Russian-American Council Candidates Battle in Brighton Beach

Republican David Storobin endorses fellow Republican Joe Lhota. (Photo: Jill Colvin)
Republican David Storobin endorses fellow Republican Joe Lhota. (Photo: Jill Colvin)

Over the past weekend, two Russian-American pols, embittered rivals running for the same City Council district this year, escorted their preferred mayoral hopefuls along the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

First, on a sultry Friday afternoon, Democrat Ari Kagan led Comptroller John Liu through the elegant Tatiana Restaurant on the boardwalk, greeting voters in the middle of a late lunch. Two days later, Republican David Storobin brought Joe Lhota, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani Administration, to do the same exact thing

And, although mayoral politics may have been the theme of the day, the political animosity from their respective Council campaigns was very present as well.

“[Mr. Storobin] will play the Giuliani angle,” Mr. Kagan told Politicker as he strolled the boardwalk. “He will say, ‘This is the guy who worked for Giuliani, he is endorsing me.’ People are very sophisticated, especially in Russian-speaking communities and in Orthodox Jewish communities, American and Chinese communities … people are not stupid.”

Mr. Storobin was quick to fire back.

“The guy has never had a full-time job in his life,” Mr. Storobin said of his rival Sunday. “That gentleman has been campaigning for about 15 years. And like I said, he’s never had a full-time job in his life. He doesn’t even own a driver’s license. For a 46 year old, I don’t know if that’s too much work experience.”

Mr. Kagan and Mr. Storobin are emblematic of the emerging political clout of Russian-Americans in Brooklyn. Running in a district represented by the term-limited Councilman Michael Nelson–who replaced current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner when Mr. Weiner was elected to Congress in 1999–the two candidates saw their electoral fortunes rise when the district’s lines were redrawn this year to rope in larger numbers of Russian-speaking voters in Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. (Advocates from the Orthodox Jewish enclave in Midwood despaired, fearing a new “super Russian” district would dilute their power base and ensure that the district’s next representative would be less responsive to their needs.)

The hatred between the two men, who both profess close ties to Orthodox Jews, can at least partially be traced to a Russian media mogul. Gregory Davidzon, the owner of an oft-listened to Russian language radio station, is an unabashed political enthusiast, offering endorsements, mailings and robo-calls on behalf of favored candidates. Mr. Kagan, the near victor of a 2006 Assembly race, is one of those candidates; Mr. Storobin is not. When the young attorney upset the Davidzon-backed Councilman Lew Fidler in a drawn-out special election last year, he shocked Mr. Davidzon and much of the political establishment.

Though Mr. Storobin lost his re-election bid that fall, he is now in high spirits. On Sunday on the boardwalk, Mr. Storobin was back in his element, guiding Mr. Lhota through various restaurants and patios. Speaking Russian, he tried to do exactly what Mr. Kagan attempted to do with Mr. Liu: connect Russian voters unfamiliar with the mayor’s race to the candidates and play the role of kingmaker in the the local Russian-American community.

Ari Kagan (far right) walks the Brighton Beach boardwalk with Comptroller John Liu on Friday.
Ari Kagan (far right) walks the Brighton Beach boardwalk with Comptroller John Liu on Friday.

But even while guiding the mayoral candidates across the boardwalk, their animosity was never far from mind.

“Again, he is known almost strictly to the elderly Russian people who listen to one radio station because they don’t speak English,” Mr. Storobin told Politicker. “Everyone who knows English knows me better … Even with the younger Russian people–and by younger I mean anyone under 65–they all know who I am. Nobody outside of the Russian retirees knows who he is. Literally has next to zero name ID.”

Mr. Kagan, perhaps anticipating Mr. Storobin’s broadsides, exuberantly darted up and down the boardwalk Friday, pulling aside Russian-Americans and asking them who was better known: himself, Mr. Storobin, or a another Russian candidate running against him in his hotly-contested Democratic primary, Igor Oberman.

“I think I know local issues significantly more than him,” Mr. Kagan said. “I was at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Park [in Sheepshead Bay] for example, in 1997 … Ask anybody in 1997, if they ever heard his name anywhere. He said, ‘I was young,’ but I came to America when I was 26 years old and I became involved the very next day.”

Additional reporting by Jill Colvin.

Russian-American Council Candidates Battle in Brighton Beach