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Long IslandNassau

As Great Neck changes, Republicans see an opportunity

North Hempstead Town Council candidate Mary Kay Barket

North Hempstead Town Council candidate Mary Kay Barket and U.S. Rep. Peter King mingle with voters at a fundraising event for Barket in Great Neck on Sept. 2, 2015. Credit: Jeremy Bales

At Elaine's Asian Bistro and Grill in Great Neck last April, Democrats chatted with a group of Asian-Americans, members of the peninsula's fastest-growing immigrant group.

A few months later, at a fundraiser at Colbeh, a glatt kosher restaurant in Great Neck, Republicans dined as Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) warned the Iran nuclear deal secured by President Barack Obama would imperil Israel.

Those two events, at restaurants a few blocks apart, highlight what some observers see as the shifting political winds in Great Neck, a wealthy North Shore community that for decades has been the liberal bedrock of Nassau County and, historically, a hotbed of progressive activism.

Today, because of changing demographics and, more recently, the fallout over bruised relations between the Obama administration and Israel, some Democrats say they think Great Neck could be turning away from its past.

Evidence of any shift is largely anecdotal and voter-registration data unique to the Great Neck peninsula was not available. Republican Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano won parts of the peninsula in his 2013 re-election. And in Great Neck Village, the number of registered Democrats has declined by 151 from 2013 to this year, with 59 more Republicans.

Of roughly 6,300 registered voters in the village, 2,662 are Democrats, 1,458 are Republicans and 1,886 have no affiliation; others belong to various smaller parties. Still, Democrats worry about their grip on local politics and say outreach is required, particularly to the booming Asian-American community, largely from China and Korea.

"What was once the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in Nassau County is no longer the case," said Steven Markowitz, chairman of the Great Neck Democratic Club, who has lived in Great Neck since 1975. "The numbers aren't there, the turnout isn't there, the level of investment often isn't there."

His party's strategy now, he said, is to "just to hold on the best we can."

North Hempstead has not had a Republican supervisor since 1989, and the past three Democratic supervisors have lived on the Great Neck peninsula. But Democrats worried about their base point to June, when the longtime mayor of Great Neck, Democrat Ralph Kreitzman, was unseated by Pedram Bral, a political newcomer who is a registered Republican. Bral, who won by a 3-1 margin, immediately dismissed the longtime village attorney and hired Peter Bee, a prominent Republican elections lawyer, raising alarm among Democrats.

Opposition to Obama policyLocal Republicans, citing a politically active class of Orthodox Jews and Iranian-American voters, including Bral, are seizing on local opposition to the Obama administration's foreign policy, particularly the Iran deal, in an attempt to gather new supporters. And both parties are reaching out to the growing Asian population.

Opposition to the Iran deal has trickled down to the local level, with the North Hempstead Town clerk and receiver of taxes adding their names to a letter urging members of Congress to reject the deal, which cleared the Senate in September when enough Democrats rejected a Republican attempt to block it.

In Great Neck, 71 percent of residents live in Jewish households, with 18 percent of that group identifying as Orthodox, higher than the 11 percent average for Nassau County, according to the UJA-Federation of New York. Orthodox voters tend to vote Republican, as opposed to other American Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.

The peninsula's Iranian-American, or Persian, population -- which began in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution drove Jews, many of them wealthy and working in medicine or academia, out of the country -- is 30 to 40 percent in villages on the peninsula.

The Asian population rose 227 percent to 780 in the Village of Great Neck, according to census data collected between 2005 and 2013. During the same period, the Asian population rose by more than 50 percent in the villages of Great Neck Plaza and Lake Success, the most populous Asian villages.

It was in Great Neck that Jane Fonda denounced the war in Vietnam at an elementary school and where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited to speak at a synagogue on civil rights. And it was where wealthy donors opened their homes for Hillary Rodham Clinton's "listening tour" when she was considering running for the U.S. Senate from New York, and where abortion-rights and peace activists once rallied at post offices and parks.

Active at synagogues

Entertainers and authors, including the Marx Brothers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W.C. Fields and Sid Caesar, have lived on the Great Neck peninsula, population 40,000, with its nine villages and several unincorporated hamlets. The area had a strong conservative population in the early 20th century, but an influx of Ashkenazi Jews after World War II coincided with the rise of liberal politics.

"That's when the liberal Jewish community took root in Great Neck and began to grow and prosper," said William Helmreich, a sociology professor at City College and CUNY Graduate School in Manhattan, and a Great Neck Village resident.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, a former rabbi at Temple Israel and Cherry Lane Minyan, both in Great Neck, said Jews during that early period could not advertise near churches.

"At one time Jews were not welcome into Great Neck, and more or less had to fight their way to get in," he said. "Those that did come were successful liberals and progressives, and very active in civil rights."

Longtime leaders say that, in Great Neck, national issues always played out in synagogues and public spaces. The issues included busing minority students from Queens to area schools and opposing the Vietnam War.

Charlotte Sear, the Great Neck Democrats' north zone leader who has lived in the Village of Great Neck since 1979, said the community has held "very strong anti-war sentiments." However, "it wasn't a radical, radical group, because they were too well-established with too much money," Sear said. "It wasn't like a hippie thing."

Tokayer recalled an experience as a young assistant rabbi at Temple Israel, a conservative synagogue, in the mid-1960s. At the height of Vietnam War protests, the student body at Great Neck North High School skipped school to talk about the war and asked permission to gather inside Temple Israel. It was Tokayer's call, as the clergy's youngest member, and he decided it would be better than having them protesting in the streets.

"They accepted it; no cigarettes, there was no rioting, it was a respectful and honorable and a very educated day," Tokayer said.

Involved across the country

Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic national committeeman from Great Neck Estates, said, "We would have rallies in our communities around causes the way many communities had weekly homecoming gatherings. . . . We would have Great Neck activists going around the country at every Democratic campaign. In Iowa, New Hampshire, I've run across my neighbors."

Democrats say that while Great Neck's liberal heyday is probably over, retail politics is the key to maintaining a strong Democratic presence.

"The Great Neck voter is a very independent voter, not driven by political organization, tactics from either party," Zimmerman said. "They're driven by ideas, and quality of life concerns, that's what makes it unusual."

Zimmerman said, "Great Neck will remain a strong Democratic vote" in the race for president, but other, more local races could be up for grabs. "The good news for Great Neck is that the elected officials have to work real hard in this community to win support and build a small following," he said.

For their part, Republicans say that for years they have wanted to reclaim Great Neck -- and now see an opportunity. Feeling out of place, many conservatives met informally at Colbeh and other restaurants to "commiserate on the issues," recalled Rabbi Aryeh Spero, the former rabbi at Beth Hadassah synagogue, also known as the Iranian Jewish Center, an Ohio native who arrived in Great Neck in 1997 from the Midwest.

In the 1990s, the idea of Republican control in Great Neck was discussed among a small group who held out hope of a revival, he said.

The Great Neck Republican Club is recharged, and has met on a monthly basis since the spring, party leaders said. Rep. King, who lived in Great Neck from 1968 to 1971, sees a bold change ahead in the community.

"A very liberal Democratic area has now become Republican, and in many ways conservative, and that can, if it's developed in the right way, change the dynamics in North Hempstead," he said.


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