NY-10 Democratic primary enters home stretch 

State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and City Councilmember Carlina Rivera trail attorney Dan Goldman ahead of Tuesday's primary

When a leading candidate for a hotly contested open House seat in New York City expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel last month, the backlash from Jewish leaders, pro-Israel advocates and elected officials — one of whom withdrew his endorsement — was as fierce as it was immediate.

In the weeks that have followed, Yuh-Line Niou, a progressive state assemblymember in Manhattan, has continued to face scrutiny in subsequent interviews and public appearances, even if the initial uproar over her position — first aired in a statement to Jewish Insider in early July — has abated somewhat as the race has entered its final stretch.

Now, however, a recently launched super PAC is drawing renewed attention to Niou’s comments ahead of Tuesday’s primary. The group, New York Progressive, is targeting the sizable population of Jewish voters in New York’s redrawn 10th Congressional District, which encompasses Lower Manhattan and northwest Brooklyn, in a new mailer casting Niou’s platform as “dangerous,” “reckless” and “too extreme for our community.”

“Yuh-Line Niou supports the antisemitic BDS agenda,” reads the mailer, whose existence was first reported on Saturday by the Forward. “Vote no on Yuh-Line Niou for Congress.”

It is the latest hit in a series of attacks from New York Progressive, which has spent at least $225,000 on digital ads and direct mailers that have also highlighted, among other things, a lawsuit Niou brought against an affordable housing project for low-income seniors in Little Italy.

“We will be spending several hundred thousand dollars to educate voters on Yuh-Line Niou’s hypocrisy,” Jeff Leb, the group’s treasurer, who previously worked to oppose a slate of left-leaning candidates for New York City Council in 2021, said in a recent text exchange with JI. “Yuh-Line Niou pretends to be progressive but she’s anything but.”

Niou’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

As an increasingly heated debate over Middle East policy stokes division in Democratic primaries across the country, few issues have inflamed tensions more than the BDS movement, which remains a fringe position even among the most outspoken critics of Israel. Last year, for instance, a Democratic House candidate in South Florida, former state Rep. Omari Hardy, found his campaign embroiled in controversy after he endorsed BDS in an interview with JI. He lost by a wide margin.

But while Hardy continued to stand by his position — even as he acknowledged the political consequences of embracing a polarizing campaign that some have accused of calling for Israel’s destruction — Niou, on the other hand, has since vacillated on her approach, claiming, for instance, that she does not agree with all of the movement’s demands and is open to visiting Israel if elected to the House.

Last week during a televised candidate debate, Niou said she believes “Israel should exist,” while emphasizing her commitment to safeguarding “the free speech rights of the BDS movement.” The 39-year-old Democrat also confirmed she would vote against a bipartisan House resolution opposing BDS, which was among the first topics raised by a moderator.

New York’s 10th Congressional District candidate Yuh-Line Niou speaks during an environmental policy forum presented by The New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and The Cooper Union., Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in New York.

It remains to be seen whether Niou’s comments, persuasive or not, will factor into the crowded race for a rare open congressional seat, where more than a dozen Democrats are on the ballot. 

The latest independent polling shows Niou in second place with 17% of the vote, trailing Dan Goldman, a comparatively moderate former federal prosecutor, by five points. City Councilmember Carlina Rivera and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), who are also in contention, were tied for third at 13%, while 17% of voters were undecided. Two other candidates, state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and former Rep. Liz Holtzman (D-NY), are viewed as wild cards.

If Niou’s lone endorsement of BDS has injected some volatility into the Middle East policy discussion, however, her evolving position has otherwise obscured a relatively unusual conformity of mainstream Democratic opinion on such issues among her main opponents, most of whom are vying for progressive support in the late-summer race that has grown increasingly acrimonious as it draws to its uncertain conclusion.

“I don’t believe BDS has advanced the aim of a peaceful two-state solution,” Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side, said in an interview with JI. “I think, at the end, we must remain clear-eyed on the goal of a mutually supported peace deal.”

