A Republican in an unlikely seat

Congressman Bob Turner defeated Democratic politician David Weprin in a special election battle – thanks to his support for Israel.

Bob Turner 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Bob Turner 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Freshman Congressman Bob Turner of New York’s ninth electoral district is something of an anomaly. He is the first Republican to win the right to represent his heavily Democratic and Jewish district in 80 years and, interestingly enough, he did it partly on the strength of his support for Israel.
Foreign relations do not usually come into play in local politics, but Turner, a Roman Catholic elected to serve the remainder of his predecessor Anthony Weiner’s term following Weiner’s resignation over a sex scandal, managed, according to many, to turn the special election into a referendum on President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. Turner is not a career politician, but a television executive credited with the creation of such programs as The Jerry Springer Show and the production of Baywatch and Family Feud.
What makes this significant, observers have noted, is that he won on the strength of his support for Israel against David Weprin, a local Orthodox Jew and known Zionist.
While Weprin’s support for gay marriage and his party affiliation with a president very unpopular in Orthodox Jewish circles played a part in Turner’s electoral victory, he also won on the strength of the American expatriate vote.
Utilizing the services of Ruth Lieberman, an American- Israeli citizen from the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank who arrived in New York to assist the campaign, Turner turned to what he claims are more than 5,000 expatriates from his district living in Israel.
While he will be serving only until the 2012 elections, at which time his district may cease to exist – the victim of census results that will end up costing New York one of its congressional seats – Turner has been held up by his party as a symbol of the Democratic Party’s falling fortunes. Whether or not this is true only time and elections will tell.
Congressman Turner, sitting down with The Jerusalem Post at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, discusses his support for the Jewish state, the moribund peace process, Newt Gingrich’s comments on the Palestinians, and his views on Iran.
What is the genesis of your support for Israel and how did it come to be such a defining characteristic of your campaign? [There were] unique circumstances in this campaign and it took on a national scope. My opponent had good support and credible support for Israel. He’s an Orthodox Jew and [a] respected man, but he’s a liberal Democrat and a supporter of President Obama.
I’ve been highly critical of the president, particularly in his Israeli policies. While I understand that military and intelligence cooperation has been at a very high level, diplomatically there have been enormous gaps and mistakes on this president’s part and even his rudeness toward Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu at a meeting has enormous diplomatic consequences in the region.
Those seem to have been ignored by the president, and some of his suggestions of using the ’67 borders as a starting point for negotiations were totally unacceptable, even harmful, and I think in this electorate this took on a good deal of importance.
Was this going to be a referendum, in a way? Not for everyone – the underlying issues were still jobs and the economy – but this was a very important issue, and also to many people, and a large part of that the Jewish community within the ninth Congressional District: who would better represent Israel in this election, a Republican or a Democrat, and was this vote a support of the president’s position? So it wound up being framed that way in many voters’ minds.
Does your victory have wider ramifications as an indicator of failing electoral support for the president, or does the high percentage of Orthodox Jews in your district mean that one cannot extrapolate from your election? I’m not sure, on the national stage, but how it was interpreted was that [the] bastion of Democratic strength had been the Jewish community and this was the first time that a Republican took a majority of the Jewish vote, it was 52 percent on the exit polls, which had not been done ever. So this had profound impact... whether it influenced the president’s position the following week in a speech to the UN we can only speculate. I don’t know.
You ran against an Orthodox Jew in a heavily Democratic district. How do you account for your victory? It was clearly the president’s position versus opposition.
So, a referendum on Obama? Yes, to a large degree. [It was about] his handling of the economy and jobs and would a Democrat only enforce the president’s position. So I think that that was another part of the referendum.
You are a Roman Catholic, not an evangelical. Is your support for Israel a religious issue for you, a realpolitik issue or something that comes from your personal political ideology? I think that it’s ideological and realpolitik as well. Israel is a vibrant democracy with Western values, culturally almost identical to America and American values, and they are in a sea of hostility, in many ways [from] a common enemy.
I think American support, and my support, is ideological and practical, from a world fraught with dangers that we are looking at right now.
Are you referring to the fact that some American supporters of Israel call it the United States’ aircraft carrier in the Middle East? Not a bad way to put it. This is the outpost.
You are said, beyond the Israel issue, to be well connected with American Jewry. How did you first get involved with the Orthodox community? I think over the years I had a number of friends and when I got into politics one friend would say to another “hey, you have to meet....” It just had a natural evolution, because, you know, I’m new to politics. I’ve been in this business only 18 months.
