Smiling Into the Tidal Wave: A Young Republican Challenges Gottfried

It’s tough going, campaigning as a Republican on the West Side of Manhattan. Sometimes it’s best to just avoid the subject.

If pressed, State Assembly candidate Saul Farber will note that he also has the backing of the Independence Party, which on its web site pledges a commitment to “the elimination of the electoral advantages of incumbency.”

But it’s not uncommon, when Farber is out leafleting, for a passerby to breezily snap, “nope—Obama!” before hurrying on down the sidewalk.

Instead, he’ll talk about 75th-district incumbent Richard Gottfried, who’s been in office almost twice as long as Farber, a 2008 graduate of N.Y.U.’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been alive.

“He’s a footsoldier in the Shelly Silver army,” Farber said on Sunday while working the street outside the Chelsea Whole Foods. “With all due respect, he’s not progressive. You don’t progress over 38 years.”

Rather than other Republicans—or John McCain—Farber identifies with the “new guard” of younger legislators in Albany, like East Side Democrat Brian Kavanagh or Staten Island Republican Lou Tobacco.

Back on the street, West Siders inured to street canvassers asking for money most frequently just barged on by. But sometimes, Farber successfully snagged someone’s interest—usually slow-moving older couples.

“You gonna help the seniors?” asked a gray-haired man motoring along the sidewalk. Farber said yes, but explained that wasteful and fraudulent spending in Albany would have to be reined in first. It was a smooth delivery, and the man left smiling.

Another woman didn’t seem to care what party he belonged to: “Young blood, fresh blood. Yes! Good!”

Farber pitches himself to voters in the mold of Northeast-moderate Republican: fiscally conservative, socially liberal. He’s pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage, and Farber thinks he has the potential to make inroads with the young and uncommitted.

“He seems like a smart guy. It sounds like it would be nice to have a change, after 38 years,” said Matt Chesler, 29, who describes himself as “pleasantly unregistered.” He plans to vote for Obama. “I really like John McCain, but Sarah Palin scares the shit out of me,” he added.

Farber doesn’t have an army of volunteers. (He does appear to have some money, however: Filings show that he contributed the maximum $4600 to the McCain campaign.)

The day I visited Farber, the campaign staff consisted of the candidate, the communications director for the New York Young Republican Club, and a 46-year-old investment banker from north of the city.

Farber says he’s been out on the sidewalks every day, and that he's made 20,000 phone calls. One of those calls–from an undecided voter who called Farber's cell phone–went on for fifteen minutes while I looked on.

Jen Saunders, the communications director, said that the campaign's aggressive approach is making Gottfried nervous: after a debate between the two of them last Tuesday, the incumbent requested Farber’s personal financial disclosure information from the state ethics commission (and he started Facebooking last spring).

“Gottfried is starting to get very scared,” said Saunders, 28, who works for a corporate communications agency. “He’s finally realizing he’ s got an opponent who can cause problems. It’s not smooth sailing this time around.”

That may be true, but Farber is facing a seriously uphill battle.

Gottfried knows what it’s like to be in the challenger’s shoes—he won his seat as a sandybhaired, 23-year-old Columbia Law student in 1970. But even without a functional campaign web site, he still holds a substantial fund-raising edge, reporting a total of $89,000 in the last filing period, compared to Farber’s $54,000.

In response to Farber’s comments, Gottfried’s chief of staff and PAC treasurer Wendy Paster downplayed the significance of the fact that they had noticed Farber.

“The difference between this race and other races is that Mr. Farber is actively campaigning, so yes, we’re taking notice,” she said.

Noting Farber’s max-out contribution to the McCain campaign, she called him a “wealthy Republican” and said that he held positions “that are way out of step with most people not just in the district, but also in New York.”

Although visible evidence of support was thin during the time I spent on the street with Farber, he promised a “pretty surprising ground game” on Election Day. “There’s never been a situation where a non-incumbent candidate has laced the street with volunteers,” he said. “I think it’s going to turn some heads.”

And if things don't go his way Tuesday? Farber, a South Florida native, says he’s “not going anywhere,” except probably law school.