Just when you thought the elections for state office ended last year, another election is on the horizon next month due to the resignation of three-term Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal (D – Kew Gardens Hills). Governor Kathy Hochul set Tuesday, September 12, as the date for the election. Here is some information you might like to know about the candidates, 25-year-old Democratic candidate Sam Berger and 34-year-old Republican candidate Rabbi Dovid Hirsch.
Berger is an attorney who recently took the bar exam. He’s married to Shayna and the father of two young girls. Hirsch is single and an independent education policy consultant at TEACH Coalition, an arm of the Orthodox Union. Both live in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.
(This district encompasses the Queens neighborhoods of Pomonok, Electchester, Kew Gardens Hills, College Point and Whitestone. Donald Trump carried this heavily-Democratic district in 2020.)
Since the district does not have a broadcast media outlet just for the borough, this campaign’s media efforts will focus on ads in weekly newspapers and social media posts. The candidates will engage in a shoe-leather campaign – going through two pairs of shoes, endless talking to constituents, attending endless events, glad-handing, and lots of smiling. The candidates will rely on mailings, door hangers, and lawn and window signs to get their message out.
“The pathway is through everyone in the community, meeting with people, hearing what issues are most important right now to people,” Hirsch, who attended Queens College and received his semicha from Yeshiva Ohr Hachaim, said. “I’m hoping to get our message out loud and strong to the public and I wish my opponent the best of luck in this race.”
Hirsch had this to say on the following topics:
On crime: “Crime seems to be very important right now and I agree with that. We need to fix the disastrous bail reform laws. We also can focus on a lot of smaller community solutions, such as better lighting at night in many areas. To make the area feel safer we need to post more cameras and have better funding for police so we can combat crime while fixing the bail reform laws.”
On education: “In the Jewish community, the state education policies imposing potential regulations against yeshivas are very important to people and we need to try to stop that. When it comes to the yeshivas, we have to make sure that in the state legislature we protect the rights of religious schools to educate the way the parents of the school want.”
On public schools: “I’m hearing from many non-Jews in the district that they are worried about certain things in the public school curriculum. We need to make sure that parents have a right and a say in their child’s education. Parental rights in education are very important as well.”
On higher education: “There are many people worried about certain social issues potentially being forced on Yeshiva University policy to mandate certain accommodations. This is about protecting religious freedoms.”
On the economy: “Overall, in the district, people are worried about the economy. There seems to be a lot of people upset about the policies coming out of Albany that they blame for the current situation.”
“There are issues I vehemently disagreed with the former assemblyman on, especially social issues. I criticized him in the past on certain social issues and as to whether Mr. Berger is going to be the same, I cannot say because I do not know him well enough. However, as we have seen from other Democratic politicians, sometimes they have to make certain compromises to the party leadership and that is always a concern.”
Meanwhile, Berger kicked off his campaign last Monday at the home of Sorolle Bennett-Idels and her husband Shimmy. Congressman Greg Meeks, the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Committee, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie headlined the event. Rosenthal kept to the back of the dining area and poked his head out when the speakers acknowledged him. He did not speak, choosing to leave the spotlight on Berger. Many in the audience said that was the appropriate thing to do.
“Dan was the quintessential team player. Even when there were tough times and tough votes, Dan was always part of the team,” Heastie said. “I’m sad to see him go. Now we’re going to get Sam. Sam, don’t worry, you don’t have big shoes to fill. I’m just joking. All of the decisions made within the Democratic party are made within the Democratic conference. You want to have your representative in that room when the decisions are made.”
“Dan, I want to thank you for the insight that you have,” Berger said. “The commitment that you have, that you brought to Albany on behalf of our community, on behalf of our families’ needs. You’ve left me with very, very big shoes to fill, which will leave me a good path to follow. I look forward to carrying on the legacy you have for serving our district.”
Raised in a family that valued education, Berger, who attended Lawrence, Long Island-based Mesivta Ateres Yaakov for high school and St. John’s University, said he aims to improve the quality of both public and private education, while also advocating for after-school programs.
“I am a product of the yeshiva education system and I am proud of the education I received,” Berger said. “I will advocate to make sure our schools get their fair share and we are able to teach our children our values. I am not going to be ashamed of the fact that when I take my two girls to the bus stop, I want to know they are going to be safe.
“Unfortunately, New York City faces the largest amount of antisemitic attacks in the nation. As the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, I find that unacceptable. Hate, baseless hate, whether it is anti-Jewish, anti-Black, anti-Asian, hate has no place in our community. I will advocate with every fiber of my being against it.”
On education, Berger echoed the sentiments of many in the district, signaling he might be willing to take on the state education department’s Board of Regents.
“My mother is a high school teacher at Shevach. It’s a local girls’ high school just a few blocks away from here. My father is the president of Bnos Malka, which is a girls’ elementary school in Forest Hills. He’s been doing that for over 20 years. Education is crucial to my family and I believe it’s crucial to our community. Unfortunately, yeshivas have been undergoing baseless scrutiny when we are trying to teach our children our values.”
On crime and safety, Berger is looking to battle the left-wing Democratic Socialists in the state Assembly.
“Here in Kew Gardens Hills, we’re privileged to have the wonderful Shmira organization, but we shouldn’t have to supplement our safety,” Berger said. “I will advocate and fight with the NYPD to get sufficient funding to keep our community safe. In Albany, we need a strong voice. We need a strong leader to represent the issues our families face. This is our home, this is our community, these are our families, let’s fight for it.”
Four sitting assemblymen attending the campaign kick-off including John Zaccaro (D – Pelham Parkway, The Bronx); Andrew Hevesi (D – Forest Hills, Queens); Assemblyman David Weprin (D – Hollis, Queens); and Stacy Pheffer-Amato (D – Far Rockaway, Queens).
Heastie cautioned the supporters that this will be an expensive race to run and the Democrats are ready to pull out all the stops. Meeks also cautioned Berger supporters that this election cannot be taken for granted, even though the Democrats have an enrollment advantage.
“You need to get out there, knock on the doors and let people know that this is a special election. That’s really important. Everybody does not know that in September there is an election unless you get out and let them know,” Meeks warned. “He’s [Sam is] going to knock on doors and talk to everyone. He’ll even be doing mailers, but to the degree that you can talk to your neighbors, let them know there is a special election. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one person on the ballot and the name is Sam Berger.”
As the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Meeks told the 70-plus supporters that antisemitism needs to be rooted out of this Jewish area.
“We have had hate in our borough. That’s why it is important to make sure we stand up and we support our elected officials who will stand up against hate and antisemitism in our own borough,” Meeks said. “Working, knowing and talking with Sam, I come away and say to my friend the speaker, we’re not going to send you just anybody to Albany, we’re going to send you Queens’ very best to Albany. You can see, Mr. Speaker, he has strong power so he’s going to enter the Assembly as a strong, powerful assemblymember. We are dependent upon you to stand behind Sam.”
“This is going to be a tough race and we can’t take anything for granted,” Heastie said, “but for all that we’ve done in the Assembly, and I could go through the issues from support for nonpublic schools, supporting ambulance services, the Holocaust, all of the things that are important to this community. To the people in this room, we need somebody in that place making those decisions and standing up not only for the community here but those across the pond. I couldn’t think of any better person. I think we got just about every labor union [endorsement] including the NYPD or the PBA.”
Meanwhile, the Hirsch political team, headed up by New York City Councilwoman Vicki Paladino, does not have a fundraiser or a campaign kickoff planned.
Either way, it is clear that the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee and the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee will pour tens of thousands of dollars into this race leading up to September 12.