I arrived at David Weprin's campaign for the vacant Congressional seat in the 9th District of New York after he'd already lost it. Sure, there were nine days to go before the election, but David had already misspoken to the New York Daily News editorial board when asked the size of the national debt, and in today's politics of lunacy that was enough to wipe out eight effective years balancing budgets as Chair of the Finance Committee of the New York City Council. Weprin's misstatement was headline news, and clearly regarded as more important than his opponent saying he'd never met a corporate tax loophole he didn't like, which was relegated to innocuous internal paragraphs in whatever meager coverage it received.
Between September 5thand 13th, I went to events non-stop with David Weprin, and at almost every one of them someone (often a Republican) came up to him to thank him for some worthy project or another he had helped with during his time on the City Council or in the State Assembly. I came to conclude that this was about the most self-effacing politician I'd ever met. David wasn't the greatest at smiling and glad-handing and doing the shallow stuff, but he had amassed an incredibly impressive record over decades of public service.
New Yorkers chose instead to elect someone who'd never to my knowledge done a damn thing for anybody, but gave voters an opportunity to mindlessly vent some anger. I knew Bob Turner, the opponent, from the television industry. He had worked for Lexington Broadcast Services, which syndicated the show I starred in, Sha Na Na. My understanding from those who ran LBS is that Turner quit the company, took the files and quite a few of the clients, and started his own business, which went on to bring America The Jerry Springer Show. I'm sure you'll acknowledge the unique contribution of The Jerry Springer Show to American culture, but even Springer himself, the chief beneficiary of Turner's dubious ethics and vision of a society gone amok, said Turner would not get his vote if he lived in the 9th district.
Stops on this campaign often resembled Jerry Springer, with angry Tea Partiers yelling and screaming at us apparently because of Weprin's long record of helping people and his promise to preserve Medicare and Social Security. That kind of "do unto others" mentality gets Tea Partiers really upset. But lest you think Weprin had fallen prey to some kind of crazy Christian principles that violated the current evangelical creed: "Quote Jesus when it suits you, but screw all those damn lepers and poor," you should know that David isn't a Christian at all, but an Orthodox Jew. And no one cost him this election more directly than his own Orthodox Jewish community.
They decided to send Barack Obama some kind of message about not kowtowing properly to the Israeli right wing by slamming David Weprin. David Weprin has been to Israel 8 times, and has close relatives living there whom he'd love to see flourish and prosper. Bob Turner has never been to Israel and has no ties there of any kind, but can smell a good trumped-up campaign issue when he needs one. So enter the wacky Ed Koch, whose bridge I shall never again cross until it's renamed for Paul Simon, to attack Weprin, possibly as payback for a long-running feud Koch had with Weprin's late father, Saul, when Koch was Mayor.
I can tell you firsthand that the entire Weprin family was deeply hurt by the Orthodox Jewish community turning on them. But the Orthodox have always seemed to me to relish this kind of provincial aggression, and as a Jew born in the Orthodox stronghold of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I've seen plenty of it in my lifetime. When I was a kid spending summers in the Catskills, the kids of an Orthodox family that stayed in our boarding house would pray all morning and throw rocks at my Grandpa Izzy's head all afternoon. I remember asking my Dad, "Why do Aryea, Benjy and Sammy pray all morning and throw rocks at Grandpa Izzy's head all afternoon?" He replied, "I don't know, Jonathan."
I admit I immediately became a lot less religious, and I'm not nearly as observant as David Weprin. I was having dinner at his house the Friday night before the election when the campaign consultant came over with a real electoral emergency and asked David to record a short piece for radio. This would be a violation of the Sabbath, and David refused. He is a man of deep principles. But that didn't stop the Orthodox community from skewering him for those principles, particularly his stand on gay marriage, which they oppose because Leviticus says they should. Leviticus also says you should be stoned for wearing two different kinds of thread. David's position was that, as required by the U.S. Constitution, he would not mix his religious beliefs with his civic duties as a legislator, and that gay marriage was to him a civil rights issue. It's truly impossible for me to understand how our Jewish community, among history's greatest victims of persecution, is incapable of empathizing with others who are obvious targets of discrimination. But there you have it, and probably more than other other group, the Orthodox community threw this election to someone they don't know at all and away from one of their own for the narrowest and pettiest of reasons.
I really began to fear for my country during this election, and for the city of my birth. After an event in the Rockaways, a young Tea Party shouter accosted me while I was talking to an undecided voter, and ultimately accused me of being a moron with no concept of American history. It seems that I didn't know that the founding fathers of the United States were all forced into being slave owners by the King of England, and that they all deeply opposed slavery and fought against it with all their hearts, or at least 3/5 of their hearts the way I read the Constitution they wrote. See, apparently, I got too much of my history from the New York public schools I attended, which educated me well enough to get me into Columbia from which I graduated magna cum laude. What I need to do is read the proper right wing bloggers and viral e-mails that explain what really happened. I am so sorry. I'll try to bone up with Professor Michele Bachmann in Concord, New Hampshire, which she has identified as the birthplace of the American Revolution.
But even as this horrible electoral experience saddened me, I still maintain hope that the current craziness will pass. Remember, although it's generally three steps forward and two steps back, progressive thought always triumphs in the end. The slaves are free. Women can vote. Gay marriage in New York will not be undone and in fact will spread further nationwide. David Weprin is still in the New York State Assembly. And Bob Turner will be a freshman Congressman for a year, rubber stamp a bunch of tea Party nonsense, and then most likely be redistricted out. Let us hope that by November, 2012, we will have come to our senses, caught a tree limb on our dive off the cliff, and hoisted ourselves back up to build a rational America.
Jon "Bowzer" Bauman is a native New Yorker. He plays the character "Bowzer," formerly of Sha Na Na, currently Bowzer's Doo-Wop Party, which tours nationwide. He is active in electoral politics, and has gotten the Truth In Music Law, which he co-authored, passed in 34 states.