To hear incumbent State Senator Simcha Felder’s allies tell it, the Orthodox Jewish community in his district is under attack. On a recent evening, the unlikely source of this alleged onslaught could be seen knocking on doors in Brooklyn with his name tag affixed to a straw Panama hat, his bright eyes framed by round spectacles, outfitted with a starchy button-down and hiking boots.
In other people’s eyes, plucky primary challenger Blake Morris is on what many consider a quixotic quest to unseat an entrenched Albany powerbroker.
Morris, who lives just inside the 17th district’s north-easternmost tendril in Ditmas Park, cultivates a quirky air of yesteryear. Stepping off his wrap-around porch, he quickly turns a question about politics into a short lecture on the local history of steam trains, Dutch farming, and finally the use of prison ships by the British in the Revolutionary War.
Then, a few blocks from home, Morris briefly got lost looking for Democrats. This man is the great progressive hope of State Senate district 17.
And while he is attempting to mobilize progressive Democrats around the fringes of this traditionally conservative district, Morris claims he is also making inroads into the insular Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn via late-night chats at kosher pizza shops on Avenue J and secret meetings in people’s homes.
“They are very fearful,” Morris said of the roughly 100 Orthodox voters he says he’s met in nearly a dozen private meetings. “They don’t want their neighbors to know that they’re interested in doing something differently than the community.”
Morris discovered that many Orthodox voters could be found by canvassing pizza shops at midnight, after the sabbath ends and the search for Havdalah pizza begins. “They say ‘Oh, I would never support you, you’re a secular-Jew-type-person.’ But then after talking with them, they realize that we have a lot of common interests,” Morris explained.
These time-consuming efforts, paired with an online campaign that has volunteers posting in private Facebook groups and WhatsApp chats as well as making phone calls based on friendly referrals is part of Morris’ attempt to peel away voters from Felder, whom Morris is challenging in the primary election on Thursday, September 13th.
Felder is best known as the man who has been infuriating New York’s loyal Democrats by caucusing with Republicans and tipping the balance of power in the GOP’s favor since 2012—the same year the district was gerrymandered by the Republican-controlled State Senate in what political insiders describe as a deal to empower the growing Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park and Midwood. So far, it’s been a great deal for Senate Republicans, delivering them the critical single-vote majority to which they currently cling.
Felder himself defies any conventional political label—he’s used “heretic,” among others. He has run unopposed for years, recently winning on the Democrat, Republican, and Conservative party lines.
Felder argues that his unconventional alliance with Republicans has also been a great deal for his district. It shows that his only allegiance is to his constituents, he says, putting them above party and politics. His role as pivotal swing vote also brought in plenty of money for local projects, and as Felder told the Jewish Star in 2010, “I would say I love slush, every flavor.”
Sen. George Amedore Jr., R-Rotterdam, left, and Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Carmel, right, tape Sen. Simcha Felder, D-Brooklyn to his chair as a joke while waiting for the start of a session in the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol during the last scheduled day of the 2018 legislative session, in Albany. (Hans Pennink / AP / Shutterstock)
But as intolerable as Felder is to liberal Democrats, Blake Morris is an unlikely white knight. After failing to find someone willing to challenge Felder, Morris gave himself the job. Now, he will be the first to challenge Felder in a Democratic primary. Few gave Morris much of a chance at the outset, but when the GOP-allied IDC State Senators folded back into the Democratic party, the spotlight settled on Felder, with Governor Andrew Cuomo writing a letter urging this last remaining rogue Democrat to return.
At this point, Morris has received endorsements from the state Democratic party, the Working Families Party, labor union 32BJ SEIU and a slew of progressive groups and candidates. City & State calls the race a “wild card,” but many call it a longshot.
Morris also successfully fended off an attack on his name, when Felder’s lawyers attempted to get him thrown off the ballot because “Blake” is actually his middle name, not his first name (he is officially “Lawrence Blake Morris”). The failed attempt to derail Morris was an ironic gambit for Felder, who once said he doesn’t know who he is.
