The Jewish-Italian state senator leading the pack to succeed Rep. Nita Lowey

David Carlucci lost his first run for political office at age 21 — but he kept trying. Now he's hoping his years of experience can propel him to Washington

David Carlucci describes himself as a “pizza bagel.” Born in Rockland County, New York, to a Jewish mother and an Italian father, Carlucci — now a state senator representing his hometown of Clarkstown — was raised Catholic, but tapped into his Jewish faith as an adult. 

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Carlucci, a leading contender to succeed longtime Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) in New York’s 17th congressional district, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “Having that diverse background really epitomizes, I think, the best of what the American experience is — that we have different cultures, different religions, but that we can find common ground and work together.”

Carlucci is one of seven remaining candidates competing for the open seat in the June 23 Democratic primary. The crowded field includes former L.A. federal prosecutor Adam Schleifer, former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, State Assemblyman David Buchwald, former NARAL chairwoman Allison Fine, Mondaire Jones, an attorney who worked as part of a fellowship in the Obama Justice Department and college professor and veteran Asha Castleberry-Hernandez. Westchester County Board of Legislators member Catherine Parker dropped out of the race late last week. 

Carlucci says his unique upbringing has guided him throughout his public service career. “That really allowed me to be an effective public servant, able to understand and listen to people of all backgrounds, in all phases, and understand the complications and complexities that people have,” Carlucci explained. 

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Carlucci made his first run for office at age 21, after graduating with an associate degree from Rockland Community College and a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University. Though he lost his bid for Clarkstown town clerk to a longtime Republican incumbent, Carlucci was not deterred from politics. 

Following the loss, Carlucci joined the district office of longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), where he spent two years doing constituent services. “I’ve always had a passion for public service and after losing my first race for office, I decided that I would stay with it and learn from my lessons,” Carlucci recalled, describing his time working for Engel as “an amazing experience” that has guided him throughout his career. In 2006, at age 24, he tried his luck once again and won the town clerk race by 294 votes from a population of 80,000. 

Five years later, Carlucci became the youngest New York state senator after defeating Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef in the race to replace retiring Republican State Sen. Thomas Morahan. “A lot of people said it wasn’t possible,” Carlucci said. “And since that time, I’ve been able to really deliver results for the people that I serve.”

Ten years later, at 39, Carlucci is ready for his next challenge. He sees himself as the right person to fill the shoes of Lowey, who is retiring at the end of the term after three decades in Congress. 

“I think we can only do our best to live up to the example that Congresswoman Lowey has set,” Carlucci told JI. “And while none of us will be able to replace her, we will try to live up to that legacy.” He believes his experience as an active state lawmaker gives him an upper hand over his competitors, while referring to his fellow contenders as “great, smart, intelligent people that speak very well and know a lot about the issues” that matter to voters. 

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Carlucci describes the State Senate as a “sometimes chaotic and difficult” environment, but says he was able to work across the aisle to pass important legislation, a skill he sees as useful in a particularly partisan Washington environment. 

Carlucci’s legislative success in Albany is largely due to his alliance with Republicans, who have held the Senate majority for most of his time in office. He was a founding member of the Independent Democratic Conference, which for years caucused separately from the Democrats. The IDC was dissolved in 2018 to help the Democratic Party regain its majority. Carlucci, along with his colleague Diane Savino of Staten Island, were the only two of the eight breakaway members who survived primary challenges later that year. 

During the interview, Carlucci made a point to say that he was elected “to represent the people that I serve” and was able to deliver on the issues voters care about, regardless of party affiliation.

The IDC may no longer exist, but Carlucci’s alliance with the GOP has not been forgotten by local progressive activists. With weeks to go before the primary, the Westch­ester Coali­tion for Le­gal Abor­tion Choice Mat­ters launched an aggressive campaign in the district to remind Democratic primary voters of Carlucci’s Republican ties. 

The association has not been forgotten by Carlucci’s opponents, either. In a statement to JI, Wellesley Daniels, Farkas’s campaign manager, accused Carlucci of caucusing with Republicans to advance his political career. “While David Carlucci was playing politics in Albany, Evelyn was helping President Obama promote democracy and keep the American people safe,” Daniels said. Schleifer, who is supported by former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), echoed that sentiment, telling JI, Carlucci “has littered his decade in the New York Senate with a string of betrayals and broken promises, running as a Democrat and then caucusing with the Republicans.” 

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State Senator David Carlucci with his family. (Facebook)

Rockland County has the largest Jewish population per capita of any county in the United States, according to state data

Earlier this year, Carlucci introduced the Social Media Hate Speech Accountability Act, following a rash of violent antisemitic attacks, including the Hanukkah stabbing incident in Monsey, NY, last year. Those attacks, Carlucci said, prompted him to “make it a priority to push back against antisemitism and hate.” And he wants to replicate the bill on the federal level. “We just can’t let the rise of hate online, or wherever it exists, go unchecked,” Carlucci told JI. “This is something extremely important and it needs to be done on a national level, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m running for Congress.” 

Carlucci also worked on the first-in-the-nation domestic terrorism law that classifies any attack on a group based on race or religion as an act of terror. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of a budget deal in April. 

In 2017, as JCCs across the country faced ongoing bomb threats, Carlucci introduced a bill that would categorize graffitiing as a hate crime if it targets a person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.

Describing antisemitism as a “cancer that is eating away at the fabric of what America stands for,” Carlucci said it is important for the district’s next member of Congress “to make sure that the fight against antisemitism is at the top.”

