Brooklyn will give the city its first Russian-American councilman this year, thanks to an increasingly politically active community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the districts of two term-limited representatives, experts say.
Three Russian-American Democrats are running to replace Councilman Domenic Recchia (D–Coney Island). John Lisyanskiy, a former staffer to Speaker Christine Quinn, was born in Soviet Ukraine — as were the parents Brooklyn-native rival, Mark Treyger, a former aide to Assemblyman Bill Colton (D–Bensonhurst). Former Community Board 13 member Todd Dobrin is a fourth-generation American whose great-grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine when it was a province of the Russian Empire — though unlike Lisyanskiy and Treyger, Dobrin does not speak Russian.
And three men from the mother country are facing off in the district next door, where Councilman Mike Nelson (D–Brighton Beach) is leaving office after 14 years. On the Democratic side, Russian-language journalist Ari Kagan emigrated to the United States from Soviet Latvia in 1993, while rival Igor Obermann moved to Brooklyn from the Soviet Union with his family in 1981. The Republican candidate, David Storobin, was born in Russia and came to America in 1991.
Russian-American Brooklyn leaders agreed that the odds are in favor of at least one member of their community entering the council.
“I think this will be the year,” said Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D–Coney Island), a native of Moscow and the first person from the former Soviet Union to serve in the state legislature.
Brook-Krasny, who ran for the Coney Island council seat and lost to Recchia in 2001, argued that Russian immigrants — who only began to arrive in large numbers in the 1990s — had difficulty gaining the trust of their new neighbors at first. Brook-Krasny said that both cultural barriers and lingering Cold War tensions hampered politically-ambitious Russian-Americans in the past.
“Electing a person from a new community, especially coming from not just the other side of the globe, but the other side of the political spectrum, is very difficult,” Brook-Krasny said.
Surprisingly, Brook-Krasny said the odds for a Russian-American councilman are better in Recchia’s old turf — a diverse area that includes Seagate, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend with sizeable black, Asian, Latino, and Italian-American populations — than in Nelson’s, where the lines were re-cut to create a so-called “super-Russian district” including Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Midwood, and Sheepshead Bay. The only non-Russian competition for Recchia’s seat comes from Pastor Connis Mobley, a Democrat running as an independent, and the Republican candidate Andy Sullivan. Both are longshots with little money. Kagan and Obermann face stiff competition in the Democratic primary from former Nelson aide Chaim Deutsch and Community Board 15 chairwoman Theresa Scavo. Brook-Krasny said the Russian contenders could split their community’s vote.
“More than one Russian-American candidate hurts everyone’s chances,” said Brook-Krasny, who has endorsed Kagan and Treyger.
But not all leaders from Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” agree. Some argue that Deutsch and Scavo will split the non-Russian vote, giving the candidates from the land of borscht and vodka — who represent the largest demographic group in the district — the edge.
“I think we will see two councilmen from our community,” said Russian-language media mogul Gregory Davidzon, who is also backing Kagan and Treyger.
Davidzon argued that the Russian community has so far failed to elect one of its own for two reasons. The first is that the community initially voted in low numbers — a problem Davidzon credits himself with reversing, through repeated calls to political action via his newspaper and radio station. The other, according to Davidzon, is that Russian-Americans gladly re-elected non-Russian pols who paid attention to them — repeatedly backing disgraced state Sen. Carl Kruger because of his Russian-language newsletter, and helping Nelson ward off a challenge from Soviet-born Republican Oleg Gutnick in 2005.
“Russian community appreciates loyalty from an elected official, and they will give that loyalty back,” said Davidzon.
Davidzon said that having Russian-speaking elected officials will be an immense source of pride to the community — but it will also likely mean more Russian-language support for city services, which many of the group’s seniors depend on.
“We will be more visible, and we will make the city more fair than it is,” said Davidzon.
The community has flexed its political muscles considerably in recent years — often with shocking results. Strong Russian-American and Orthodox Jewish support helped Storobin score an upset victory over Councilman Lew Fidler (D–Sheepshead Bay) for Kruger’s vacant Senate seat last year. And in 2011, Russian votes helped businessman Bob Turner — a frequent guest on Davidzon Radio — trounce Assemblyman David Weprin (D–Queens) in the special election to replace disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner.