City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch has been conspicuously absent from primary debates for New York’s 9th Congressional seat, long held by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn).
He’s instead aiming directly at targeted voters with an incendiary video ad, paid for by Chaim for Congress, circulating via email.
It features apocalyptic images of recent looting, assaults on the NYPD, coronavirus victims’ stacked body bags, and anti-Semitic violence on the streets of Brooklyn.
“Businesses shuttered, businesses boarded up, gangs of looters roaming through the city, fires burning in the streets, cops being stabbed, cops being beaten and spit on.”
“Why? It all comes down to lack of leadership.”
The ad continues: “In just two weeks we will have an opportunity to vote for change and send a powerful message to the world: WE WON’T TOLERATE THIS ANYMORE.”
Deutsch, who represents Midwood, Madison and Sheepshead Bay in the southern part of the district, has been running out of view of most voters in neighborhoods to the north. The second-term Democratic Council member also hasn’t responded to multiple interview requests from THE CITY and other local news outlets.
Where he has sought a presence, it’s primarily in Jewish forums shielded from outside view — cultivating a targeted following within a diverse district that stretches from Park Slope to Gerritsen Beach to East Flatbush to Brownsville.
On Tuesday, Deutsch received a joint endorsement from 18 rebbetzins — rabbis’ wives — according to the Jewish news site Boro Park 24.
A campaign-sponsored full-page comic strip in another news outlet, Flatbush Jewish Journal, encourages kids to tell their parents to vote for Deutsch.
“It’s disappointing to see that he’s not participating in these public forums,” said Christina Das, president of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, a group that moderated a May forum on Zoom and endorsed Clarke. “It’s a campaign strategy. That’s up to him and his campaign, but young people want to see people participate, debate, and obviously more turnout and transparency.”
A Close Race
Deutsch appears to be relying on cultivating Orthodox Jewish and Russian voters in the southern parts of the district, where Clarke won the majority of election districts in a tight 2018 primary.
That leaves Clarke and three other black candidates — Adem Bunkedekko, Isiah James and Lutchi Gayot — competing for the remainder of the district. James and Bunkedekko have been skirmishing with Clarke over who is the truest progressive in the contest.
Even slight changes in voter turnout could alter the outcome of the June 23 Democratic primary. Two years ago, when Bunkedekko first challenged Clarke in a primary, only 9% percent of registered Democrats in the district turned out to vote.
On the same day that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled Queens political boss Joe Crowley in a surprise win, Bunkedekko came within a couple thousand votes of defeating Clarke, who has held the seat since 2006.
This year’s primary is full of unknowns, with many people expected to vote by mail due to the pandemic. But Deutsch’s track record suggests he can siphon off enough votes to tilt the race.
Out of the 54 election districts shared between Deutsch’s Council district and the congressional district, Clarke dominated in 2018, winning 41 in her 2018 primary race. Deutsch won every one of them in his 2017 primary, turning out over 3,000 voters.
City Board of Election records show 2,701 Republican voters citywide switched their registrations to the Democratic Party in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 14 deadline to switch party registrations prior to a primary.
Those switches were made possible by a new state law that allows party switching much closer to a primary than previously allowed — a law championed by the campaign of socialist Bernie Sanders as he readied his Democratic presidential run.
Voters in portions of the southern part of the district voted heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Political scientist Christina Greer of Fordham University told THE CITY earlier this year that he will likely be well served by aiming for steady voters within the Orthodox Jewish community.
“We do know that they have turned out in primaries in the past, so if nothing else it bodes well for him to target a group of people who have a history of participation,” said Greer.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Deutsch got his start in civic life as a founder of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol in the early 1990s. He has been endorsed by the New York City Police Benevolent Association and the Detectives Endowment Association.
The three other major candidates have expressed dismay and outrage over the death of George Floyd and the ensuing conflicts between NYPD officers and peaceful protesters throughout the city.
Deutsch, who’s serving his second and last term in office, had raised about $95,000 as of April 1, with $65,314 in his campaign account — far less than either Clarke or Bunkedekko.
Clarke brushed off concerns that Deutsch could potentially act as a spoiler to her reelection bid and criticized his stance on LGBTQIA+ issues.
Gay City News reported that Deutsch once described the National Organization for Women as having “an agenda with gays and lesbians,” and has chronicled his Council votes against gay-rights measures.
“I have been proud to work with the communities in our southern district to ensure that they’re well represented and that their voice is amplified in Congress. Unfortunately, with Councilmember Deutsch, he goes against everything that we need for our community,” said Clarke.
“He has on numerous occasions been very homophobic and that really just speaks to his character. We’re living in a democracy right now and my goal is that the people in the southern district that he represents in Council really understand the work that I’ve been doing.”
In phone interviews, Clarke, James and Bunkeddeko all said that their campaigns have put an emphasis on informing voters about absentee ballots and encouraging them to complete them.
When door-knocking and traditional campaigning came to an end with the coronavirus shutdowns in March, the candidates began reexamining their campaign priorities.
“I am definitely in support of ensuring that the people are getting more support from the federal government as it relates to stimulus checks and suspending rent and mortgages for the duration of the pandemic,” said Clarke, whose campaign has been hosting virtual phone bank parties and reaching out to voters via text.
‘Wellness Checks’ on Voters
Bunkedekko has also called for diverting money from the military to fund massive investments to help fortify Brooklyn against climate change-induced flooding.
“COVID has only further highlighted the longer term environmental injustice for communities of color in creating disparate health outcomes for communities of color,” said Bunkedekko, whose team made thousands of “wellness check” calls to voters in March.
James, an Army veteran and Democratic socialist backed by Brand New Congress, said that the issues he’s already been campaigning on — like Medicare for All — have only become more relevant since COVID has ravaged New York City.
“My policy points are exactly the same. The stuff we’ve been saying for years. We said health care is a human right and everyone should be entitled to health care in this country, regardless of status or ability to pay,” said James. “And now we see because coronavirus hit: ‘Damn — maybe everybody should have health care, because we have 40 million people who are unemployed.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that 2,701 Republican voters in the district switched their party to Democrat in the weeks leading up to the primary registration deadline.