Koppell Claims Klein Ally’s Comment ‘Smacks of Anti-Semitism’

Mr. Gjonaj attacks Mr. Koppell at the rally (Photo: Will Bredderman)

Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj attacks Oliver Koppell at the rally (Photo: Will Bredderman)

Oliver Koppell, the primary challenger to Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, accused a Klein ally of making an anti-Semitic remark at a rally last week.

Mr. Koppell, a former councilman, charged that Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj–who shares a Morris Park office with Mr. Klein–was way out of bounds when he said that Mr. Koppell should have “went back to Riverdale where he belongs.”

“Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj has made remarks unworthy of an elected public official,” Mr. Koppell, who represented the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale in the City Council, recently wrote on Facebook. “Riverdale is of course known as a Jewish community. I am of the Jewish faith. Is Mr. Gjonaj suggesting that Jews should stay out of Morris Park?”

Mr. Gjonaj held an event in support of Mr. Klein in front of his office after Mr. Koppell scheduled a press conference there — and, when Mr. Koppell did not arrive, made the allegedly inflammatory remark. Mr. Koppell then blasted Mr. Gjonaj’s comments in a Facebook post as an effort to stir up old ethnic resentments in historically Italian Morris Park.

Asked to clarify his comments over the phone, Mr. Koppell said that the cultural overtones of Mr. Gjonaj’s comments would be clear to anyone familiar with the make-up of the Bronx.

“What is he saying when he says I don’t belong in Morris Park, I belong in Riverdale?” Koppell asked. “It smacks of anti-Semitism. He’s going out of his way to call attention to my Jewish background.”

Mr. Gjonaj — who is of Albanian descent — dismissed Mr. Koppell’s criticism, pointing out that he has taken part in various activities with the local Jewish community and that Mr. Klein, the person the assemblyman was supporting when he made the remarks, is Jewish. The assemblyman also pointed to a New York Post article from the day of the event that revealed Mr. Koppell’s former campaign manager had made remarks critical of Israel on his personal Facebook page.

“Mr. Koppell’s statement is ludicrous,” said Mr. Gjonaj’s spokesman Dylan Tragni. “This is just a sad, desperate attempt by Mr. Koppell, who kept his anti-Semitic campaign manager on board until the New York Post exposed his hateful Facebook rants the day of the rally.”

Mr. Klein’s camp also dismissed Mr. Koppell’s remarks, noting that Mr. Klein is Jewish.

Mr. Klein and Mr. Gjonaj have a long-standing relationship that pre-dates the assemblyman’s election in 2012. Mr. Gjonaj and his family have given tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Mr. Klein and his allies in the past decade. Additionally, city real estate records show that Mr. Gjonaj purchased a house on Yates Avenue in Morris Park for $280,000 in December 2003. Just four months later, Mr. Klein bought the property from him for $500,000 — even though Buildings Department records show the only work done on the residence was slight modifications to the gas meter.

Mr. Gjonaj, a former real estate broker, said through his spokesman that there was nothing unusual about the sale or his contributions to Mr. Klein and his allies.

“It was the right time at the right place, buy low sell high. It is capitalism at its best,” said Mr. Tragni. “Mr. Gjonaj has been generous to many candidates, civic organizations, and non-profits. He will continue to do so in the future.”

Mr. Klein brushed off the house’s rapid increase in value over a short period as a product of the real estate bubble.

“My legislative prowess doesn’t extend to my real estate buying ability,” the senator said. “I purchased my home at the height of the real estate market bubble, but I was willing to pay a premium to live in the neighborhood where I grew up.”