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Fearmongering succeeds in New York congressional election

Jonathan P Hicks | 9/16/2011, 10:51 a.m.
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It seems bizarre that a congressional district that spans neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, a district that has a three-to-one Democratic advantage over Republican registered voters, a district that supported Barack Obama by an 11-point margin in 2008, would select a Republican to go to Washington.

Yet, unbelievably, that is precisely what has happened in New York's 9th Congressional District, an area that had been represented by one of the most progressive Democrats in Congress, Anthony D. Weiner, until the former congressmen resigned in disgrace.

What is far more disgraceful than the former congressman's undisciplined adventures in cyberspace is the campaign that was waged-successfully-by Bob Turner, the stunningly undistinguished Republican congressman-elect.

Turner, a onetime television executive best known for his role as the producer of "The Jerry Springer Show," took a page from the Tea Party zealots of the Republican right (with whom he strongly identifies) and campaigned on a platform designed to stoke the fears of a heavily Jewish district. Besides his contentions that government must be reduced and federal programs should be cut, he hammered home the assertion that somehow President Barack Obama was a less-than-enthusiastic supporter of Israel.

Turner and Republicans nationwide will point to the election results as a repudiation of Obama and his policies. However, Turner's campaign had little to do with the important debate about how best to solve the nation's pressing problems.

Rather than campaigning on a plan to bring jobs to this working-class district and addressing the nagging issues of flooding and beach erosion, Turner spent his time criticizing the president's position that Israel's pre-1967 borders should serve as the foundation for negotiating a peace agreement, along with mutually agreed upon land swaps. The Obama view is nothing more than what has been the prevailing starting point of nearly all negotiations for at least a decade. To bring added attention to that issue, Turner brought in former Mayor Ed Koch, resurrecting a history of divisiveness that many New Yorkers had forgotten about.

To further establish his credentials as a first-rate fear monger, Turner went on to resurrect the issue of the proposed Muslim community center planned to be built near the site of the old World Trade Center. His horrendously insensitive campaign commercial of the burning Twin Towers stated: "Some want to commemorate the tragedy by building a mosque on Ground Zero. President Obama thinks it's a good idea. And so does congressional candidate David Weprin."

His fiscal platform also takes a page from the Tea Party's playbook: solve the country's debt crisis by cutting federal spending by a third and shutting down the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency and slashing the Department of Education.

It's a sad end to a discordant campaign. Weprin, the Democratic candidate who had served in the City Council for some time, had established a fine reputation as a fierce advocate for civil rights and federal programs that assist seniors and workers.

It is a chilling harbinger of what is surely to come in the election season ahead. With the economy sputtering and widespread concerns about joblessness and everything from the federal budget to America's standing in the world, we're likely to see far more illustrations of how the Republicans will campaign with an eye toward playing to the fears of Americans. One can only hope that the Democrats will counter these mean-spirited and divisive tactics by developing a compelling narrative that connects with the hopes of Americans.