While Rivera was elected to the City Council in 2017 as a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America — which touted her victory, along with more than a dozen candidates, in a triumphant press release — she has since distanced herself from the group, and her campaign says she only attended one meeting. 

The DSA’s New York City chapter, which supports BDS, stirred controversy in the summer of 2020, when it distributed a questionnaire asking that City Council candidates pledge not to visit Israel if elected.

For her part, Rivera had already visited Israel during her first year in office with a delegation of local elected officials sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “You could see the generational conflict, people who just want to live in peace, as we all do,” she recalled. “It reaffirmed my convictions on the importance of a determined effort that brings this conflict to an end.”

In her first bid for federal office, Rivera, 38, has embraced a center-left message on a range of issues, including American foreign policy in the region. “I wouldn’t condition aid,” said Rivera, who confirmed her support for continued U.S. security assistance to Israel. “This happens in so many different places where, I think, a lot of people try to speak to what other places should do when we’re not living through it.”

“We have to ensure that we’re being supportive, that we are supporting countries who have been good allies and who also need the support in terms of what families are going through, in terms of violence and brutalization, and continuing to have conversations and talking to people and really broadening my own horizons and growing as a legislator,” Rivera told JI. “I’ve been really privileged to be in rooms and have conversations with people whose first and foremost goal is peace, and that’s the type of Congress that we should have.”

Carlina Rivera attends a rally for reproductive justice in Washington Square Park in New York City on August 13, 2022.

Even as efforts to condition aid gain support on the party’s left flank, most candidates in the race have, with just a couple of exceptions, rejected such measures. Goldman, for example, has said he is “very concerned about a growing call for restrictions on our military and security assistance to Israel.” 

“But on the flip side, I have real issues with — I have real concerns, I should say — about the settlements and the annexation of areas within, especially, the West Bank as an unnecessary instigator,” he told JI. “It makes a possible resolution much more difficult to achieve.

Meanwhile, in an interview with JI, Simon voiced some reservations over continued funding, which is guaranteed in a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Israel signed by the Obama administration. “I don’t think we should be using military aid to expand settlements, for example, or for annexation,” she said. “There is an agreement for defensive aid to Israel.”

The Brooklyn lawmaker — who believes the U.S. should function as a “diplomatic bridge to help” the Israelis and the Palestinians “resolve their differences” — voiced approval for “end-use restrictions” of the sort backed by the liberal advocacy group J Street, which argues U.S. aid should only be used for “legitimate security purposes.”

“That makes sense to me,” said Simon, who is among four candidates in the race to whom J Street has given its “primary approval” rating, including Jones, Rivera and Goldman, according to Laura Birnbaum, the group’s national political director. The political arms of AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, which have invested heavily in a number of recent primaries where progressive candidates have emerged as frontrunners, are not involved in the race.

Speaking with JI, Simon, 69, acknowledged that she is new to foreign policy issues and hopes to engage more substantively if she is elected to serve in the House. “At the state level, that has not been a focus,” she said. “I would certainly be enthusiastic to learn more about it. It’s not an uncomplicated issue.”

Niou has voiced support for legislation, introduced last year by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), that would place restrictions on U.S. military aid to Israel. Niou has otherwise said she would support a two-state solution on the condition that it includes “a capital in Jerusalem for both states.” In a questionnaire recently solicited by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Niou said she would consider visiting Israel “if the itinerary included learning from Israelis as well as Palestinians.”

The new 10th District is home to a significant population of Jewish voters, many of whom are concentrated in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn. Goldman, who is one of four Jewish candidates in the race, has largely consolidated support from Orthodox leadership, whose support could prove decisive as candidates with more long-standing voter relationships have been rallying their respective bases in a primary where turnout is expected to be decisive.

