Jessica Lappin, a candidate for City Council from the Upper East Side, has no problem explaining the difference between her candidacy and that of her opponent, Joel Zinberg.
“I’m a Democrat. I mean, that’s sort of the most obvious difference between us,” she said. “He’s a Republican, and I’m proud to be a Democrat, and I think that certainly distinguishes us.”
Perhaps understandably in a heavily Democratic city, Dr. Zinberg has eschewed the dreaded R-word in most of his campaign literature.
“I’m proud to be a Democrat, and my literature reflects that,” Ms. Lappin said over multiple cups of coffee in late October. But delivering partisan punches has become a tricky business on the Upper East Side, where Republican Mayoral candidates have done quite well in recent years. For example, if Ms. Lappin is a proud Democrat, does it follow that she is proud to have Fernando Ferrer at the top of her ticket? When asked whom she plans to vote for in the Mayoral race, Ms. Lappin’s do-or-die Democratic posture fell away.
“I’m not going to answer,” she said. It was now Saturday evening, and Ms. Lappin was standing outside the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, where she’d just finished debating Dr. Zinberg in a final candidates’ forum. She added: “I’m going to keep that to myself.”
Between her powerful Democratic affiliation and Mr. Ferrer’s sinking bid for Mayor, Ms. Lappin is tangled in a partisan paradox. She’s hardly alone. This year, it has become common practice among City Council hopefuls on the Upper East Side to hedge their partisan alliances. Democrats and Republicans are battling over open seats in the neighborhood’s Fourth and Fifth Council Districts.
In the Fifth District, Ms. Lappin, 30, a longtime aide to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Dr. Zinberg, a 50-year-old surgeon and professor, are competing to succeed Mr. Miller. (The Speaker had to give up his seat this year under the city’s term-limits law.) In the Fourth District, Democrat Dan Garodnick, 33, a litigator who worked on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, is taking on G.O.P. candidate Patrick Murphy, 38, a past president of the New York City Log Cabin Republicans and former direct-marketing executive. Both are vying to replace Democrat Eva Moskowitz, who gave up her seat to wage an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Manhattan Borough President.
While Democrats outgun Republicans by a margin of 5 to 1 across the city, the partisan divide is less stark along the Upper East Side. In the Fourth and Fifth Council Districts, Democrats outnumber Republicans by fewer than 3 to 1. The Democratic advantage is still sizable, yet it’s more modest than anywhere else in Manhattan.
Considering the dearth of Republicans in the current City Council—the 51-member body has only three of them—and the fact that most open Council seats are filled during Democratic primaries rather than contested general elections, the Upper East Side races have emerged as one of the more compelling spectacles this season. And one of the most contentious.
Like Ms. Lappin, Mr. Garodnick has found himself in an awkward place: He won’t disclose a favorite in the Mayoral race, either. The Observer’s Politicker Web site mentioned his conspicuous silence at the end of last month and speculated that Mr. Ferrer may have become a drag on the ticket for down-ballot Democrats. Mr. Garodnick refused to be interviewed for this article.
Yet in a campaign mailer sent out at the end of last week, Mr. Garodnick quoted an endorsement that seemed to hasten his drift from Mr. Ferrer. The endorsement came from Ms. Moskowitz, who linked Mr. Garodnick with the incumbent Mayor.
“Dan Garodnick and Mayor Bloomberg have both earned my endorsement because they are independent leaders who will serve our neighborhood well,” read Ms. Moskowitz’s tribute. Just to the right of her quotation, a fuzzy picture of Mr. Garodnick’s opponent, Mr. Murphy, was bisected with the word “Republican” printed in eye-poppingly bold type.
For his part, Mr. Murphy has been quick to attack Mr. Garodnick for hedging his bets on the Mayoral race. “How can you expect to be a leader if you can’t even answer such a fundamental question?” he demanded at the candidates’ forum on Oct. 29.
Partisan pressures exist on either side of the aisle, however, and they seem to have taken a toll on all of the Upper East Side candidates. While the Democratic contenders have treated their party affiliation as a boon and Mr. Ferrer’s candidacy as a bane, Republicans have taken a mirror-image stance. For Republican candidates like Mr. Murphy and Dr. Zinberg, getting endorsed by Mr. Bloomberg has been a tremendous boost, a badge of approval that’s useful to wear on the street and flash at passing constituents. The Republican affiliation that helped earn their endorsements, however, seems like more of a liability.
Last Friday, Mr. Murphy was handing out fliers in front of a Gristede’s supermarket during the evening rush hour, greeting constituents with a smile and an introduction: “I’m Patrick Murphy, running with Michael Bloomberg for City Council.” Mr. Murphy’s fliers featured Mr. Bloomberg prominently but made no mention of the Republican Party. When The Observer asked about this absence, he replied: “The Mayor doesn’t do it, either. I’m not really running as a partisan.”
