Tuesday, September 16, 2014
On Sunday evening, with last week’s primary election receding from memory and the sun nearing the horizon, Aron B. Wieder was still hunting for votes on the streets of this Rockland County village.
A 40-year-old Democrat, Mr. Wieder had good reason for working overtime: He is vying for a seat in the State Assembly, where he would be the first Hasidic Jewish member. The vote last Tuesday was too close to call, so Mr. Wieder, a garrulous presence with an American flag pin on his black lapel, has been knocking on doors, stopping traffic and generally quizzing everyone he meets.
Did you vote for me? Mr. Wieder asked Paul and Myra Solganik, who said they had filed absentee ballots.
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Solganik, 79, a retired teacher from Spring Valley who is Jewish but not Hasidic. “I feel he’s honest and has the people’s interests at heart.”
“That’s two more!” Mr. Wieder replied. “Let’s hope it will be enough.”
The charm offensive is not really that peculiar when one considers the decidedly unorthodox campaign that proceeded it: After qualifying for the ballot this summer, Mr. Wieder posted no yard signs, printed no posters and did very little campaigning — until the night before the primary, when he and a small group of volunteers called hundreds of voters, most of them fellow Hasidim.
Thanks in part to light turnout, the strategy has left Mr. Wieder tantalizingly close to winning the Democratic nomination for the 98th District, which extends to the northwest corner of Rockland County and along the southern border of Orange County.
With about 250 absentee ballots to be opened on Tuesday, Mr. Wieder trails Elisa Tutini by 107 votes. But with another candidate, Krystal Serrano, also in the equation, the final margin could dwindle to the single digits.
Even if he wins, Mr. Wieder would face a tough fight in November: The district is roughly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with far more voters in Orange County, where Mr. Wieder’s support was the weakest in the primary.
The seat was last held by Ann G. Rabbitt, a Republican, who became the Orange County clerk earlier this year.
Mr. Wieder’s strong showing was the latest sign of the political maturation of the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities that have expanded from Brooklyn into Rockland municipalities such as New Square, Ramapo and Spring Valley. That maturation has at times been contentious: In the East Ramapo Central School District, where Hasidim send their children to private yeshivas but dominate the school board, public school parents — many of them black or Latino — have warred with the board over budget cuts, layoffs and a perceived insensitivity on both sides.
Mr. Wieder, the father of four children who are in private school, was a member of that board from 2008 to 2011. Some critics are still fuming.
“He was not a moderating force, he was not a healer and he was not a consensus builder,” said Oscar Cohen, education chairman of the Spring Valley chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “My impression is he was always wanting to be a spokesperson, but he has not devoted himself to heal the rift in this community.”
Mr. Wieder said that he was proud of his school board service, and that he kept with him a letter in which a Spring Valley High School student complimented him.
“Of course, there will be people who will have issues with things you do, and the idea is you have to reach out and try to do the right thing,” he said, adding, “If everyone agrees with you all the time, you’re not doing something right.”
A firm grasp of political truisms, along with his work on behalf of Haitian earthquake victims and other non-Hasidic groups, sets Mr. Wieder apart from other Hasidim, said Alexander Rapaport, a Hasidic community activist in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
“He is a new generation of Hasidic leaders who are very open-minded and who look at politics holistically, and that you need to represent everybody,” said Mr. Rapaport, who runs a soup kitchen.
Elected the first Hasidic Jewish member of the Rockland County Legislature in 2011, Mr. Wieder said his greatest accomplishment had little to do with religion: helping to spearhead a long-delayed diversion project for runoff in a flood-prone Spring Valley neighborhood.
Mr. Wieder introduced a reporter to an African-American resident, John Hawthorne, who recalled when he could fish in his backyard.
“He’s always been there,” Mr. Hawthorne said. “Every meeting, he was there.”
But had he voted for Mr. Wieder, Mr. Wieder asked?
No, Mr. Hawthorne said. He had not known about the election.
“But we got you next time,” he told Mr. Wieder.
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