Still, Goldman, who served as the Democrats’ lead counsel in the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, faced some initial obstacles in the deeply conservative Orthodox community, where Trump remains popular. The only Republican primary candidate in the race, Benine Hamdan, has distributed a flyer in Borough Park reminding voters of Goldman’s opposition to Trump, who is described as “one of the best presidents for Klol Yisroel,” or the Jewish people. But Jewish leaders were apparently willing to look past his previous role, praising Goldman’s “qualifications and understanding” in a group endorsement last week.

New York congressional candidate Attorney Dan Goldman, left, is joined by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander during a news conference outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022.

On Wednesday, Trump himself “endorsed” Goldman, commending the former prosecutor, 46, as “highly intelligent” in social media comments that were widely interpreted as sarcastic. His opponents, including Niou and Jones, have nevertheless amplified the surprise announcement, even as Goldman was quick to reject the endorsement as “a pathetic attempt at fooling Democrats who are far smarter than Trump is.”

When Goldman notched a key endorsement from the editorial board of The New York Times, Jones and Niou also went on the offensive. In a joint press conference last week, the two progressives teamed up to attack Goldman, an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune who has given his campaign at least $4 million, as a “conservative Democrat” now using his considerable wealth to “buy” a congressional seat.

While Goldman is more moderate than his opponents, who have criticized his opposition to Medicare for All, among other things, he has argued that his views are aligned with voter sentiment, including support for Israel. “I believe strongly in maintaining a Jewish, democratic state,” he told JI. Last month, during a candidate forum at Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, Goldman drew applause from the crowd when he denounced the BDS movement as “anti-Zionist” and “antisemitic.”

“There’s a real concern that the Democratic Party is drifting away from Israel among a lot of Jewish constituents that I’ve spoken to,” Goldman told JI. “I didn’t think that as much of the reaction to my candidacy would have been about my Jewishness and Israel as it has been.”

Jones first ran for office in 2020 to succeed a respected pro-Israel stalwart, former Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), in the Hudson Valley and Westchester County. During his campaign, he opposed BDS and said he would support U.S. funding for Israel “no matter what,” a claim he has continued to stand by as a member of Congress. Jones visited Israel last fall on a delegation led by J Street. 

The freshman congressman, who inherited a seat including Rockland County, home to the largest Jewish population of any county in the U.S., recently moved to Brooklyn from his district to the north, where he had been forced into a potentially bruising matchup with a veteran incumbent, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after the House lines were finalized. 

He has been endorsed by a range of federal elected officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-NY), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and both political arms of the House Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. Jones has raised more than $3.5 million, which he is now using to fund a series of attack ads targeting Goldman through Tuesday. His campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Goldman wasn’t alone as he sought inroads in Borough Park. Brian Robinson, a Jewish businessman who is one of the lesser-known Democrats in the race, hopes to build a base of support among rank-and-file voters in the deep-red neighborhood. He touts a more conservative message focused on public safety and what he describes as unwavering support for Israel. Robinson is against the Iran nuclear deal, for instance, and agnostic on a two-state solution.

“A two-state solution should be up to Israel, and it’s nobody else’s business to tell them what should be done with their borders,” Robinson, who said he has never visited Israel, told JI. “I don’t think the West Bank is illegitimately Israel’s,” he added. “I think war was declared against them and they won, and that’s the way the world works sometimes.”

Rivera has also engaged “proactively” in Borough Park, according to Ezra Friedlander, a Democratic consultant who lives in the neighborhood and supports her campaign. “She spoke from a position of familiarity with the community,” he told JI. “I sense in her a desire to interact.”

“I think we have a lot of similar issues,” Rivera told JI. “People want to ensure that they have access to health care and bodily autonomy. There’s a lot of discussion around public safety and hate crimes. Taking care of New Yorkers means making sure every New Yorker is safe and feels safe, especially as the Jewish community has been targeted by hate crimes and antisemitic violence.”

U.S. Rep.-elect Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., speaks to supporters who gathered for a Protect the Results rally, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in front of the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Rivera has notched more meaningful endorsements from elected officials including Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), New York state Sen. Jessica Ramos, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and the borough presidents of Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

Chris Coffey, the chief executive of Tusk Strategies, characterized Rivera’s platform as “down the middle” in a recent interview with JI. “She’s probably going for the quote, ‘normie Dem’ votes,” said Coffey, who lives in the district but is not involved in the race.

