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Coney politicos spar after candidate’s absence from debate

A political club founded by Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus is demanding an apology from Councilmember Mark Treyger after he accused their members of smearing the candidate he's endorsed to replace him.
Courtesy of Mathylde Frontus' office/Brooklyn Paper file photo

Two Coney Island political clubs are at odds over a City Council District 47 candidate’s absence from a debate and an area pol’s fiery statement defending it — words the lawmaker said he completely stands by in an interview with Brooklyn Paper.

It all began when Ari Kagan — one of four Democratic candidates vying to replace term-limited Councilmember Mark Treyger — refused to participate in an April 29 debate hosted by the Seaside Independent Democrats. When asked by a constituent why Kagan — who Treyger has endorsed to take his place — didn’t attend, the southern Brooklyn lawmaker said in a now-widely shared Facebook post that the club smeared Kagan for his Russian-Jewish descent and labeled the candidate’s campaign manager an “intruder.”

The pol went on to call the debate a “sham.”

“[Kagan] has participated in many forums. The one tonight was organized by a  group that smeared his name and his identity as a Russian speaking Jew, they smeared my office, me personally, they smeared his campaign manager calling her an intruder while she’s lived here her whole life and contributed greatly to this community, and others in our community,” Treyger wrote. “Ari spent time helping with distribution and then speaking with voters tonight and solving problems rather than participating in a sham.”

The Seaside Independent Democrats — a group founded by Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus in 2019 — characterized the councilman’s words as “preposterous,” “slanderous” and an attempt to malign the club’s reputation. In a three-page statement, leaders defended the group’s diverse roster of immigrant members from across the globe, including board members who are of Jewish descent. 

“Treyger’s claim that our club has smeared Ari and his identity as a Russian Speaking Jew was abhorrent as it was deeply divisive,” the club wrote. “As immigrants and children of immigrants, we ourselves have accents and grew up in homes where our parents had accents and did not speak English.”

Now, members are demanding the legislator — who has had a seemingly “open secret” rivalry with Frontus since she narrowly bested former Treyger staffer Ethan Lustig-Elgrably in the 2018 race for her seat — either show proof, or issue club members an apology.

“We wholeheartedly reject the claim that anyone in our club has smeared Ari because of his ethnic or religious identity and demand that Treyger provide proof of this wildly slanderous claim or issue an apology to the community immediately,” the club’s statement went on.

But in an interview with Brooklyn Paper, Treyger clapped back, citing a pattern of harassment from members on social media.

“I 100 percent stand by my statement,” Treyger said. “A member of their board before their second forum actually by phone spoke to a leader, that later called me, claiming Ari Kagan does not write his own Facebook posts because there is no way he can write his posts based on the way he speaks.”

Frontus couldn’t speak to the private phone call, but refuted any claims that racism is a theme within her club, citing a “zero-tolerance” policy.

“We are not going to allow anyone to do something to cast a negative light on the club,” Frontus said. “I have not been aware of anything but my eyes are wide open.”

‘We already had the debate’

Meanwhile, Kagan credits his absence at the April 29 debate — which was attended by his opponents Steven Patzer, Alec Brook-Krasny and Joe Packer — to the group’s apparent support of Patzer. In an interview with Brooklyn Paper, Kagan said he’d already attended a December candidates forum hosted by the Seaside Independent Democrats and that it’s been made clear who they’re backing.

“We already had the debate in December, it’s live-streamed on Facebook,” Kagan told Brooklyn Paper. “Why should I go to the same club, and especially since I know they have basically made their minds already on who they’re going to endorse.” 

While the club did not officially endorse a candidate, some members have donated privately to Patzer, and Frontus is listed on the candidate’s committee of vacancy — a group that selects a replacement candidate in the event the current candidate dies or for other reasons can no longer run.

[That] is not a sign of neutrality,” Treyger alleged.

When asked about the committee, Frontus confirmed her position and said she didn’t give it a second thought when Patzer asked. And, while acknowledging members’ contributions to candidates, she pushed back on claims that the club’s debates would ever be anything but objective.

