Inside this New York congressional candidate’s unorthodox campaign strategy

Councilman Chaim Deutsch admits he ‘may have been absent from playing politics’ in his primary race against incumbent Rep. Yvette Clarke

New York City Councilman Chaim Deutsch, a self-described conservative Democrat from Brooklyn, is apparently not eager to get the word out about his campaign for Congress. Despite making a name for himself as an elected official who is accessible to his constituents and active on social media, Deutsch is an almost non-existent candidate in the June 23 Democratic primary for New York’s 9th congressional district. Ever since he announced a surprise run for Congress in late January, Deutsch has gone quiet, refusing interviews and skipping debates.

Deutsch, 51, is one of four candidates challenging seven-term Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) in next week’s race. The field includes Adem Bunkeddeko, who narrowly lost a primary bid in the same district in 2018, community organizer Isiah James and Lutchi Gayot, a Haitian-American who ran as the Republican candidate during the last cycle.

The 9th district, located entirely within the borough of Brooklyn, is majority African American, though around 30% of the population is white. It also encompasses the largely Jewish and Russian neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn, and features within its boundaries the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, located in Crown Heights. 

Deutsch’s unusual below-the-radar approach, according to several political observers who declined to go on the record, reflects a strategy focused on the demographics of the district. Some analysts posit that Deutsch hopes the three other challengers will split the African-American vote with Clarke, and that his campaign can then pick up enough of the leftover factions to sneak by. 

Deutsch’s first successful run for office was modeled on a similar game plan. In 2013, he pulled off a narrow 300-vote-margin victory as two contenders from the Russian community split the vote in the Democratic primary for the open seat in the New York City Council’s 48th district, which was dubbed a “Super-Russian district.” The once-sizable Orthodox Jewish community in the district had been sliced up in redistricting, but Deutsch managed to peel off enough votes to win a race where the odds were stacked against him. 

However, the coronavirus pandemic and the national debate over racial inequality have reshuffled the deck. In previous elections, a strong day-of turnout operation, along with institutional support, were the main vehicles to drive votes. But COVID-19-imposed restrictions and uncertainty have put limits on a come-from-behind spoiler strategy. Deutsch’s absence from recent debates has been highlighted by his opponents, and his reliance on a few social media clips has caught the attention of local media.

“I may have been absent from playing politics throughout this race, but I’ve been hard at work, representing my constituents at hearings and in budget negotiations, working on the city’s budget, fielding thousands of calls from New Yorkers in need, and fighting for resources to help those who are struggling,” Deutsch explained during a rare interview with Jewish Insider as he defended his approach. “I’m not running for Congress to play politics. I’m running on my record of serving the people, and that’s what I will continue to do.” 

*** 

The son of Holocaust survivors, Deutsch got his start in civic life at age 23, founding the Flatbush Shomrim safety patrol in the early 1990s.

He served on several local community boards and worked for 17 years in city government, first as a staffer for then-Councilman Rev. Lloyd Henry, whose district largely overlapped with the current 9th congressional district, and later as an aide to former Councilman Michael Nelson. In 2013, after Nelson’s retirement, Deutsch ran and won the race to replace his boss in the redrawn 48th district, which includes the heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay and sections of Midwood. The seat was previously held by disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who served in the city council from 1992 to 1998, and parts of the district were represented by current U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer when he was in the State Assembly.

In his first term on the council, Deutsch served as chairman of a newly created subcommittee on non-public schools, and since 2018, he has chaired the New York City Jewish Caucus and heads the Veterans Committee. Throughout his tenure, Deutsch — a close ally of Council Speaker Corey Johnson — has been a leading and vocal advocate on issues related to antisemitism, education and quality-of-life matters. 

With a term-limited seat he must vacate next year, Deutsch was rumored to be a candidate for Brooklyn borough president in 2021. As a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, Deutsch was also floated as a possible successor to State Senator Simcha Felder, who lost influence in Albany when Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 2018 (Felder, himself a Democrat, had caucused with the Republicans, causing an uproar in his party). To the surprise of many, Deutsch instead announced a run for Congress in late January.

