking to split the Russian voters in such a way that it would be impossible for them to achieve any semblance of political power.
But this time, things are different. Russians are no longer poor recent immigrants who know nothing about politics. Today, they are financially successful, they are registered to vote, they have civic organizations and business networks. Ten years ago, Russians had no political power and had to tolerate the outrageous way their districts were gerrymandered. In 2011, they are a completely different community.
The abuse of the Russian voters and businessmen must come to an end. Russian-American lawyers must make sure that the Department of Justice is aware of any attempt to disenfranchise out community, and Russian-American journalists must keep the voters informed.
The Russian community has a choice: they will either speak out and make their voices heard, or they will get what they deserve -- the same shabby treatment they've been getting for the last 10 years.
David Storobin is a partner at the Storobin & Spodek LLP law firm. He has been active in politics since 1992.