Astonishingly to some, the Schumer-Weiner Congressman-for-Life seat in Brooklyn, New York, has been won by a Republican named Turner running on Michele Bachmann’s platform of small government, passionate backing of Israel, and principled opposition to gay marriage. Furthermore, this is the first time ever that being unreservedly pro-Israel provided a cudgel for a non-Jew against a squishy liberal Jew from the crowd that loves Israel like a sister but worships the Democrat Party like an idol.
In a little-noted subtext to this amazing result, Bob Turner’s victory provided vindication for the man who managed the campaign of Robert L. Verga, the Republican candidate for that very seat in 1996. The name of that long-forgotten campaign manager was none other than… Jay D. Homnick.
As regular readers of this column know from articles over the years, I grew up in that district. At the age of sixteen in 1974, I accompanied my father to a meeting of Orthodox Jewish power brokers who were being introduced to Charles Schumer as a candidate for New York State Assembly. I recall vividly the crass horse-trading atmosphere of that event and I have described some of its more repugnant particulars elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that the aesthetic trauma of this experience served as an epiphany about the proper role of Jews in politics and governance which continues in large measure to animate my consciousness to this day.
When Schumer went from the State Assembly to the U.S. Congress (bitterly accused by the late Steven Solarz of corruptly redistricting to guarantee his victory) in the 1980s, I was haunted even more profoundly than I had been earlier. Lucky for me no mental-health professional was on the case as I wrote obsessively about the tragedy of this man representing my family and neighbors in the halls of power. Finally, I voted with my feet, moving out of the neighborhood in 1985, never to return.
By 1996, it was an open secret that Schumer was gearing up to challenge Alfonse D’Amato for his Senate seat in 1998. This was the last chance to blindside him with a local defeat before he took his act statewide. I was living in Cincinnati but I flew in for an interview with Verga to work for the campaign. He hired me to be the actual Campaign Manager.
The listed Manager was Guy Molinari, who was the supreme Republican power broker for Staten Island and Brooklyn (and father of Congresswoman Susan Molinari, who won his seat when he tired of it), but that was titular and not substantive. He had no involvement in either policy or execution.
My strategy for victory was multi-pronged and included a lot of what eventually worked for Turner fifteen years later. First, I argued that the Republicans winning a sizable majority in the House of Representatives in 1994 meant that keeping the seat in Democrat hands would cost the neighborhood much of its clout. I wanted to paint Schumer as one of the holdovers from the repudiated pre-1994 era by linking him with names like Rostenkowski and Wright and Foley.
Mario Cuomo had also lost his governorship by then, so I designed a campaign poster featuring four dinosaurs with politicians’ faces. Three of them were keeled over, looking awfully extinct — the Cuomosaurus, the Rostenkosaurus and the Foleyciraptor. Only the Schumosaurus could be seen clinging to life but fading fast.
Second, I maintained that Schumer’s vocal pro-Israel song-and-dance was vulnerable because when partisan goals posed a conflict, he took the party favors and gave Israel the door prize. The proof was in his vote against the Gulf War in 1991. That was a popular war which had been admired by Jews and non-Jews alike for putting down a tyrant, undoing a naked land grab in Kuwait and protecting Israel.
In that vein, I created a campaign poster headlined: IF CHARLES SCHUMER HAD HIS WAY… The images depicted were of Saddam Hussein standing astride a map of the Middle East like the ultimate conquistador. This concept garnered kudos from several sitting and former Congressmen I consulted.
Third, I targeted the serious Jews and Catholics in the area to hammer home Schumer’s votes for abortion, including the partial-birth variety which Democrats of conscience like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Richard Gephardt had opposed. His outspoken support for gay rights — although gay marriage had not even proposed yet — would also offend these groups. They key was in convincing them that he could be defeated and that voting against him was not a waste of time.
Fourth, I had the advantage of an Italian candidate in a district with more Italians than Jews. I had a picture of the candidate’s father shown against maps of Italy and the United States connected by an arrow. He spoke of the American dream and how proud he was to see his son running for high office.
Then I had a poster design which showed my candidate taking a pizza out of an oven. On the pizza we did the pie graph of what government outlays should look like. Below that we had Schumer’s face on the man taking out the pizza; that one had a chart which showed what government was actually wasting its money spending. The overt message appealed to the smaller-government instincts; the covert message was that the Italian would do a better job than the non-Italian.
(Why did we not win? Well may you ask, and that is a fascinating story for another day. Stay tuned to this station.)
Much of my strategy survives in Turner’s winning approach. They said back then that it could not be done, but although I was not the man to lead the troops to victory on D-Day, I can still take pride that I stood once on that battlefield and envisioned that this day would come…
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