“I decided to run after seeing how the progressive (sometimes socialist) wing of the Democratic Party has taken over, forcing the entire country to move more to the left,” Deutsch told JI in a later email. “I believe we need more moderate and centrist members of Congress, to balance out the far-left agenda. Now more than ever, it’s critical that NY-9 has a leader who is interested in building bridges, not tearing them down in pursuit of a progressive agenda.”

If elected, Deutsch would be one of the only publicly observant Jewish members to ever serve in the House of Representatives. Former Rep. Herbert Tenzer, who represented New York’s 5th congressional district, left Congress in 1968, and former Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL) served from 1993-2005.

Deutsch told JI that it “would be an honor” to take up that mantle. “I think it would go a long way towards changing the world’s perception of ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic Jews,” he said. “Of course I want to win because I’m the best man for the job, not because I wear a yarmulke,” Deutsch clarified. “But if elected, I will use my platform responsibly, always cognizant of my obligation to make a kiddush hashem (sanctification of the name of God).” 

Councilman Chaim Deutsch speaks at a New York City Council hearing.

***

The incumbent Clarke has deep roots in the district. Prior to her election to Congress in 2006, she represented Brooklyn’s 40th district on the City Council, a role she held for five years. She inherited the seat from her mother, Una Clarke, an immigrant from Jamaica who is known locally as Momma Clarke. It was the first mother-daughter succession in the legislative body’s history. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that Clarke faced her first serious challenge. After a hard-fought primary, Clarke beat Adem Bunkeddeko, who was then a first-time candidate, by less than 2,000 votes. 

Bunkeddeko, who is backed by a number of progressive groups and former gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, is trying his luck again this year, but is no longer Clarke’s only challenger from the left. This cycle he is joined by Isiah James, an army veteran, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. 

Clarke has outraised her challengers, and is leading in the final cash-on-hand race, according to recent FEC filings

“I believe I have earned the trust and respect of my constituents by providing and fighting for them in Washington,” Clarke told Jewish Insider

Clarke faced criticism from some Jewish constituents after she voted in support of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, despite an aggressive lobbying campaign urging her to oppose the agreement. In March of that year, and in a nod to those constituents, she attended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial joint address to Congress, although she later criticized the speech

The congresswoman told JI she still supports the 2015 deal and would like to see the U.S. rejoin. “I believe the plans laid out in that deal offered the U.S. and our allies the best options for peace and preventing the Iranian regime from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Clarke, who has the backing of J Street, explained. “The deal was showing positive results up until the Trump administration decided to pull out.” 

Clarke is also one of 23 cosponsors of a bill critical of Israel introduced last year by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). The legislation, titled “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act,” faced opposition from groups including AIPAC, who charged that the bill was based on a biased report.

In her second term, Clarke was one of 36 members who voted against a House resolution that urged the U.S. administration to unequivocally repudiate the Goldstone Report on Israel’s handling of the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla raid. She also signed onto two congressional letters criticizing Israel’s blockade on Gaza, but later retracted her signature after meeting with Jewish leaders.

In her interview with JI, Clarke defended her record on Israel. “Throughout my time in office, I have been a fierce defender of Israel’s right to exist as a nation and believe there must be a peaceful agreement between Israel and Palestine that resembles a two-state solution,” she said. Clarke also noted that she “strongly opposes” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, pointing to her vote last year in favor of a House resolution condemning the BDS movement (H.R. 246). Clarke is also one of 192 co-sponsors of a recent House resolution reaffirming U.S. support for a two-state solution (H.R. 326), and has signed on to a bipartisan letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month encouraging the administration to support Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Clarke told JI she would not support conditioning military aid to Israel to press the Israeli government on settlements or in response to West Bank annexation. “I do not think using concrete red lines outside of overt violations of human rights provides the optimal path forward,” she said. “The goal must remain to find a path to a two-state solution that respects the rights of the Jewish people to live free from fear and respects the basic humanity of the Palestinian people.”

