Prior to becoming the first president elected on the Republican ticket, Abraham Lincoln experienced multiple defeats in his runs for state and federal office. Closer to home and in the present day, Brooklyn Councilman Ari Kagan’s road to City Hall was also marked by defeats until his election last year in the district covering Coney Island, Gravesend, and Bath Beach. His decision this week to switch parties, and run for reelection as a Republican, surprised party insiders, but it also reflected recent trends among voters across the city.
“Over the last several years, in my personal humble opinion, the Democratic Party in New York began moving to the left at such a speed that they could not even keep up,” Kagan, 55, said at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, flanked by his Republican colleagues. “On issue after issue every year, every month, I started to feel that it’s not me leaving the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party very quickly started to leave me.”
On social media, Democratic activists slammed Kagan as an opportunist who chose to switch parties rather than face a primary against Bay Ridge Councilman Justin Brannan. They were lumped into a single district following this year’s redistricting, which Kagan protested as divisive, as it broke up apartment complexes and put his district office and home outside of his district. It also connected Kagan’s base in Coney Island and Gravesend to Brennan’s home in densely populated Bay Ridge, with a thin neck in Dyker Heights that is only a single block in width.
While Kagan protested the lines with little support from his colleagues, voters in his district deserted the Democratic Party, flipping three Assembly seats in last month’s election. Two of these candidates are Russian-speaking immigrants: radio host Michael Novakhov and former Democratic Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny. Likewise, while Governor Kathy Hochul was reelected, in southern Brooklyn her opponent Lee Zeldin enjoyed overwhelming support.
Having experienced socialism followed by instability that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking voters were turned off by bail reform, pandemic lockdowns that kept people from work and school, while excusing racial justice protests, previous mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to loosen admissions standards for specialized public high schools, and most recently, a proposal in the City Council to prohibit landlords from conducting background checks on prospective tenants. Their concerns are shared by voters in Asian immigrant communities, who also expressed concern about crime and education.
Born in Belarus, Kagan is a grandson of Holocaust victims, and his father was the only survivor in his family. After immigrating to New York in 1993, he graduated from Baruch College and continued to work as a journalist, hosting a Russian-language news show and newspaper column. At the same time, he built his political career as a Democratic district leader, registering new voters among his landsmen and encouraging them to vote. He worked as a staffer for Comptrollers John Liu and Scott Stringer, and for Councilman Mark Treyger, his predecessor in the Council. Those years gave him valuable connections in the party and name recognition among voters, but there were bumps in the road.
In 2006, he ran in a primary for the Assembly against Brook-Krasny, and it turned personal, as he did not express welcome for Kagan this week, as they are now running in the same party. In 2013, he lost in a Council primary to Chaim Deutsch for the seat covering Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, and Midwood. When Kagan ran for Council last year, Brooklyn’s Democratic establishment finally lined up behind him, and it included leaflets of Brannan and Kagan endorsing each other for their respective seats.
With Kagan’s party switch, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams vowed to remove him as chair of the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts.
“Voters sent Council Member Kagan to the Council as a member of the majority conference and this drastic about-face seriously calls into question his commitment to the policy priorities of our conference that will impact his committee roles, particularly his chairmanship, given the fact that he is joining a party that denies climate change,” she said in a statement.
The dramatic move signals momentum in the local “red wave” that also gave all Congressional seats on Long Island to the Republicans. In Queens, Councilman Robert Holden of Middle Village ran on both party labels, receiving more Republican votes. For opposing congestion pricing, the closing of the Rikers Island jail, and homeless shelters in his district, he was slammed on Twitter by Borough President Donovan Richards as “white supremacy.”
At this rate, he could be the next Democrat to formally sever ties with the party, along with Kalman Yeger of Boro Park, who attended a Zeldin campaign rally that earned him the ire of party activists.
“Democrats were just laughing at me and laughing at the communities of the 47th District,” Kagan said on Monday. “Public safety is not a joke; quality education is a very serious topic.”
By Sergey Kadinsky