The debate over the debate

Dog run blues: Manhattan Beach Community Group President Ira Zalcman wants to turn a bare-bones dog run on Oriental Boulevard into a community garden.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

A Sheepshead Bay assemblyman is punishing a civic group for exercising its First Amendment rights by declining an invitation to take part in a debate it is sponsoring with his opponent, the president of the group claims.

Manhattan Beach Community Group President Ira Zalcman says he was flabbergasted to learn that Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, the six-term incumbent from Sheepshead Bay, refused to attend the debate because Zalcman’s group had criticized the assemblyman in the past.

“I thought we’re allowed to disagree with any elected official in the country, from the president on down, but not Steven Cymbrowitz apparently,” said Zalcman. “We were thinking this is the United States of America, not the United States of Iran.”

Zalcman claimed he got the okay from Cymbrowitz’s challengers, Independence Party candidate Ben Akselrod and Republican Russell Gallo, but that assemblyman refused in a letter claiming the group was biased against him.

“A community group that has expressed public criticism of any candidate is simply not an appropriate sponsor for a debate,” read the missive typed on official “Friends of Steven Cymbrowitz” stationary, and signed by Cymbrowitz.

But Cymbrowitz said that despite the letter, his decision to abstain was based on the conflict of interest posed by Zalcman working for Akselrod during the September primary — a claim Zalcman flatly rejected.

“I do not work for Ben Akselrod,” he said, adding that the assemblyman was suffering from a case of sour grapes, stemming from the group’s opposition to his plan to turn a defunct park bath house into an immigrant cultural center.

“I publicly criticized him, now he’s squirming,” said Zalcman.

Ben Akselrod claimed that Zalcman has never been a member of his camp, nor supported him financially or otherwise.

“He has never given me any donations,” said Akselrod. “I wish he would.”

Cymbrowitz also accused Zalcman of harassment during the primary, claiming the civic leader called police to make sure his campaign staff stayed an appropriate distance from the polling site at PS 195.

“I actually saw Ira Zalcman giving my workers a hard time, and he even called the police out to measure the 100 feet,” said Cymbrowitz. “So, that’s what it was about.”

Zalcman refuted those allegations as well.

“I went to PS 195 in the morning, I voted, and I left,” he said.

It’s not the first time the assemblyman has declined to debate.

Cymbrowitz said he couldn’t go toe-to-toe with Akselrod last month at a forum coordinated by the Jewish Press, because it conflicted with a movie night premiere he was scheduled to attend that evening at Kingsborough Community College.

No other debates between the candidates have been scheduled.

Reach reporter Colin MIxson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4514.

Photo by Steve Solomonson

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