Clarke refused to criticize or contrast her views on Israel with that of her opponents. “While I will allow my opponents’ comments to speak for themselves, I can definitively say that I will continue to offer my voice and the power of my office to support a strong and secure state of Israel,” she emphasized. 

Bunkeddeko declined an interview with JI.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY)

***

Deutsch, who is appealing to a more conservative base, is highlighting his hawkish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

In his position paper on Israel, Deutsch says that his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust shaped his worldview. “Israel’s existence is our strongest assurance that another Holocaust will never befall the Jewish nation. The world is a safer place for everyone, as long as the State of Israel is strong,” Deutsch stresses in the paper. 

He declined to state whether he supports a two-state solution, but his position paper states, “It is vital that the United States respects and supports Israel’s right to lay claim to its own land.” Deutsch also supported President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the relocation of the U.S. Embassy and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. 

Deutsch first visited Israel in 2017, on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He traveled to Israel again a year later as part of a delegation led by Council Speaker Corey Johnson. 

Avi Lesches, a local community activist, told JI that Deutsch’s hawkish views on Israel and record on issues that are of concern to the community have made a positive impression on the Chabad community in Crown Heights. “Especially now, when you have Israel trying to annex parts of the West Bank — you want somebody who’s going to be an advocate for Israel and the Jewish people in Congress,” Lesches said.

The issue of annexation has some of Clarke’s supporters fired up. “What stands risk to happen is to have someone [elected] who does not reflect those progressive values of the 9th congressional district, somebody who thinks it’s OK for Israel to annex Palestinian territories,” Councilman Brad Lander, who represents parts of Brooklyn, told NY1

Lander, who lives in Park Slope, told JI that while he considers Deutsch a friend and hard-working public servant, “I don’t believe that he reflects the political views of the ninth congressional district.” 

Deutsch and Lander were the only Jewish members of the city council who did not endorse Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

*** 

Another “large motivator” for his congressional run, Deutsch told JI, was the rise in antisemitic violence across the tri-state area, particularly in Brooklyn. 

According to a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, New York saw a 26% increase in antisemitic incidents in 2019. That included 25 assaults in Brooklyn — including eight incidents over the eight days of Hanukkah last year. 

Crown Heights has been the epicenter of antisemitic attacks in recent years. 

As chair of the Jewish Caucus, Deutsch has been an outspoken advocate for the community and a vocal critic of Mayor Bill de Blasio for City Hall’s handling of the ongoing attacks. Last September, the mayor appointed Deborah Lauter, a former civil rights director at ADL, to oversee the newly created Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes following an aggressive push by Deutsch and his colleagues. 

After the rash of deadly attacks in December, Deutsch pointed out that he had been sounding the alarm about a steady rise in antisemitic attacks for the last several years. “We have been told over and over again that we are being paranoid, and we are making a big deal out of a small problem,” he told JI at the time. “Will this most recent attack be the wake-up call that the world needs to stop ignoring our plight and abandoning the Jewish community?” 

Deutsch also condemned de Blasio for singling out Jewish community members for violating social distancing orders at a large funeral in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. In a tweet, the mayor warned “the Jewish community, and all communities” that police would take extreme measures to enforce COVID-19-imposed restrictions against gatherings of all kinds. De Blasio later apologized for “poor word choice.” 

“As a city councilman, I’ve spent years begging federal representatives to pay attention to the antisemitism that has become such a devastating part of our daily lives here in Brooklyn,” Deutsch told JI. Deutsch claimed that there hasn’t been any “significant legislation or budgetary allocations to combat this plague” in New York. “It’s a problem on all levels of government, but the best way to effect the large-scale change we need is from Washington,” he added. “I would start with funding for community facilities and houses of worship to hire security.”

Last week, Deutsch rolled out the endorsements of “20 Brooklyn rebbetzins” — female religious teachers. “Do not underestimate the impact that our community could have by electing a frum member to Congress,” the statement reads. “In addition to being a counterweight to the antisemitism that we have seen displayed by sitting Congress members, Chaim Deutsch will be in a position to be a powerful advocate for the values and principles that are the very foundation of our way of life.”