Morris is not shy about his identity. He is an unabashed progressive who touts single-payer health care, gun control, affordable housing, gay rights, marijuana legalization, and—like many Albany newcomers—anti-corruption legislation.
Longtime political observers remain dubious that a progressive Democrat’s message will resonate in a community known for its conservative leanings, and said they believe the district is happy with Felder.
Nevertheless, Morris and several volunteers say they are finding common ground among Orthodox families on issues like affordable housing, universal healthcare, and improved education standards in Yeshivas. The Orthodox community is not a monolith, they say, and some Orthodox are quietly promising to vote for the liberal alternative after hearing Morris's pitch.
Morris believes this unusual effort, paired with an all-out door knocking campaign targeting so-called “prime” Democrat voters in non-Orthodox neighborhoods, will deliver him the win. “I have the evidence,” Morris said referencing his canvassing statistics. “Over 70 percent of the people that we encounter, prime Democratic voters, say they are voting for Blake.”
It’s unclear how much of an impact Morris's unorthodox Orthodox outreach will have on voter turnout. It’s hard to say how broad that support is or whether it will translate into much-needed votes on primary day. “When you have a secret thing going, it’s hard to know how deep the ocean is,” Morris said.
The common analysis is that the peculiar politics of Brooklyn’s 17th State Senate district, centered on Borough Park and Midwood, is the product of influential Orthodox power brokers who deliver votes for Felder—who is Orthodox himself. But while political observers note that the ultra-Orthodox, in particular, are reliable voters who have cast ballots as a group, the so-called “bloc vote” is more like a collection of Legos than a monolith. And in a race where just 10,000 voters are likely to decide the winner, every piece of the electorate counts.
“The Orthodox community is strongly favorable to Simcha,” said Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at Agudath Israel of America. “No serious leaders of the Orthodox community, to my knowledge, have had any kind of engagement with [Blake Morris].”
In fact, one local politico who lives in the district said that he doubts many in the Jewish enclave know who Blake Morris is.
“I’m someone that’s involved in politics and I haven’t heard his name. I haven’t been approached by this person. I haven’t received a piece of mail. I didn’t even know his name,” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO at The Friedlander Group, suggesting that the press was hyper focusing on a candidate that was unknown in the community.
Morris's campaign contends, however, that it studiously avoids the company of political consultants and that it has engaged over 4,000 average voters in person through the efforts of their 400 volunteers, with three rounds of mailings, robocalls, and digital canvassing reaching many more.
(Courtesy Simcha Felder)
For his part, Felder appears to be campaigning through his established connections to local rabbis and doing interviews in Orthodox media. Felder declined an interview request for this story. “Unfortunately right now this could only work to his detriment,” Sheri Toiv, Felder’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
However, Felder’s sparsely-used campaign Twitter account has sprung to life recently, tweeting out photos of him with prominent rabbis and retweeting fiery op-eds endorsing him.
One opinion piece in Hamodia, which Felder tweeted out twice, warned that “the Orthodox Jewish community is under attack—in the media, online, and, most dangerously, in the halls of government. Our Torah way of life is being challenged on many fronts.” It goes on to assert: “Make no mistake, this coming election is not only a referendum on Simcha Felder, but a direct challenge and threat to the Orthodox Jewish community that supports him.” Posters and short videos, some retweeted by the campaign, tie Felder’s reelection to support for Yeshivas and Jewish culture writ large.
"The headlines have taken dead aim and unless you have been sleeping, you know the #Orthodox #Jewish community is under attack"@ChaskelBennett is firing on all cylinders, in his fiery endorsement of @NYSenatorFelder https://t.co/e5BNtmJnHG
— Yosef Rapaport (@YosefRapaport) September 5, 2018
Felder’s fundraising in the race appears to show that he certainly has the resources to be, as Silber put it, taking nothing for granted and “working as if they are 20 points behind.” As of the last reporting period, Felder had $600,000 on hand from major real estate and political donors versus Morris's meager $27,000 raised primarily from small-dollar donors. But Morris says that dollar difference is not indicative of the people’s support or even of the local Orthodox community’s support.
