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Why NY-9’s Special Election Should Make Both Parties Nervous

Queens, New York—In the midst of increasing excitement around the 2012 presidential race, the special election in New York’s ninth congressional district to elect a replacement for Representative Anthony Weiner (the dick-pic guy) quickly became cast as a referendum on President Obama’s policies. The surprising victory for GOP candidate Bob Turner, a former cable television executive who defeated Democratic State Assemblyman David Weprin by 6 points last night, only reinforces that perception. The last time the district went for a Republican was in 1920, and during the campaign, Turner had worked hard to make the election about President Obama and his failed economic policies. 

After my experience yesterday walking the streets of the district and talking to a few voters, however, I would argue that every single one of the candidates for president, Democrat or Republican, has cause to worry about how to deal with the concerns the New York voters expressed. Their fears about overspending, jobs, and the economy are coupled with equally strong feelings about sparing entitlements like Medicare and Social Security from cuts. All the Republican candidates will have to navigate between these two contradictory positions, and without resorting to total dishonesty, it’s going to be a tough needle to thread. If we are going to use this special election as a marker for the country’s mood leading up to 2012, it’s important that we ask: Was this election really about President Obama, or was it about mounting anxieties regarding the problems we face as a nation, no matter who is elected president next year?

NEW YORK’S NINTH DISTRICT is comprised of middle class suburban neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that are pretty far afield from Manhattan, and are not necessarily the bastions of liberalism that one might expect. The district is largely blue collar and is home to many service workers, policemen, and firefighters, the kind of voters that fell in line for Hillary Clinton and were suspicious of Obama in the 2008 primary election. It also has a significant population of immigrants, including both an older generation from Ireland and Italy and a new generation from Poland and Latin America. Like most districts in New York City, the ninth leans Democratic. But another way of looking at it is that the ninth district is also one of the most conservative districts in the city (though Democrats still represent a majority, with three registered Democrats to every one registered Republican). That Democratic majority, however, tends to be more socially conservative than the typical liberals one might find in some of New York City’s other neighborhoods. The district has a large Catholic and orthodox Jewish population, which makes issues like same-sex marriage (which Weprin voted in favor of it as a New York state assemblyman) and the ground zero mosque (for which Weprin supported the backers’ legal right to build), hot button issues.

The truth was that few voters were particularly excited about either of the parties’ candidates, who were chosen at the last minute by party leadership without the opportunity for a primary. Without the healthy competition that comes along with that initial contest, the candidates were relatively uninspired. Add to that the fact that the district is likely going to disappear entirely through re-districting before the next election, and that this all happened because the elected Congressmen tweeted pictures of his private parts, and you start to get the sense that this election was ill-fated in every sense and seems unlikely to hold any serious, or lasting, meaning.

But since 2012 is already very much in people’s minds, I was eager to find out what these voters thought about the president and the political situation in Washington. I spent my afternoon in the ninth district in Glendale, Queens with Elizabeth Crowley, a New York City councilwoman from the 30th Council district in New York, which is nestled inside the ninth congressional district. Even though she is a Democrat, Crowley happens to have been elected in one of the two most Republican leaning city council districts. Knowing the election was going to be close, she decided to spend the day canvassing her constituents to encourage them to get out and vote for David Weprin. Seniors are heavily represented in Crowley’s part of the district, so she said that protecting Social Security and Medicare seemed like two of the issues foremost on their minds.

I tagged along with Crowley and a young female volunteer as they went door to door between the houses tucked snugly next to each other on the tree-lined streets in Glendale. On one of the blocks I walked, there was an American flag jutting out from almost every house. I found that national issues were very much at play in voters’ decisions. The first person I spoke to, Mary Delaurio, who is 83 (and I gathered likes to ride motorcycles), told me, cane in hand, that she had voted for the Democrat, but she was clearly worried about some of the issues that will dominate the debate in the national presidential election. Delaurio said of Weprin, “I hope he helps us, and does not get rid of our Social Security.” When I asked her what she thought of the president, she said: “I don’t care for President Obama. I don’t like his ways. He doesn’t help elderly people. He is trying to take so much away from us, [first] Medicare. I hope he doesn’t take away Social Security.”

After five o’clock, we migrated to a subway stop in Ridgewood Queens to nab people coming home from work in a last ditch effort to remind them to go to the polls. I spoke first to a 63-year-old man, who described himself as conservative and lives in Glendale. He was on his way to vote, but said he was still undecided. He said the most important factor in thinking about the election was the flagging economy and the deficit. He didn’t like the way that Weprin handled the city finances when he was a councilman (he was slammed for being tax-and-spend), and he thought his vote in favor of same-sex marriage upset a lot of people. His view of Obama was that he hadn’t done enough to convince the Republicans to come over to his side and that it was the president’s fault, not theirs, that a faster compromise hadn’t been reached on the debt ceiling. “He could have done a better job—he can’t just say [spend now] and look [at the debt problem] later because we’ll just have to raise the debt ceiling again.”

Next I spoke to Anthony, a 40-year-old court employee who said he planned to vote for the Republican, Bob Turner. He said the top issues for him in the election are jobs and taxes. He said he knew a lot of voters who chose Obama in 2008 and had “buyer’s remorse.” In Anthony’s view, it was because Obama has sold himself as “a centrist, post-racial, bipartisan” candidate but seemed to take advantage of his majorities in the House and Senate to push liberal policies. Later, I met with Iris Navarro, 65, a self-described independent who voted for the Democrat—and said that the most important issues for her were keeping Social Security intact and cutting spending. “I don’t think of Social Security as an entitlement because I’m paying for social security,” she explained, but she also said that we should cut programs to “stop spending and be more prudent.” Another voter, whose name I didn’t catch, probably summed up the tone of this election best. When Crowley asked him if he’d voted today and if he’s support Weprin, he walked by brusquely without looking her in the eye and called out: “I prefer Weiner.” 

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New Republic.