***

In a since-deleted tweet from 2019, Deutsch blamed Brooklyn activist Linda Sarsour and freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) for “using their platforms to normalize anti-Semitism.” Deutsch clarified that the comments “were in direct response to the rising incidence of antisemitism across the city be it through violence, language or intimidation.”

His tweet was posted around the same time as Omar’s tweet accusing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of paying members of Congress to support Israel. The statement was condemned by Democratic leadership. 

“Honestly, some of the antisemitism comes from federal representatives — elected officials who normalize antisemitism by disguising it as legitimate criticism — for example, using ‘AIPAC’ as a code word for Jews,” Deutsch doubled down in his interview with JI. 

In his position paper on Israel, Deutsch pledged to “fight back” against supporters of the BDS movement. “In the dangerous times we live in, with antisemitism on the rise, we must have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hatred directed at Jews and the State of Israel,” the candidate wrote. “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism, period.” 

***

Clarke pointed out that she has maintained “a strong relationship” with the Jewish community in Crown Heights, despite some hiccups at the start of her career. 

“I take the needs and interests of my constituents very seriously and have met with Jewish community activists,” the incumbent congresswoman told JI. “In the wake of antisemitic attacks in Crown Heights, I have stood [by] my constituents, condemning acts of hate and supporting anti-hate crime legislation in Congress and at the state level.” 

Clarke also claimed credit for the creation of the Office on Hate Crimes. “I worked with council members and local officials to see that this passed,” she said.

Harry Baumgarten, a former legislative director and counsel to Clarke, told JI: “I can attest to the strong working relationship that she has with AIPAC liaisons. She has a diverse district that she is dealing with, but in terms of Israel, she’s solid. She hears from everyone and then she makes her own decisions — in the best interests of the district, the country, and the world.” 

Baumgarten also pointed to Clarke’s role in commuting the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the former chief executive of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, who was found guilty on dozens of counts of fraud and released from jail in 2017 after a lobbying effort jointly led by bipartisan members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community. Baumgarten described it as one of his “proudest moments” working for Clarke on the Hill, “seeing her decades of relationships in the Jewish community play a part in decision making.” 

***

A noted political operative in Brooklyn, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that even under normal circumstances, Deutsch would be considered a long shot, given that the white vote is split between the Orthodox and Russian neighborhoods and the more progressive voters in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. 

“But we’re not in normal circumstances,” the operative posited. Given the coronavirus-imposed restrictions, a lot of traditional campaigning and get-out-the-vote efforts that would help Deutch to bring out his voters, along with institutional support, are now giving way to virtual outreach and an absentee ballot effort. “That further minimizes something that was always a long shot to begin with,” according to the local operative. 

Nonetheless, Deutsch has quietly established a mechanism to get out his base on Election Day. While his council district leans red — in the 2013 and 2017 elections, the Republican candidates both received around 40% of the vote — Deutsch worked to get registered Republicans to switch their registrations to the Democratic Party in time to vote in the primary. Board of Elections records showed 2,701 Republican voters citywide switched their party registrations in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 14 deadline. 

A campaign video released last week that aimed to wake up Deutsch’s base caught the attention of the media. The 80-second ad features images of looting and assaults on police officers during the recent riots across New York City, as well as clips of Jewish individuals being attacked in the streets. “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 says in the video. 

Deutsch released a video with a decidedly different tone on Monday, featuring statements of support by a diverse group of voters, who tout his work on behalf of his constituents and in fighting against racism. 

“When I decided to run, I had no idea just how much the world would change in six months,” Deutsch told JI. Nonetheless, the Brooklyn lawmaker is focused on his election bid, hoping that his work in the City Council throughout the COVID-19 outbreak will put him in a better position to make an effective case to voters. 

“I couldn’t have predicted this COVID outbreak, and all the suffering it would bring upon New Yorkers,” he said. “Now, the economic impact of COVID is a huge factor, and something that is a foremost priority for me. [The district] was hit hard during COVID, both in terms of death rates and in terms of economic instability, and we need someone who can fight for recovery funds for all communities.”

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