Moments earlier, a woman in a taupe overcoat and glasses had paused to shake Mr. Murphy’s outstretched hand. “What party?” she asked. “Republican,” he replied. “No thanks!” she retorted and trotted off. Though he’d been rebuffed, Mr. Murphy managed to crack a smile. “Can’t win ’em all,” he laughed.
While Mr. Murphy and his Republican colleague, Dr. Zinberg, hope for a boost on the coattails of Mr. Bloomberg, they’ve also selectively softened their party ties, a practice that has opened them up to criticism from their opponents. For example, in early September, Mr. Murphy sent out two versions of the same mailer, both produced by the Baughman Company of San Francisco, the firm that also manages direct mail for Mr. Bloomberg. (For a sense of scale, consider that Mr. Murphy has spent $106,236 with the company so far; Mr. Bloomberg has paid it $3.5 million). One of the mailings said “Republican”; the other did not. Further details, including Mr. Murphy’s fight against the federal marriage amendment, were included on one version but not the other. Micah Lasher, a spokesman for Mr. Garodnick, criticized the difference.
“Perhaps between now and Election Day, the real Patrick Murphy will stand up, because he hasn’t yet,” he said. “Murphy tells some voters he’s a Republican and hides the party label from others like a scarlet letter.”
Karol Sheinin, a spokeswoman for the Murphy campaign, was quick to debunk the charge that Mr. Murphy had been disingenuous. “It’s pretty common for candidates to target certain messages to certain segments of the population. But Patrick doesn’t change. He’s upfront about who he is, what he thinks, who he supports,” Ms. Sheinin said. And she added a barb for good measure: “This just sounds like in the debate, where Garodnick was trying to get the focus off of himself and his refusal to say who he supports for Mayor.”
Back in the Fifth District, Dr. Zinberg also seems to have taken more than a few cues from Mr. Bloomberg. He switched his own party registration in 2003, from Democratic to Republican, and has been distributing “Democrats for Zinberg” buttons on the campaign trail. And he’s faced some of the same reactions.
“I’ve had people on the street say, ‘Oh, Republican—that’s all I needed to hear.’ People are not thinking,” lamented Andrew Kushnick, Dr. Zinberg’s campaign manager, who was folding fliers outside the Channel Club condominium complex on 86th Street early Friday morning. Mr. Kushnick later added that his candidate had also taken some hits from right-wing Republicans. “I met one pro-life woman who said, ‘So he supports killing the babies?’ He’s not going to apologize for the fact that he’s pro-choice,” Mr. Kushnick said. “Ideologically, he’s in line with most New Yorkers despite the Republican label.”
Apart from the Bloomberg nod, Dr. Zinberg also has the endorsement of The New York Times, which he’s played to the hilt.
Political insiders still favor Democrats to win both Council races on the Upper East Side, adding that Mr. Murphy has a slightly better chance at earning a seat for his party than does Dr. Zinberg, since party-enrollment numbers in Mr. Murphy’s district are slightly more favorable to Republicans. And Mr. Murphy has even raised more money than his opponent, pulling in an impressive $225,720, while Dr. Zinberg has languished behind Ms. Lappin, raising $81,888 to her $176,158.
This election year, Republicans who have been watching the Fourth and Fifth District candidates are also apt to highlight the history of G.O.P. leadership from the neighborhood, rattling off a roster that includes John Lindsay, Stanley Isaacs, Roy Goodman, Charles Millard, Jon Ravitz and Andrew Eristoff. They look at other competitive Council races, where Republicans like Philip Foglia in the Bronx and Pat Russo in Brooklyn have made inroads, and hope that Mayor Bloomberg’s coattails will usher a new chorus of G.O.P. voices into the Council. And come what may on Election Day, they also note that such competitive City Council races needed a rather unusual climate—the Bloomberg-dominated Mayoral race—to flower.
One of those Republican election-watchers is former State Senator Roy Goodman, who represented the Upper East Side through 17 terms in office and calls Mr. Murphy and Dr. Zinberg “my two stars.” He sent out a fund-raising letter on behalf of Dr. Zinberg just last Friday.
Mr. Goodman hopes that the Bloomberg candidacy might catalyze a Republican resurgence in the City Council, suggesting that it “will break up the normal tendency of people to all pull the levers in the same direction.” But without Mr. Bloomberg, could he dream this big?
“I certainly think it would be more difficult,” said Mr. Goodman, tipping his hat to the Mayor. “Bloomberg creates the environment in which their victories become more logical, and more likely to occur.”