While her campaign has struggled to compete with some better-resourced opponents, Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, received a major boost on Thursday from a super PAC that supports Latino candidates. The group, Nuestro PAC, announced an ad buy of $500,000 on her behalf.

On Friday, Rivera joined forces with Holtzman to exhort voters to send a woman Congress rather than Goldman, who has faced ridicule for a controversial remark in which he said he “would not object to” a state law barring abortion after the point of fetal viability. He has since walked back the comment. 

“Liz and I are urging you to vote, to vote for reproductive freedom, for abortion access and for someone who knows where they stand on these urgent issues,” Rivera said at the press conference with Holtzman.

Holtzman, 81, was once the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and later served as Brooklyn district attorney and New York City comptroller. The Brooklyn native has said she was motivated to run for office again amid news of the leaked draft opinion that formed the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling overtiring the constitutional right to an abortion. “I said, ‘I think I have something unique to offer,’” she told JI. 

Holtzman, who served in the House between 1973 and 1981, was actively involved with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and led the crusade to find and deport Nazi war criminals living in the U.S., among a host of other initiatives. “One of the reasons that I wanted to bring Nazi war criminals to justice was not only to fight the Holocaust deniers,” she told JI, “but also to establish an indelible record in communities all over the United States” to show “what the Nazis did, the horrors that they perpetrated.”

Holtzman, who is Jewish, holds a personal connection to Israel that extends back to its creation, in 1948. “I remember as a child,” she recalled, “the very day that Israel was founded my grandmother sat my brother and me right down next to the radio and she said, ‘I never want you to forget this day. You have to remember this day for the rest of your life.’”

“There are several different communities within the district and whoever wins will need to build a coalition of different neighborhoods,” Moss told JI. “Goldman and Rivera are the two candidates with the chance to forge broad-based electoral strength in the district.”

In 1977, Holtzman, who was then a young congresswoman, traveled to Egypt to meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat amid ongoing negotiations for a peace agreement with Israel. “He was a very charming man, and you can see why he could make this move, because he had a kind of self-confidence,” she said of Sadat, who was later assassinated. “It was terrible. I mean, that could have moved things much farther. That’s the problem.”

But Holtzman was “reluctant” to say whether she would tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with as much alacrity as she had demonstrated in her initial tenure in the House. “Things have kind of changed now,” she told JI. “When I was there, it didn’t seem as hardened a problem.” Still, she said the issue remains “critical” for her. Holtzman emphasized that the U.S. should “act as a force for peace and for reconciliation” in the region. “I’m not in favor of conditioning aid when we are talking about survival,” she said. “Israel is still surrounded by very hostile countries. That’s a reality.” 

“On the other hand, there’s no question that more progress has to be made with regard to a two-state solution,” Holtzman explained. “That requires a lot of patience and a lot of goodwill, and it’s easy to get angry and condemn and it’s easy to point fingers. It’s a lot harder to bring people together.”

Earlier this month, Holtzman earned an endorsement from the editorial board of The New York Daily News. Gloria Steinem and Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president, have also backed her campaign.

For her part, Niou has gained support from the Working Families Party, the Sunrise Movement and the Jewish Vote, in addition to a range of local elected officials, some of whom are supportive of BDS. Niou, who is Taiwanese-American, is also courting Asian voters in Chinatown and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park.

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, speculated that Goldman and Rivera are best-suited to prevail in Tuesday’s primary, even if the race remains largely unpredictable. “Goldman is new and fresh, unlike the tired bunch of Brooklyn pols,” he said, while noting that Rivera’s campaign will appeal to “realistic primary voters.”

“There are several different communities within the district and whoever wins will need to build a coalition of different neighborhoods,” Moss told JI. “Goldman and Rivera are the two candidates with the chance to forge broad-based electoral strength in the district.”

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