Weiner’s Old Seat

09.14.11

How the Democrats Lost a Stronghold

The congressional seat that Anthony Weiner resigned this summer had been in Democratic hands for 91 years. Did the Democrats lose it out of indifference?

The day before a Republican claimed the New York congressional seat vacated this summer by Anthony Weiner—a seat controlled by Queens Democrats for more than 90 years—Joe Crowley, the gregarious congressman and chair of the once-vaunted Queens Democratic Party, was in New York campaigning for David Weprin, the state legislator he handpicked to run for the seat back in July.

But that night, Crowley, who has actually lived in a Virginia suburb with his wife and three kids since 2004, left his blue Ford (with its Virginia license plates and the bumper sticker declaring that his kid is an honor-roll student at a Virginia high school) in the driveway of his mother's Queens home, and headed for Washington. A member of the House Democratic leadership, Crowley went back to vote on education and transportation bills that passed by huge majorities. Peter King, the Republican congressman who stood on the stage at winner Bob Turner's side that night, missed the votes.

Crowley was also expected at Weprin's victory party that night, according to several people who spoke to The Daily Beast, but he never showed up.

Perhaps taking its direction from its absentee leader, the Queens Democratic Party appeared to be doing little for Weprin. His field troops came almost entirely from the unions that were pumping dollars and campaign workers into the district. Several Daily Beast visits to Crowley's storefront office at 72-50 Austin Street, which doubled as the headquarters of the Queens Democratic Party and the Weprin campaign, found it relatively empty between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Election Day. Charts on the wall inside the shabby Forest Hills office listed the district’s polling sites and the time slots for volunteers to staff them. At 3:30 p.m., only about a quarter of the slots for the entire day had been filled.

In front of the campaign headquarters as well as at most polling sites, union campaign workers were a far more visible presence than neighborhood volunteers. The people pulling voters to polls and handing out palm cards on street corners were mostly supplied by the unions endorsing Weprin. 1199SEIU, the UFT, the UFOA, and the construction workers’ union were most prominently visible in the polling sites around Weprin’s headquarters. The Daily Beast spoke with about 20 field volunteers, 15 of whom were workers sent by their unions to leaflet at polling sites. The 1199SEIU campaign worker holding the door to Weprin’s campaign office even told The Daily Beast that his union was paying him to be there.

But Weprin, who again thanked unions for their support after the results of the race had become clear, seemed unable to muster sufficient neighborhood enthusiasm for his campaign. Union-supplied campaign workers don’t know the neighborhoods as well as grassroots volunteers might, and even on a day when no other race was dividing the neighborhood's attention, the Queens County Democrats apparently could not put enough local volunteers on the streets.

While Weprin thanked the Democrats for their support, the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party was nowhere to be seen. Courtney Gidner, Crowley’s communications director, explains the congressman’s absence from New York on Election Day as stemming from the national duties that require congressmen to split their time between their district and the nation’s capital.

“On the day of the special election in New York, he was in Washington voting on legislation to keep our airways and highways safe and running,” Gidner said. Though Crowley was absent from Weprin’s election party, which Gidner said the congressman had hoped to attend, Gidner says the chairman was in the Queens Democratic headquarters by the end of the day.

The inhabitants of Queens’s District Nine, where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one and the last Republican win was in 1920, voted with a resentment that was aimed not just at the president but at his party.

Crowley’s votes yesterday were on HR 2887, the Surface and Air Transportation Programs Act of 2011, which passed the House by a voice vote, and HR 2218, the Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act, which passed by 311 votes.

It wasn’t abnormal that Crowley chose Washington over Queens on Election Day. He's hardly ever around, according to neighbors. Lillian Zajkowski, a neighbor who has lived across the street from the Crowley residence for 35 years, said, "I haven’t seen him in forever. I don't know when was the last time, but I see his mother all the time." A neighbor of 30 years, whose backyard is opposite Crowley's, "hardly ever" catches a glimpse of the Queens Democratic boss. Father Richard Conlan, a pastor who leads services at St. Mary's Nativity, the Flushing church Crowley supposedly attends, hasn't seen him in the past year.

As the New York Post reported in July, Crowley may not spend as much time in Queens as his local-party-boss duties require. Weprin's loss last night suggests that Crowley might be losing his grip on the borough over which he presides, or that he has misjudged the issues closest to local voters' hearts.

Several district voters feel that had Anthony Weiner not been forced to resign by the Democratic House leadership, it would have been a no-contest win for Weiner over Turner. One Weprin volunteer working a Forest Hills polling site said of Weprin, “Some people say he’s not charismatic enough. Well, you know what the situation is. We liked Anthony Weiner.” 

At Turner’s Howard Beach victory party, New York state GOP leader Ed Cox and U.S. Rep. Peter King, the latter of whom had driven to Howard Beach straight off a plane from London, brushed off questions about Crowley’s role in the defeat. “This is a win for Bob Turner and Ed Koch and a terrible defeat for Obama,” said King, as early precincts began reporting Turner in the lead.

Echoing the sentiment that the election had been pivoted by Turner and his supporters into a referendum on President Obama’s policies, Barbara Shiller, a Queens teacher and UFT union member handing out leaflets outside a polling site at P.S. 189, said, "Weprin may not even agree with Obama, but people are angry at Obama, and the Republicans are so anti-Obama, even if they don't even know what the issues are anymore."

But Crowley, the highest-ranking New York Democrat in the House leadership, is chief deputy whip and has the ear of Steny Hoyer, the House’s No. 2 Democrat. Serving his sixth term in Congress, Crowley is one of the biggest fundraisers for congressional Democrats. His active role in the Democratic leadership makes Turner’s victory a failure both for Democratic leadership in Queens and for House Democrats in Washington, like Steve Israel, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Committee, who endorsed Weprin early on. For all the attacks on Obama, the inhabitants of Queens’s District Nine, where Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one and where the last Republican win was in 1920, voted with a resentment that was aimed not just at the president but at his party.

The Ninth District was slated, according to many observers, for elimination in the 2012 redistricting had Weprin won it. Indeed, Crowley has been widely depicted as picking Weprin because Weprin wouldn’t run against other Queens Democrats if his seat disappeared next year. But now that the district belongs to Turner, a Republican, it may not disappear so quickly. If it does, some parts of Turner’s district may wind up in Crowley’s. Asked by The Daily Beast whether he’d consider running against Crowley in the event his own newly won district is eliminated, Turner said, “Let’s do the redistricting. I’ll carry the banner anywhere. The people will still need representation.”