“He’s using the Orthodox as a front. They are not the ones donating to his campaign,” Morris said. “Felder is just using Orthodox community as a fig leaf for [Republican State Senate Majority Leader John] Flanagan."
While voting data experts say that the district is by far the “most Jewish” district in the state with 66 percent of residents and 43 percent of active voters considered “likely Jewish,” the district is also home to many other groups, including a large community of Chinese and growing number of South Asians; a slice of the Russian-speaking community in Sheepshead Bay; young professionals and artists in portions of Flatbush, Sunset Park and Kensington; and a few swatches of tony Ditmas Park, where Morris lives. Those demographics are key to Morris's ground game.
One recent evening, Morris stood in the nerve center of his headquarters (which is also his dining room), waving his hand over a large map, propped against a fireplace, showing the district. His main strategy, Morris said, has been to pursue voters outside the 48th Assembly district, which forms the center of the Senate district’s heavily-Orthodox Borough Park and Midwood neighborhoods. Morris says he is working around the edges of Simcha Felder’s power center while quietly making inroads among Jewish voters.
Some of Morris’s most engaged supporters appear to harbor a deep disdain for Felder. “He’s an evil, evil monster,” one campaign volunteer muttered, glancing down at a Felder mailing near the dried seaweed snacks in Morris's charming Victorian home. In the words of Amy Hackett, a veteran Democrat canvasser at age 77, “the real attraction to Blake Morris is that large sections of this neighborhood have a visceral dislike of the incumbent Senator Felder.”
Morris sums up his plan of attack the way he says his father, a traveling salesman, might have if he had gone into retail politics: diversify your voter base. Progressive voters are Morris's “department stores” and “retail chains,” that might bring him 90 percent of his votes, but he will spend a lot of time and energy on Jewish voters, his small shops, who will make up just 10 percent of his voters.
If swaying the voting behavior of the multifaceted and insular Orthodox community seems like a Sisyphean task, Morris says he can’t help himself. “I was raised to believe that behind every no, there is a yes,” he said.
But he’s not doing it alone.
“I think absolutely the Orthodox needle can be moved for this election,” said Naomi Rabeeya, a volunteer for Morris who describes herself as a progressive, but observant Jew. She has spent countless hours pouring herself into the campaign’s Orthodox outreach. Much of the conversation is happening online where people can more freely express themselves, Rabeeya said, and many of those online activists are women. “Beyond this election—that’s key—things are changing in District 17.”
Ahuva Buchbinder, a 24-year-old Modern Orthodox Jewish medical assistant who lives in the district, said she is voting for Morris and encouraging her ultra-Orthodox friends to support him too.
“There’s this common assumption when I talk to people about Felder,” Buchbinder said. “That ‘He understands us because he’s one of us. He looks like us.’ But when I ask people if they can name a piece of legislation that Felder has voted for that they were in favor of, most people kind of stare at me like a deer in headlights, because they can’t.”
One quirk of pitching the Orthodox community, Buchbinder explained, is that they have no interest in the progressive rallying cry against the GOP-allied Senator Felder. “All of this, ‘Felder’s a fake Democrat,’ doesn’t faze them, because they are fake Democrats too. He represents them in that way. They don’t care.” Buchbinder has found that what they do care about is supporting the Child Victims Act, which Felder has not.
Other Orthodox voters told her they were upset about the speed cameras being deactivated in front of schools, which was a result of a last-minute deal pushed by Felder at the end of Albany’s legislative session. (The City Council subsequently found a way to turn the cameras back on, without going through the legislature.)
Still, Buchbinder admits she is not sure if the Morris campaign’s message was finely tuned enough or broadcast widely enough to get through to enough of the Orthodox community.
“You can’t win an election here without talking to the Orthodox,” she said.
Frank G. Runyeon is a journalist in NYC reporting on everything from political power brokers to tainted drinking water tanks. He previously worked as City and State’s senior reporter and has published investigative scoops in The New York Times. Follow him on Twitter.