Carlucci, who represents the Hasidic community in Rockland, said he was dismayed at the level of hatred against the more identifiable Jewish community in the district amid the coronavirus outbreak. “Because the community is so identifiable, because it’s a culture that few people really understand, anytime there’s something different it is attacked,” he said. “This is a problem that we’ve been dealing with for four generations, unfortunately, but at this time, it’s particularly dangerous.”

The Rockland lawmaker said he was extremely surprised by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s singling out of the Jewish community for social distancing violations during a large funeral in Brooklyn in April. “Anytime someone is making accusations about, or saying someone’s doing something wrong, and to lump it all together into everyone that is of that culture or that background is somehow attached to this bad behavior, is a real problem,” Carlucci explained.

He pointed to his Italian surname, telling JI that he had experienced similar comments from some about being part of organized crime and the mafia just because his last name is Italian, “while having no idea that I’m actually Jewish.” 

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It was in college that Carlucci began to explore his Jewish faith. As a student at Cornell, he got involved with the campus Hillel, eventually traveling to Israel on a Birthright trip. It was there, at age 20, that he celebrated his bar mitzvah. After graduating, Carlucci married his high school sweetheart, Lauren, and settled down in his hometown, where they are raising their two children in a Jewish household. 

His family belongs to Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform congregation in Rockland, where his oldest son currently attends Hebrew school. 

Carlucci’s first visit to Israel was in the summer of 2001, during the second intifada. He called the trip an “eye-opening experience.” 

“We got a glimpse at what society looked like in a heightened sense of terrorism,” Carlucci recounted. “And then when we experienced September 11, a lot of those realities came to the U.S. It was an interesting time and obviously one I had never forgotten because it had a profound impact on my life.”   

(Carlucci for Congress)

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In his position paper on Israel, Carlucci touts his record in Albany as evidence of his ability to “build successful bipartisan legislation and ensure Congress continues to fully fund its annual pledge to aid Israel.” A supporter of the two-state solution, Carlucci is careful when discussing President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan because the ultimate goal is to “push forward, support negotiations, and do what it takes to close the door on what would be a recipe for disaster,” in the absence of a final agreement, he told JI. “I think to walk away from any type of negotiations would be a step in the wrong direction.”

In 2018, Carlucci voted in favor of a bill to prohibit the state of New York from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel. Carlucci told JI he would support a similar measure against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on the federal level.

Last month, a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Israeli leaders warning them against unilaterally annexing portions of the West Bank. The lawmakers cautioned the new Israeli government that unilateral annexation “would have a clear impact on Israel’s future and our vital bilateral and bipartisan relationship.”

Carlucci was critical of the letter. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for American politicians to be wading into decisions that the Israelis are trying to make in their governing body,” he said. “I think that would build the divide between the United States and Israel.” Carlucci suggested that such measures create an opening to condition aid to Israel, “which is something I am very concerned about, and would never do as a member of Congress. I think we can never put conditions on our aid to Israel.”

“I think it would be arrogant to think that we here in New York or wherever we are in this nation, know better than the representatives have been elected by the people of Israel,” Carlucci added. “Our relationship between the U.S. and Israel has to remain strong. We have to be able to have conversations and be talking about [some policies], but I don’t think we should be criticizing the moves that they’re making when they decide as a body to move forward with something.”

The issue of reentering the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has become a point of debate during the campaign, with Buchwald, also a state lawmaker, voicing his opposition to doing so, in sharp contrast with the rest of the field. Lowey voted against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but opposed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal. 

Carlucci was vague about his own position. “I think we should be pushing to have some sort of deal where we can make sure that Iran is never able to produce weapons of mass destruction,” Carlucci said, indirectly criticizing Buchwald’s stance. “It’s easy to say you oppose any type of re-entering the deal. Well, no, I want a deal to be put forward, and we need to make sure that there are some restrictions on what Iran’s abilities are being the financiers of terrorism. And if we can have that on the table, that’s good for all of us,” he stressed. 

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Given the rich field of candidates and the situation in wake of COVID-19, it’s hard to predict the outcome of this year’s contest. But going into the final stretch of the campaign, pundits believe Carlucci remains a favorite to succeed Lowey. The outgoing congresswoman hasn’t endorsed any candidate in the race. Recent internal polling data shared with JI shows Carlucci in the lead, with Schleifer a close second. 

Longtime political consultant George Arzt sees Carlucci and Buchwald as the two favorites given their institutional support in Rockland and Westchester Counties respectively. “Lowey has a chemical length to her constituency,” he explained. “She was [always] around, and people honestly like to talk to her. Whoever can replicate that can really win.”

Artz said that Schleifer, who is self-funding his campaign, and Farkas should also be considered strong candidates given their stature and background, as well as the volatility of this primary season. 

But Carlucci’s high name recognition and strong early showing could work against him as the recent attacks by his competitors start to resonate with undecided Democratic voters concerned about his past alliance with the GOP.  “If he already betrayed the Democratic party in Albany, why wouldn’t he betray it again in Washington?” Fine, who announced her candidacy last November, asked rhetorically.

Carlucci shrugged off the criticism and is confident voters will turn out for him on June 23. “When it comes down to delivering for the people that I represent, I feel that I have a record that is unmatched,” Carlucci stressed. “I have the ability to hit the ground running where the congresswoman has left off.”

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