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Little-Known Hasidic Sect Emerges as Political Powerbroker in Mayor's Race

By Colby Hamilton | October 16, 2013 10:34am
 Bill de Blasio was exuberant at his Brooklyn primary night party on September 11, 2013, the night a sect of Hasidic Jews delivered 7,500 votes to help him avoid a runoff with Bill Thompson.
Bill de Blasio was exuberant at his Brooklyn primary night party on September 11, 2013, the night a sect of Hasidic Jews delivered 7,500 votes to help him avoid a runoff with Bill Thompson.
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Mario Tama/Getty Images

WILLIAMSBURG — The longstanding ability of Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community to deliver a massive voting bloc to their choice of political candidates is being shaken up by a years-long family feud.

While the secular world can often see the Hasidic vote as a united front, the feud between Williamsburg's two Satmar communities has let the underdog Aroni sect come into its own in this year's mayoral race.

On Primary Election night, the Aronis — named after Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, one of two feuding brothers who represent the Satmar sects — claim to have delivered 7,500 votes overall to now-mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio that helped put him over the 40 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff.

By comparison, the once-dominant followers of Aaron's brother Zalman Leib Teitelbaum — known as the Zalis — delivered less than half of the 10,000 votes they promised in Brooklyn for their candidate, Bill Thompson. 

“This is a major victory for us,” said Moishe Indig, a leader in the Aronite community.

Michael Tobman, a political consultant who has been a key piece of connective tissue between the Aronis and the broader political world, said the Aronis lagged far behind their counterparts the Zalis in terms of political influence when the two factions split in 2006.

That was when their father, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, who was the leader of the Satmar sect, died at 91. The split stemmed from a fight over who would succeed him.

But in the years since, the Aronis have steadily built up their influence, culminating in the primary, Tobman said.

“When de Blasio was winning women, when de Blasio was winning the gay vote, when de Blasio was doing well with African-Americans and West Indians, everybody was saying, ‘This is the death of identity politics,’” Tobman said. “We're here to say, probably true for the rest of the city. But as far as this 7,500 votes go, not so much."

He added that the group has been cautious about overstating its influence, only putting forward promises it can deliver.

“They didn't want to say 7,200 [votes] and have it be 7,150. That would be a failing,” Tobman said. “It really is a study of a bloc vote given the ability to show its true capacity."

The Aronis' first big win came in 2008, when longtime Brooklyn State Sen. Marty Connor lost on Primary Election night to then-insurgent opponent Daniel Squadron, who had Aroni backing.

“That night we became visible for the first time,” said Isaac Sofer, the head of government relations for the Central United Talmudical Academy, a major Aroni education organization.

Adding to the Aronis’ success was the decline of Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who formerly enjoyed the support of the Zalis, insiders say. When the former Brooklyn Democratic Party boss had to resign from his influential position in the Assembly — as well as give up control of the Brooklyn Democratic party — amid a sexual harassment suit, the Aronis began to gain traction.

“It was a momentum shift when Vito went down,” said a Brooklyn political observer who’s worked with the Aronis. “The powerbase for the other side is just gone. All of that which came with it is gone.”

Still, those working on behalf of the steadily-growing Aroni voting bloc said the work of those on the ground to strengthen their political connections are what’s compelled elected officials to come to them for support.

“With the Zalis, everyone still thought of them as a 70-30 split,” Tobman said, referring to the kinds of voter turnout that had for years characterized the Zalis’ dominance in Williamsburg. “It was now actually 56-44, 55-45.”

But, according to Michael Olmeda, a political consultant who has in the past worked with Lopez-backed candidates, the Aronis’ recent success over their Zali brethren could come back to hurt them.

“The problem here is that the Aronis are too aggressive in trying to take over political power in Williamsburg,” Olmeda wrote in an email. “Most sensible politicians know the only way to keep winning is working with both sides, sometimes you give a little more to this side the other side, but you work with both sides.”

Aroni leaders, however, say their interest is in leveling the playing field, not ruling over it — and they hope having a friend in City Hall will help with that.

“We're not here to fight anybody else," Indig said. "We're here to build ourselves.”