The lopsided special election result in favor of Councilman Jim Gennaro could have been a story about anti-Semitic tweets, social media expectations versus reality, and a community that pulled above its weight in voter turnout. But that’s not what the public read on Gothamist this past weekend in its coverage of the February 2 special election for Council District 24.
Instead, reporter Cindy Rodriguez focused on the negative campaign mailers sent out by Common Sense NYC, an independent expenditure committee with a Wall Street address that spent $221,000 on the race, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. “Almost half the money went to radio ads, Web ads, hoodies, and phone calls in support of the more centrist, establishment candidate, James Gennaro, who held the Council seat from 2002 to 2013,” Gothamist reported.
In reality, one did not need to spend record amounts in a local race to inform the public on Ahmed’s views. Her social media trail of troubling remarks was first published in this newspaper before Common Sense NYC began printing their mailers and then reported in other news sources. Our reporting inspired rabbis and activists in the Jewish community to promote voter participation, and the results showed that Kew Gardens Hills had the largest turnout with support heavily in favor of Gennaro.
They were also inspired to set the record straight after The Jewish Vote, a leftist organization with few actual supporters in this district, gave its endorsement to Ahmed. The organization’s members hold hostile views towards Israel, expressing solidarity with Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and with activist Linda Sarsour.
In this diverse district, Common Sense NYC sent out Bengali language mailers to inform South Asian voters that while Ahmed shares their ethnicity, her views may not necessarily align with their values.
In her report, Rodriguez noted that ranked choice elections were supposed to “open the door to more women and BIPOC candidates” and “foster a more positive tone and keep the focus on the issues.” The acronym here is a relatively recent one promoted in the media, standing for “black, indigenous, and people of color.”
It is wishful thinking that voters from underrepresented backgrounds are best represented by someone who shares their appearance and ancestry. The reality is that there are Bengali voters who would rather be represented by a white man, and Jews who would rather have a gentile speak on their behalf than a Bernie Sanders supporter. In political science this is known as substantive representation.
“Ahmed didn’t lose due to mailers/ads,” wrote Randi Marshall, a Newsday editorial board member and resident of the district. “She lost because she expressed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel views in a district that cares about those issues. And she lost because another candidate had better name recognition, is a known quantity, and was not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.”
Gothamist is the online affiliate of WNYC, the nonprofit news organization supported entirely by public donations. It its reporting of #MeToo scandals and Black Lives Matter, its reporters took allegations seriously, but why hasn’t anti-Semitism received the same amount of attention?
When there are Jewish individuals, celebrity endorsers, and reporters, who downplay anti-Semitism on their end of the political spectrum, and argue that it is not as systemic as Islamophobia, racism, and sexism, and that boycotting Israel is unrelated to hatred of Jews, the most effective recourse is at the ballot box.
The story is not over, as there will be a Democratic primary on June 22 for a full term in this Council seat. Although Ahmed indicated that she is unlikely to run again, this primary also features the race for mayor. To participate, independent and Republican voters have until February 14 to switch their registrations to Democratic.
By Sergey Kadinsky