When County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef announced in October that he would not seek another term, county leaders wasted no time throwing their hats in the ring. Three Democrats are vying for an opportunity to take back the executive seat for the first time since 1994, when Vanderhoef, a Republican, initially won office. Long time county Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, former Spring Valley Justice David Fried, and Suffern Mayor Dagan Lacorte will spend the coming months convincing county Democrats why each is uniquely qualified to lead Rockland County. As they seek to differentiate their positions, however, there is at least one common trait they share and in which they take pride:
Each is Jewish.
Although the date of the Democratic primary has not been confirmed, the general election will be held on Nov. 5. Meanwhile Fried was the first to announce, back in November with almost a year until the election. A Rockland County native and alumnus of the now-closed Rueben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, Fried acknowledges the value of having a young, but experienced Jewish leader at the county’s helm.
“There’s a generational issue involved,” said Fried. “I’m the grandson of Auschwitz survivors; this is an important moment for the county as another generation assumes a role of leadership.”
As a board member for the Holocaust Museum and Study Center in Spring Valley, he would “make sure that it is a vibrant part of the county that can fulfill an important message.”
Like the other candidates, he believes his Jewish upbringing, and Jewish identity strongly affected his growth as a Democrat and as a liberal. “It was very important to my family to make sure that I grew up knowing who I am…through understanding tzedakah [loosely translated as charity] and lessons of ethics.”
It isn’t surprising that New York State’s most densely Jewish county would produce three Jewish candidates vying for countywide office. But for Kristen Stavisky, chair of the Rockland County Democrats, the first priority is to elect a Democrat, period, something she says is long overdue.
Stavisky, who is also Jewish, said she is proud “that we have so many Jewish people in office,” pointing to Rep. Nita Lowey, Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, as well as Schoenberger and Lacorte, all elected Democrats, and to Fried, who “was recently on the bench.”
Despite the number of Jews in the county, none have ever held the countywide office. Prior to Vanderhoef, Democrat John T. Grant was first elected to the office in 1985, when it was created. Grant lost to Vanderhoef in 1993.
The candidates may share a common heritage, but as the primaries near, it is clear that politics is still politics. Recently Lacorte misfired a text message to Fried. The message was said to contain instructions to Lacorte’s campaign manager to “record Fried on the phone” regarding matters such as gay marriage and campaign donations.
Lacorte abruptly apologized, offering a slew of campaign reforms such as a “Fair Campaign Practices Board.” He made it clear that he would like to get past the blunder, and focus on his qualifications as a candidate.
The Suffern mayor told The Rockland Jewish Standard he would be happy to serve as the first Jewish county executive. His passion for public service is a product of his identity.
“It is something that comes from my core and comes from my upbringing and Jewish heritage,” he said.
It was through his synagogue’s preschool program, where his elder daughter attended, that he and his wife have made some of their most important friendships in the county.
His second daughter though, could not attend because low enrollment forced the closing of the school for that year. He felt the same disappointment when Gittelman closed its doors last June.
Lacorte noted that “while the community faces certain challenges, there are also opportunities for people to find new experiences.”
The mayor noted that he had aided the Bikur Holim Shabbat House. By “settling litigation [it will] remain open for relatives of the sick” at nearby Good Samaritan Hospital.”
The makeup of the candidates is far from coincidental. Jonathan Karasno, a Jewish professor of political science at Binghamton University tells a story of his grandmother who was not a Democrat, but “would never vote for a Republican.”
The majority of American Jewry has voted Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt first served as president. Rockland boasts the largest Jewish population – more than 30 per cent of its residents are estimated to be Jewish – of any county in the nation.
All three candidates recognize that the county’s large Jewish population is not homogenous. From Monsey to New City, Rockland has a well-known reputation for its Jewish diversity, something they all embrace.
Schoenberg, who was born in Jerusalem, notes that “it’s a vibrant and active community, [that] contributes a great deal to the fabric and life of Rockland County.” An active member of that community, Schoenberg sat on the boards of both Gittelman and JCC Rockland. He has also assisted the Adolf Schreiber Hebrew Academy (newly moved into Gittelman’s old address in New City) through legal issues.
Schoenberg says that he has an understanding of “the community from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox.” He left his board positions “to avoid the appearance of favoritism” but remains an active supporter of the community through his role as a legislator.’
“A yeshiva in Ramapo was having issues with access to county roads, and I helped with that.,” he said. ” I’ve also helped assist Jewish communities outside my district.”
In its early stages, the county executive race has already adopted an economic theme, and the election’s victor will face immediate challenges. Stavisky noted that the county’s finances will be one overriding issue during the race.
“We have to get the county back on firm financial footing,” she said. “The last years of Vanderhoef’s leadership put the county in a dire financial state.”
Rockland has the highest debt of any county in the state and while Stavisky maintains that each Democrat is well qualified to cure Rockland’s economic woes, some Democratic insiders are concerned about how various East Ramapo scandals can work against the Jewish Democratic candidates – all from that town.
Residents have long battled the town’s school board. Made up mostly of Jewish residents invested in private education, public schools in the town have stalled as a result of continuing budget cuts.
Cuts aside, the party will face a steady challenger from the Republicans.
County Legislator Ed Day has more than a long resume of leadership in the county to woo the Jewish community. The New City representative speaks proudly of his commitment to the well being of the county’s Jewry. He is a common site at rallies for Israel, and commemorative vigils for the Holocaust.
“All of my uncles served in World War II, one had an experience he never spoke of,” he said. “We know he liberated a camp in Germany.”
Day says he “always felt it critical to be there (commemorations), not just as a representative, but as a citizen.”