NEW YORK — The election of a little-known Republican businessman to a congressional seat long held by Democrats underscores widespread voter discontent with the country’s current direction, say political commentators.
Bob Turner, the former cable television executive who won the Sept. 13 special election to fill the seat vacated by disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner, ran his campaign as a referendum on President Obama’s policies and said voters’ frustrations with the administration were “at the bottom line” of his victory over New York Assemblyman David Weprin, the better-financed Democratic candidate.
“The present administration is being held responsible for a sagging economy, lack of job growth, the explosion of the deficit,” Turner said in a recent telephone interview. “I think all these items led to a major dissatisfaction with the president’s policies.”
Turner, 70, a married Catholic father of five, said he ran primarily on economic issues, vowing to focus on creating jobs and shrinking the federal deficit. He also cast himself as a staunch ally of Israel, a politically shrewd tactic in the 9th Congressional District, which covers large segments of Brooklyn and Queens and includes a significant Orthodox Jewish community, which sees the Obama White House as not being as pro-Israel as previous administrations.
“I believe that is an opinion voiced by some voters in the district,” said Turner, who defeated Weprin by eight percentage points. He was sworn in to Congress two days after his election.
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling said 37% of the district’s voters thought Israel was a “very important” issue and that those voters would overwhelmingly support Turner, despite the fact that Weprin was an Orthodox Jew.
Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, crossed party lines to endorse Turner, saying that Obama has thrown Israel “under a bus.”
Meanwhile, social conservatives, including many who opposed New York state’s legalization of same-sex “marriage” in June, said Turner’s victory vindicated their positions and argued that polls proved them right.
“What a tremendous day for marriage,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which lobbies against same-sex “marriage” legalization efforts across the country. NOM poured $75,000 into the race on Turner’s behalf and dispatched volunteers to turn voters out for an election that Brown said proved marriage is important.
“David Weprin was not able to defend himself against his vote to support same-sex ‘marriage’ in New York, and his constituents made that clear. Forty-two percent of them oppose same-sex ‘marriage.’ Twenty-nine percent said marriage was a significant issue in this race. And Tuesday a strong majority showed Weprin that they have had enough,” Brown said in a prepared statement.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor at large of National Review Online, wrote the day after the election that marriage had been “undeniably” an issue in this race.
“If you thought the marriage issue was over, this morning ought to give you pause. New York redefined marriage this summer, and the Democratic assemblyman who helped that happen in the congressional district once represented by Geraldine Ferraro paid for his vote at the polls yesterday,” Lopez wrote.
John Fund, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, told the Register in an e-mail message that same-sex “marriage” has been a “sleeper issue” in the district’s Catholic and Orthodox Jewish communities, driving up turnout among those voters.
Fund said a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling revealed that voters in the 9th Congressional District opposed same-sex “marriage” by 44% to 41%.
New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Democrat and pastor of Christian Community Neighborhood Church, said NOM enlisted him to reach out to Hispanic voters in the district through “robo calls” and mailings that advertised Turner as the candidate who stood for family values.
“I look forward to future victories of pro-family candidates in New York state,” Diaz said in a prepared statement.
Turner downplayed the marriage issue when interviewed by the Register. He said his campaign did not run on the issue and said that whenever he was questioned about it, his response was that the “law has been passed.” But Turner said he would not have voted to legalize same-sex “marriage” if he had been a member of the New York state Legislature.
Before addressing policy matters, Turner said he would first focus on setting up his office, organizing a staff and reaching out to the community.
“The district has been unrepresented for four months,” said Turner, who succeeds Weiner, a married Democrat who resigned his seat in June after he admitted to using his Twitter account to send sexually explicit pictures of himself to young women.
“I want to make sure I represent the district properly,” said Turner, who, at the same time, said he will be “getting up to speed” on legislative matters. He said his priorities will focus on economic issues and international politics, especially on Israel.
Turner won a congressional election in only his second campaign for public office. He challenged Weiner in the 2010 midterm elections. Though he lost, Turner still gained 40% of the vote, which showed Weiner, and, by extension, many Democrats, were vulnerable.
When Weiner resigned, Republican Party leaders asked Turner to run again. Turner told the Register he decided to enter politics because of his concerns with the “unilateral changes” brought by the 2010 health-care reform bill, dubbed “Obamacare” by opponents.
During the recent campaign, the Turner camp revealed that Bob Turner and his wife, Peggy, were the Queens couple who adopted a baby from an AIDS-stricken Brooklyn mother who sought a stable family to raise her baby. The story had gained national exposure and became the subject of a 1995 television movie, A Mother’s Prayer, starring Linda Hamilton as Rosemary Holmstrom, who wanted her young son, C.J., to be adopted.
C.J. grew up in the Turner household after his mother died in 1994. The Turners kept their anonymity as C.J.’s adopted family until this August. Turner told the Register raising C.J. has been a blessing for the entire family.
“It’s enriched everybody’s life. It’s been a wonderful experience,” said Turner, who attended a Catholic grade school in Woodhaven, N.Y., and later graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
“Faith is extremely important. I think it’s an essential part of my life,” said Turner, who plans to run for re-election in 2012 even if the 9th Congressional District disappears in redistricting, which political observers say is a strong probability because of New York state’s lower population in the most recent census.
“My plan is to run,” Turner said. “We’ll see how the lines are drawn. Everyone in the community will be represented, somehow, someway.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.