How did you decide to involve yourself in politics? I watched Mr. Weiner on television and his support for the ill-conceived healthcare plan, and his approach to this had a level of arrogance to it that really angered me. I called a friend of mine who is the only person I know in politics, who runs the conservative party in New York, he’s a neighbor – I’ve never even been to a fund-raiser, I mail checks in – and I asked him who was running against Mr. Weiner. A day after that conversation I found out it was me.
They said, you know, you could do this and you could make a good battle of it, you’d be on your own, and I took the challenge and [was] encouraged by my wife.
It has been claimed that there are somewhere around 5,000 constituents from your district living in Israel and your campaign focused on bringing in the expatriate vote. How did you come up with the idea to canvass for votes abroad? I didn’t. I think the Americans living in Israel came to me and I think this campaign took on that national and even international framing and suddenly this American- Israeli [Lieberman] shows up in our campaign office and announces she’s there to help. Really, where did you come from? I was always a little vague....
New York State Republicans, the party, came to me and said there’s a significant number of expats living in Israel that still vote, so I said all right.
Republican candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently created a furor when he stated that there are no historic Palestinian people. What is your take on this? Newt Gingrich is absolutely right in what he said. Probably it wasn’t worth saying, it was just provocative [and] there was no payoff to that, but I think in this whole legitimacy question that point has to be raised from time to time.
You are referring to the question of the legitimate right to a Palestinian state?
Yes, and even the question that the Palestinians are posing, is there a legitimate Israeli state. If you are going to talk legitimacy I think “who are Palestinians, how did this come about” is a worthwhile point to ponder.
Is the two-state solution tenable? This is an extremely difficult and complex problem that I would leave to the Israelis to find the solution to, but it seems to me just with the demographics and the size of the Arab population that a two-state solution is the long term one.
Whether that can be done without Israeli recognition, whether it can be done unilaterally, at some point the Israelis say “yeah” as done in Gaza, whether that can be effective, I don’t really know.
I fear that the Arab mentality is such that they cannot recognize Israel without denying Islamic supremacy, and Islamic supremacy, not equality, is a major stumbling block.
How do you view both American aid to Israel and to the Palestinian Authority? I think American support militarily has been more an investment in our own defense, so I think that can be continued and perhaps strengthened. I’ve been an advocate of foreign aid elsewhere, and UN dues and aid should have severe strings attached to it.
What do you think of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood and other, similar, Islamic organizations taking power as part of the Arab Spring? I would view [the Arab Spring] with extreme caution. Our guiding principles are individual freedom and democracy. These are not the guiding principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. They will not improve the lot of mankind or of their own people. This ideology is contrary to our core beliefs.
In power politics you protect your own interests, strengthen your friends, weaken your enemies. I think we have to view everything that’s done here with a rather critical, skeptical eye.
We are not sure how this Arab Spring is going to play out. There are forces within those countries for democracy, for individual freedom and for the rule of law yet our experience with most revolutions is the most violent, ruthless, bloodthirsty element predominates, at least in the short term.
I think we have to be very cautious how these develop.
What is your take on Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Israel to Iran? Is this the “back of the bus, front of the bus” [issue]? This is a Jewish state and it’s a democracy. I’m confident the Israelis will work this out to their satisfaction. I don’t think they need my opinion, I don’t think they need Hillary Clinton’s opinion on this particular matter.
What policy do you support regarding Iran? Do you support sanctions? Is military force a viable option? All of the above. I think it is really important now particularly to really ratchet up the sanctions [against Iran’s central bank].
In the late 1980s Iran took some aggressive military action in the Gulf, we responded quickly and appropriately and I think we’d better be prepared to do that again.
Do you take the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz seriously? I think that ought to be challenged. To let it go unchallenged would be a terrible sign of weakness at this point.
Are Americans willing to engage in another bootson- the-ground military campaign in the region? I simply don’t know the answer to that. We have to take things as they come. What you have with Iran is a terrorist group masquerading as a state. That has to be [at the] forefront of our dealings with them.
You brought back to your party a district it has not controlled for longer than the State of Israel has existed. Care to elaborate on this? I think that the hope that this important Jewish bloc can turn from solid lockstep Democratic to at some point the Republican Party is most encouraging, and I think that’s been a focal point of a lot of the Republican thinking and if they seem enamored of me it’s really in this context.
Which Republican candidate for the presidency do you support? I will support whoever is chosen except for Ron Paul, who is not a serious contender. ■