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NEW YORK — This is not the Sept. 13 special election that political insiders expected to be competitive.
When the election for the Queens- and Brooklyn-based district was set in July, Democrats and Republicans here and in Washington, D.C., anticipated that Democrat David Weprin, an Assemblyman from a storied Queens political family, would have no trouble winning in a district with a more than 3-1 Democratic voter registration advantage.
But with a vein of deep discontent and suspicion of the president pulsing through even Democratic areas, with both candidates making numerous unforced errors and with an exceedingly low turnout expected two days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Weprin's race against retired businessman Bob Turner (R) appears to be close.
It certainly looks to be closer than the other special election scheduled for Tuesday some 2,700 miles away in a Nevada district that was evenly split in the 2008 presidential race.
Early one morning two weeks before an election that very few residents in New York's 9th district appear even vaguely aware of, Weprin stood outside a subway stop greeting people going to work. Standing near a GNC, a Pizza Hut and Wiggles Gentleman's Club in the Democratic part of the district, his pitch was more education than anything else.
"Good morning. How are you? David Weprin running for Anthony Weiner's seat," he said with a fake smile that looked genuine, sticking out his hand to bleary-eyed commuters.
Most greeted Weprin gamely and took his literature from volunteers. As soon as a group of people passed by, the smile dropped from his face.
Wearing a blue pinstriped suit, yellow tie and tassel loafers, he attempted to greet as many potential voters as possible. One passerby appeared confused. Weprin was direct: "Anthony Weiner was your Congressman and he resigned. Special election is in two weeks," he said, holding up two fingers to emphasize the salient point.
No Nasty TV Ads Here
A Siena Research Institute poll last month showed Weprin leading by only 6 points. Standing a few feet away from his candidate, Weprin campaign manager Jake Dilemani said the campaign's own poll results differed from the survey. "Our internal polling is a little stronger than Siena," he said. A recent poll done for the Turner campaign showed the race tied. Another poll funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had Weprin up by 8 points.
It's unclear which poll is accurate for a summertime special in an off-year. The race is unique because the cost-prohibitive New York media market limits voter contact to direct mail, robocalls and earned media. Both campaigns expect turnout of about 20 percent.
"It's a tough district [for turning out voters] and the timing," Dilemani paused mid-sentence for a moment. "Summer is rough."
In the Democratic-leaning Kew Gardens and Forest Hills neighborhoods of Queens and the more conservative Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, dozens of residents responded to inquiries about the race with the same question: "What special election?"
Carrying groceries back home in Kew Gardens, Frederick and Rimma Chipkin were two of the rare people aware of the campaigns.
"We've gotten the nasty mail," Frederick said, referring to direct mail attacking Weprin. "I would usually vote for the Democrat, but now I'll definitely vote Democratic."
The fact that direct mail is serving to alert voters that there is an election underscores the difficulty of communication in a district where TV ads are prohibitively expensive. There are no independent expenditures on TV from outside groups in this race. Instead, campaign events are front-loaded each week to make the local weekly papers' end-of-the-week deadlines.
Weprin does a number of events at senior centers where, Dilemani said, the residents respond well to his message. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) campaigned with Weprin at a senior center in Queens on Tuesday. The Weprin campaign has mostly stuck with the national Democratic message of protecting Medicare and Social Security and contrasting that with what it says is the GOP plan to "decimate" the entitlement programs.
While it is unclear just how effective or potent a message that is in this diverse district, Weprin does not strike observers as a particularly good communicator.
"Weprin isn't much of a candidate," one Democrat with knowledge of the district said dismissively.
In a five minute interview with Roll Call outside the subway stop, he uttered the phrase "you know" more than 40 times.
On busy Crossbay Boulevard in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens at a small campaign office nestled between an empanada stand and a law office, Turner casually paced back and forth. He walked between about 20 volunteers making calls on his behalf and a Jets-Giants preseason game on TV. Turner, 70, tossed roasted peanuts into his mouth and offered the container to those standing around him. Having prepared for a debate that Weprin dropped out of, Turner appeared to be slightly unsure of what to do with the sudden chunk of free time on his hands.
On the campaign trail, Turner, a political novice until his run against Weiner in 2010, appeared lukewarm on the retail aspect of politics. "Some days are more fun than others, let me tell you," he said. In order to become a Congressman, he explained, "one must go through the political games, so I'm doing it."
Huge colorful maps of the district, street by street, covered the walls of the small office. The campaign hopes the more conservative areas, like the Brooklyn section that voted 57 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, will turn out in full force.
As volunteers came in, Turner lit up with recognition and greeted them by name. Most called him Bob. Turner focused his attention on the game as his favored team, the Giants, tried to move the ball forward.
"I've been bleeding blue since 1958," he said with a wide smile. Ultimately the Giants lost, 17-3.
Turner explained that he hadn't immediately pushed to be the GOP candidate for special election, deferring to up-and-coming New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich. But when Ulrich took a pass on running, Turner pressed the county parties to make him the GOP nominee.
"We had an organization already built up; we had momentum," he said.
Turner retired from active management as a television executive in 2002 and said he had spent the subsequent years managing his personal business affairs and spending time with his family — including his 13 grandchildren.
"That wasn't such a bad life," he said wistfully.
A Disappearing District
Turner has focused his campaign's messaging on jobs and the economy, as well as Israel. He argues that voters can best signal their displeasure with the president's policies toward the Jewish state by voting Republican.
Flanked by an American flag, addressing his volunteers, Turner said they were building on the 2010 election. "A lot of the groundwork we did last year is starting to pay off," he explained.
"Your enthusiasm is infectious," said Turner, not sounding particularly enthusiastic himself.
In fact, from the national parties to residents walking through the district, no one seems particularly enthusiastic about the election.
Indeed, the district is likely to disappear in January 2013: New York lost two seats in reapportionment, and it appears likely that the 9th will be eliminated during redistricting.
On Greenway North, a quiet tree-lined residential road with beautiful old houses in Forest Hills Gardens, less than a thousand feet from where the late Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D) lived when she represented the district, a man wearing a blue bucket hat said he was only vaguely aware of the special election but knew enough.
"I know there's one Democrat with a mustache and one Republican," he said, revealing more knowledge than most. Asked what he thought of the candidates, he was blunt: "They're both shitty, to be honest with you."
If that is indeed the case, two lackluster candidates competing in a Democratic district would appear likely to end up favoring the Democrat.
"I do think that this is still a Congressional seat in the city of New York, which is still overwhelmingly Democratic. That's why I believe that Weprin will eventually pull it out," New York City-based Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said. But, Smikle added, the race "is going to be a lot closer than people think."
Clarification: Sept. 7, 2011
The quote from Jake Dilemani, David Weprin's campaign manager, refers to the district being tough for voter turnout.