It doesn't get more uncomfortable than courting voters 15 feet away from your campaign opponent, but that's exactly what happened in front of Kingsbridge/Riverdale Academy in the Bronx, where state Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein and Oliver Koppell competed for a small slice of real estate near the entrance to the polling site, hoping to sway voters at the last minute before they casted their ballot, all the while lobbing passive-agressive shots each other's way.
In terms of luring handshakes and responses, Klein appeared to be more successful than Koppell, but he also enjoyed somewhat of an unfair advantage. Standing with Klein handing out campaign literature were City Councilman Andy Cohen and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, both of whom represent the Riverdale neighborhood that Klein needs to perform well in to emerge victorious tonight. In fact, adding to the awkwardness of the two campaigns' proximity, Cohen's predecessor was Koppell himself, and it is widely believed that Koppell will have to sweep this neighborhood to have a fighting chance.
To that end, Koppell, a government veteran who also served in the Assembly and as the state attorney general, while seemingly acknowledging that Klein had made some inroads here, was confident he would retain his voter base.
"Sort of across the board, I get good reaction even though we’ve got the legion of opponents over here," Koppell said, gesturing to the Klein faction down the block. "And I hear from other parts of the district that it’s pretty good. Now I have to do very well in Riverdale to win this race, but I think I will do very well."
When asked if he made a concerted effort today to make appearances in the Riverdale and northwestern sections of the district as opposed to Klein territory in the east Bronx, Koppell bristled at the suggestion, and made references to the enormous fundraising advantage that Klein has over him, which forced him to more narrowly focus his voter outreach.
"No that’s wrong, I campaigned in the east Bronx, I went to subway stops all over the district, went to meetings all over the district, went to street corners all over the district, but our strategy was focusing on getting a big vote in Riverdale," Koppell said. "I didn’t ignore any part of the district. Our mailings also, just so you know, our major strategy, because we didn’t have money for TV like he does, our major strategy was mailings and our mailings went all over the district. We did some segmented mailings, special senior citizens mailings, but we went to senior citizens all over the district."
Koppell said that the one targeted mailer sent to Riverdale residents was about Klein's actions regarding the Montefiore Medical Center's plan to build an 11-story, 95,000 square foot urgent care clinic in the neighborhood. After the city Department of Buildings rejected Montefiore's initial proposal, Klein and Dinowitz sponsored and passed a bill that requires new outpatient medical facilities in the Bronx over three-stories high and more than 30,000 square feet to be subject to a review by the State Health Commissioner, who could then approve, amend, or deny construction of such a facility.
Koppell's mailer pointed out that Klein had received $90,000 in campaign contributions from the developer of the project, and has repeatedly made references to Klein being beholden to special interests throughout the campaign. In fact, Koppell mentioned Mayor Bill de Blasio's reportedly planned push for Albany to repeal the Urstadt Law, which gives the state the authority to set rent regulations for city residents, as an area where Klein has demurred because of his relationships with real estate developers.
Standing in front of a large, mobile "re-elect Klein" backdrop, Klein was asked directly about repealing Urstadt, equivocating on whether it is something he would seriously consider.
"Yeah, you have to take a look at it," Klein said. "In many cases, we don’t like to cede our power over localities, localities are the creature of the state, it’s in our state constitution, but that’s something I would certainly be open to…open to taking a look at. To be honest, I’ve had a great working relationship with Mayor de Blasio…that is not something he has brought up to me."
The presence of Cohen and Dinowitz with Klein is also something that irked Koppell, who said that he was "resentful" that some of his longtime associates were not supporting his candidacy. Koppell did not name names, but it is worth noting that he endorsed Cohen to replace him in the Council, while Dinowitz succeeded Koppell in the Assembly. To Koppell, this was another example of how Klein's recently announced power sharing agreement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Democrats has negatively impacted his campaign. Klein's Independent Democratic Conference has shared power with Senate Republicans and their leader Dean Skelos for the past two years.
"There’s no question about it, both Cuomo and de Blasio suggested that if [Klein] didn’t switch and come over to the Democratic side, that they would support me," Koppell said. "They were gonna support me, including the two unions 1199 and 32BJ, and they told him, 'If you switch and you say you’ll support Democrats, we’ll support you,' and so that’s what happened. Clearly that created a lot of support for Klein."
Koppell added that the new power-sharing agreement gave "no clear indication of what the deal is going to be and to what extent [Klein] is committed to the Democratic agenda."
For his part, Klein called Koppell's assertion about his establishment support "nonsense," noting that many of his endorsements came before Koppell threw his hat in the race.
"I had the support of all of the Democratic senate officials within my district, a lot of union support and I think it’s because I work well with my local assembly members and my local officials," Klein said. "We have a great team here and I think the way you’re strongest in solving community issues is by partnering with your local Assembly member and Council member."
As for shepherding a progressive Democratic agenda in Albany, Klein stuck to his familiar refrain that the IDC-Republican coalition "made government work," and that he did not obstruct Democratic legislation like the DREAM Act. He also said that he remained committed to the new power-sharing agreement, adding the caveat, that "if we don’t elect more Democrats that support these positions, we’re not going to get it done."
"If I hear the word blocking legislation one more time, I’m gonna scream. It’s not true! It’s not blocking, it’s a lack of votes," Klein said. "We elect and duly elect a Legislature every two years, we send Assembly members and senators to Albany to vote their conscience or vote for what’s in the best interest of their constituents. When the DREAM Act is on the floor, do we castigate or vote out the two Democratic state Senators that voted no? I don’t know, it’s up to their constituents to do that. It’s more about getting things done and accomplishing things, and I think we’ve done a very good job."