Republican Inna Vernikov wins southern Brooklyn Council seat amid strong GOP showing citywide

Inna Vernikov at her election night victory party in Midwood on Nov. 2
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Republican Inna Vernikov was elected to the City Council from southern Brooklyn’s 48th District Tuesday night, trouncing her Democratic opponent Steven Saperstein in what was expected to be a close contest, as Republicans posted strong showings across the city.

According to unofficial Board of Elections results, Vernikov, a divorce attorney, held 64 percent of the vote to special education teacher Saperstein’s 36 percent with 96 percent of scanners reporting as of Wednesday, a massive 28-point margin in what many anticipated to be one of the tightest races in the entire city.

“This is not about me, this is about the people of this district,” Vernikov told Brooklyn Paper at her election night victory party in Midwood. “I think this was a loud message that was sent by this district to the Democrats, to the progressive left, that we are sick and tired of the policies they have implemented to destroy our city and our district.”

Saperstein conceded the race to Vernikov Wednesday morning, after determining the margin was too high a bar to cross even if absentee ballots went his way, which he told Brooklyn Paper he had been expecting. He postulated that a highly charged political atmosphere led residents to cast a protest vote for Vernikov.

“There’s no question we’re disappointed in looking at the initial results,” Saperstein told Brooklyn Paper at his election night party in Brighton Beach. “We have a great team, everybody worked hard. People have a lot of emotions right now, across the district, how they feel about things. People don’t like the way things are going, and it was a protest vote for sure.”

Vernikov’s strong showing came as Republicans outperformed expectations across the board. The GOP defended its three seats on the Council, two on Staten Island and one in Queens, and may assume up to seven in the coming Council.

In the 43rd District, Republican Brian Fox is narrowly beating incumbent Bay Ridge Councilmember — and speaker candidate — Justin Brannan, 50.44 to 49.39 percent with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Brannan said Wednesday morning that he “look[s] forward to counting every vote.”

In the Coney Island-centered 47th District, Democrat Ari Kagan is only narrowly leading Republican and QAnon subscriber Mark Szuszkiewicz, 51 to 49 percent, with 97 percent reporting. In 2020, Szuszkiewicz nearly toppled incumbent Democrat Mathylde Frontus in the area’s Assembly race, but local Democratic politicos expected a stronger showing by Kagan in the Council district since it does not include Republican-friendly Bay Ridge.

Meanwhile, the GOP appears to have also picked up the 19th District in northeast Queens, with Republican Vickie Paladino leading Democrat Tony Avella by seven points.

The GOP’s strength in the city even showed up in districts they didn’t contest: Borough Park Councilmember Kalman Yeger, a Democrat, won reelection to a second term running on both the Democratic and Republican lines, but the Board of Elections’ tally shows Kalman Yeger (R) beating Kalman Yeger (D) by 21 points, with Kalman Yeger (Conservative) trailing at 7.69 percent.

The GOP’s strong showing in the city mirrors its showing across the country as well, picking up the gubernatorial seat in Virginia and possibly doing the same in New Jersey.

“I think the performance of the GOP tonight shows us the people are angry,” Vernikov said. “They’re angry with the Democrats, they’re angry with the progressive left. And this is what we see coming out.”

While Staten Island Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis represents a sliver of South Brooklyn, no Republican elected had repped only Kings County in any legislative capacity since South Brooklyn state Sen. Marty Golden was defenestrated by incumbent Democratic Sen. Andrew Gounardes back in 2018. No Republican has represented Brooklyn in the Council in nearly 20 years, since Golden left his seat in District 43 in 2002 to serve in the State Senate.

The 48th District, which includes Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Homecrest, and part of Midwood, has normally elected Democrats to the Council and other area legislative seats, but it was one of the strongest areas in the city for Donald Trump in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns. That could mean that conservative voters in south Brooklyn are abandoning the Democratic Party and embracing the GOP, as local and national civic identities meld together.

“I think it’s a statement for the people of the district that this district is maybe one of very, very few that have conservative views,” said Theresa Scavo, who chairs the local community board, CB15. “Southern Brooklyn is a little more conservative than central and northern Brooklyn. I think it’s evident.”

In recent weeks, Vernikov, a proud Trump supporter who was supported by the former President’s son Don Jr, staked a strong position against the city and state coronavirus vaccine mandates. Saperstein told Brooklyn Paper last month that he believes “people need to make the decision that is best for themselves, their family, and their community,” but he had put less emphasis on his mandate position than did Vernikov. The Republican’s firm position may have resonated with city workers who by the thousands have protested the mandate, even as many ultimately relented and got the jab, and with the district’s conservative voter base.

Speaking with Brooklyn Paper, Vernikov identified the mandates, as well as high taxes, crime, and homelessness, as animating issues in the community during the race.

In a quirk, both Saperstein and Vernikov had previously been members of the opposing party. Saperstein formerly ran for the Council seat in 2017 and the local Assembly seat in 2018 as a Republican, while Vernikov, a lifelong conservative, had previously been a registered Democrat in order to vote in primaries, but decided to switch parties after last year’s protests against police brutality and many Democrats’ embrace of defunding the NYPD, she told Brooklyn Paper last month.

The district has been without representation since April, when Councilmember Chaim Deutsch pled guilty to tax fraud and was expelled from the Council. Deutsch was sentenced over the summer to three months imprisonment, and was due to surrender to federal custody last week, but got a three-week extension until Nov. 19 so his newly administered COVID-19 vaccine can take effect.

Deutsch was a Democrat but also a conservative firebrand who was often at odds with the broader Democratic caucus in the Council. His office was also known for exceptional constituent services: the district’s vacancy and the termination of his staff led to a diminishment of constituent services, residents and former staffers say. Because the seat is vacant, Vernikov will take office after the election is certified by the BOE in a few weeks, rather than on Jan. 1 like most incoming councilmembers.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Deutsch said he intended to vote for Vernikov, arguing that the person to continue his legacy on the Council should be “someone of good moral character, who will be strong in the face of pressure from the ever-growing socialist wing of the Democratic Party.”

Vernikov ran a campaign sharply critical of Democrats and Saperstein in particular: in an Instagram post last month, she accused Saperstein and his canvassers of telling non-English-speaking voters that he was a Republican, and called him a “coward” and a “liar. “He’s lying to you because he cannot afford to lose this race,” she said.

Nevertheless, Vernikov will be entering City Hall as part of a small partisan minority in the overwhelmingly Democratic Council. As such, she said she intends not to spend her time in office roasting Democrats but rather in getting stuff done for her constituents.

“I look forward to being a loud voice for my community on the City Council,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “I’m not going in there to fight with all the Democrats. I look forward to working with anyone who’s willing to work with me, whether Democrat, Republican, I know there are plenty of Democrats who work with Republicans on the City Council who like the Republicans, even some Democrats who like the Republicans better than some other Democrats. I’m someone who gets along with people, I’m not looking to go in there and fight, and I look forward to working with anyone who’s willing to work with me to achieve my goals for my community.”

Scavo, the CB15 chair, had similar remarks, congratulating the new councilmember-elect and saying she intended to work with her regardless of party affiliation.

“I don’t look at a label, I could care less what she is,” Scavo said. “She’s an intelligent young woman, I don’t care Republican, Democrat, liberal. I will work with her for the betterment of the community.”