Debate questions are prepared by steering committee member and freelance journalist Kouichi Shirayanagi, and all candidates start out with an equal shot at receiving their endorsement, Frontus said — unlike the Southern Brooklyn Democrats’ endorsement meetings, which the assemblymember alleged where held after the club had already decided it would back Kagan, a longtime staffer of Treyger, who himself has ties to the club.

“This idea that we knew who we liked is just not true… but even though my name was on his vacancy committee, the club spent countless hours dissecting each candidate and doing a pros and cons [list],” Frontus said. “[Southern Brooklyn Democrats] never had that burden because they were sleeping like babies because they knew who they were endorsing from day one.”

Who speaks for who?

The phone call Treyger cited isn’t the only alleged infraction by the Seaside Independent Democrats.

In interviews with Brooklyn Paper and Bklyner (which first reported on the fracas), Treyger referred to an altercation between group-affiliate Ramon Guadalupe and Kagan’s campaign manager Zunera Ahmed in which Guadalupe called Ahmed an “intruder” on Facebook.

Frontus contended that the words of one former member — who only attended a few meetings when the club was first founded — should not be representative of the group. In its formal statement, the club said that Guadalupe is not currently a member.

“It is intellectually dishonest and grossly misleading to hold the club responsible  for the actions of someone who is not a member and doesn’t speak on our behalf,” the group said.

For her part, Ahmed told Brooklyn Paper she’s lived in the community her entire life, and is no stranger to the political world, having previously worked in the same district under former Rep. Max Rose.

“I have lived in the same house for the past 20 years, my political and community involvement has really surrounded around the Gravesend community and Marlboro [Houses],” Ahmed said. “That argument just doesn’t hold because I have lived here and I have worked around this area and I think Ramon is just trying to erase Gravesend and my political involvement.”

In an interview with Brooklyn Paper, Guadalupe backed the club, claiming that while he considers himself a founding member of the group, he has not been involved for over a year. He also said his comment was taken out of context, and that the word “intruder” was not in reference to Ahmed’s background, but her political motives.

“Zunera is a political operative for Mark Treyger and his Democratic club,” he said. “I stand by my comments when I refer to her as a political intruder.”

Still, Treyger said, the club should denounce Guadalupe’s comments — and acknowledge his affiliation.

“There has been a pattern and practice from members of the group and they seem to use their discretion on who is or isn’t an active member of their group,” he said.

Frontus, on the other hand, is demanding an apology from Treyger himself for spreading lies about the members of her club who work hard to host events to inform their community, saying this situation is bigger than just a slight against her. 

“For him to say we have smeared Ari because of his Russian-speaking identity, that is a serious statement that he has to have proof or apologize,” Frontus said. “And this has come to a boil because it’s bigger than one person versus another person, you are insulting a large swath of your constituency.”

The race heats up

The race for the 47th Council race has already been riddled with scandal: The young Patzer stands accused of embellishing his previous experience, namely claiming he was student body president while attending Kingsborough Community College when that post does not exist; Brook-Krasny, a former state assemblymember, was acquitted for charges of helping a doctor run a million-dollar pill scheme; and Kagan has been criticized for casting twice as many proxy votes allocated to his district during an infamous 13-hour zoom meeting for the Kings County Democratic County Committee, which another member later said was due to a tabulation error.

Meanwhile, a controversial politico with apparent ties to AQnon has hopped in the race on the Republican party line.

Mark Szuszkiewicz, a Bay Ridge native, gained national attention last year after Brooklyn Paper reported that the Republican had posted in apparent support of the conspiracy theory QAnon on his social media accounts.

After nearly unseating Frontus in an unexpectedly close call for her re-election last November, Szuszkiewicz has since turned his eyes to the City Council.

The race for the seat comes as Coney Island’s economy reels from the season-long closure of the amusement park, dealing a tough blow to the neighborhood’s thoroughfares, which were already struggling with vacancies. Storm recovery and residential development are two other issues in the district, which is seeing a boom of large apartment towers rising across the peninsula.

A Democratic contender will be chosen following the June 22 primaries. The winner will then compete against Szuszkiewicz for the seat come November.

The 47th Council District encompasses Coney Island, Sea Gate, Gravesend, and Bensonhurst.

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