Daniel L. Feldman

Changing demographics

In New York State Politics on December 30, 2011 at 11:37 am

As Rouchefoucald said several hundred years ago, the only constant in life is change. Like everything else, the 45th Assembly District changed. In 1980, it still turned out one of the largest Democratic primary votes of any district in New York, with about 18,000 votes cast in my own race, at the bottom of the ticket. Statewide or national campaigns, higher on the ballot, usually attract much more attention, and more votes. But the decline in participation in the 45th meant that by the hotly contested 2010 Democratic primary for New York State Attorney General, a race much higher up on the ballot, only 3016 people cast their votes. While I don’t have exact figures for the interim years, the 45th cast only about 10,000 votes in the Democratic primary for Congress in 1998, and a similar number in the Democratic primary for District Attorney in 1989.

With the decline in their active identification with the Democratic party, voters in the 45th   Assembly District also starting voting more Republican, as part of a generally more conservative outlook. What accounted for this change?

From 1978 to 1988, more than 200,000 apartments in New York City changed from rentals to cooperatives.  While no precise figures exist, my 1980 campaign staff estimated that at least half of the voters in the district rented their living quarters. The co-op conversion boom must have reduced that fraction, and probably cut it in half, leaving no more than a quarter of the voters as tenants. At least one American study has shown that, ceteris parabis, homeowners, generally, tend to vote more conservatively than tenants.

Changes in ethnic demography more clearly altered the political configuration of the district. Of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews who came to the United States in the 1980s, enough settled in Brighton Beach to earn it, early on, the nickname “Odessa by the Sea.” By the late 1980s it had become predominantly, even overwhelmingly, first-generation Russian-American. Enough Russians moved into Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach to constitute substantial portions of their populations as well. The immigrants, for the most part, felt that they owed a great debt to Ronald Reagan, under whose administration they arrived, for his strong efforts to press the Soviet leadership to permit their exit. Reagan had insisted on conditioning the grant of “most-favored-nation” status to the Soviet Union, an important boon to the Soviets’ international trade status, to its willingness to allow Jews and “refuseniks” to leave. For many such refugees, their hatred of Communism might have driven them in the direction of conservative Republican politics anyway; their loyalty to Reagan reinforced such tendencies.

The 45th also saw the development of a significant community of newly-arrived Chinese Americans. When I first ran in 1980, I was introduced to Carl Rosenberg, a shoe store proprietor, as the “mayor” of Avenue U. Carl was close to 90 at the time, and in that regard served also as the archetype of the street’s business owners. Frank Sinatra, I heard, still got his semolina bread shipped to him from the bakery across Avenue U from my office on the corner of Homecrest Avenue. Elderly Jews and Italians owned and ran the vast majority of the clothing stores, restaurants, dry cleaners, and the like on Avenue U, but many of them ran their establishments mostly out of habit. Stores were closing, customers were few.  Without the energy of an influx of new immigrants, Avenue U could have become moribund. By 1990, though, the few store signs on the block that were not lettered in Chinese were lettered in Vietnamese or Russian. By then, the wonderful Chinese supermarket just around the corner on my side of Avenue U rivaled anything in Chinatown. I used to have to go to Mott Street to find certain ingredients for my Chinese cooking. Now, they were two minutes from my office door.

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