Kingmaker of Little Russia (The New York Times)
By MICHAEL POWELL
Published: March 10, 2012
The New York Times
COUNCILMAN LEWIS A. FIDLER peers at the audience in a low-ceilinged room on Coney Island Avenue with the expectant smile of the newly betrothed.
He is running for a State Senate seat and has come to the Davidzon Radio studios on a chill winter afternoon to get the endorsement of political luminaries from the densely Russian Jewish communities of south Brooklyn. A Russian-born assemblyman and Russian-born district leaders sit alongside him. Gregory Davidzon, thick-bodied, white-haired and the owner of this station, presides as the master of ceremonies.
As this is billed as a live radio interview, Mr. Fidler puts the microphone to his mouth. He’ll hold that pose for many minutes before he utters a word. For Mr. Davidzon has begun rattling away into his own microphone in raspy, meaty Russian.
Mr. Davidzon, in essence and at much greater length, says this to the audience and his thousands of Russian-language listeners:
Friends, last year, in 2011, we flexed our muscle and elected a Republican, Bob Turner, to Congress. Now the state Republican Party has disrespected our community by drawing new electoral lines that divide and hurt our community. So we must teach them a lesson they will not forget and vote for Democratic Lew Fidler. He’s the right man for our community. Remember: not one Russian vote for his Republican opponent!
The 90 or so older Russians, some wearing military ribbons from the Great Patriotic War, burst into applause. Mr. Fidler, who does not speak Russian, glances at the interpreter for help. Getting none, he turns and smiles beatifically, figuring that applause is good.
He would be correct. Mr. Davidzon, 53, serves as a kingmaker in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, the neighborhoods known collectively as Little Russia. A recent census study estimated that 200,000 New Yorkers over age 5 speak Russian. Perhaps 30,000 Russians vote in south Brooklyn, and their electoral clout is indisputable. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Comptroller John C. Liu, Borough President Marty Markowitz, various state senators and City Council representatives trek to Mr. Davidzon’s radio station. Many appear, too, at his exuberant parties at Baku Palace, a vast wedding and bar mitzvah ziggurat of a restaurant on Sheepshead Bay. He and his radio station and newspapers reflect the political coming of age of the Russian community.
Perhaps no race demonstrated that more than last summer’s special election for Anthony D. Weiner’s former Congressional seat.
It is a historically Democratic district, and the Republican, Bob Turner, began the race as a decided long shot; by the September election, with the help of thousands of Russian voters and a smaller contingent of Orthodox Jews, he had trampled his Democratic opponent, David I. Weprin.
Representative Turner does not hesitate to credit Mr. Davidzon. The reach of Davidzon Radio, he notes, was almost comically broad. Mr. Turner’s staff fielded Election Day calls from angry Russian voters in the Bronx who had shown up at polling places demanding the right to “vote for Bob.”
Mr. Turner’s district extends nowhere near the Bronx.
“He would put me in front of the movie theater in Brighton, pick up a megaphone and start calling people to come over and meet me,” Mr. Turner recalled, laughing. “I don’t know what he said, but I can’t overstate his influence.”
Mr. Davidzon, who harbors political ambitions of his own, relies on electoral tools both modern and old-fashioned. He studies electoral districts, sends mailings, unleashes robo-calls and talks up the candidate on his radio show. Unlike more conventional English-language media outlets, he bills most candidates for his post-endorsement services (albeit more modestly than most campaign consultants in New York). He also listens and worries and listens some more. The raccoon circles that ring his brown eyes speak to many 3 a.m. epiphanies.
“We have 5,000 calls per day at this radio station, and I listen to every one,” he said. “One wrong step and they call: ‘Why you doing this!’ And I say: ‘Guys, you’re right! I was wrong.’ ”
He shrugged and said, “We track community, and the community tracks us.”
New York City politics, however, are an unsentimental game.
The lines of electoral districts at the state and federal levels are being redrawn to reflect population changes. This winter, State Senate Republicans released a proposed redistricting map that would dilute Russian voting power by dividing it among three districts. The Senate Republicans, it turns out, chose to cast their lot with the Orthodox Jews and Hasidim who live farther north. There, the Republicans proposed a so-called super-Jewish district.
Led by Mr. Davidzon, the Russians of Brooklyn hope to exact revenge by backing Mr. Fidler. That decision comes encoded with risk. Mr. Fidler’s opponent, David Storobin, is a lawyer and political neophyte; he also is a Russian-born Jew running an energetic campaign.
Mr. Davidzon professes no worry about this election. He points to a sign at his radio station, “Not One Russian Vote.”
A former Democratic assemblyman who represented Westchester County, Richard L. Brodsky, knows the Russian community; his grandparents hailed from Kiev and Odessa and had built a grand synagogue in Russia. In 2010, Mr. Brodsky ran for attorney general in the Democratic primary. He lost badly, winning four Assembly districts: his own and three majority Russian districts in south Brooklyn, where he had carried the Davidzon endorsement.
“They are existentially angry,” he said of the Brighton Russians. “They found that the Republicans and Democrats don’t have friends; they have interests.
“This was a coming-of-age tale that turned out badly.”
THE news media sometimes describes Mr. Davidzon as “a Russian media mogul,” although in person he’s not so mogulish. No Volga Viking, he is a bit portly, sporting a sheepish grin and a shaggy haircut. He speaks in a perpetually hoarse whisper. Only his probing brown eyes, alternating between sad and steely, hint at more.
Davidzon Radio sits on the second floor of a faceless building. Artificial Christmas trees and Balinoff Vodka calendars decorate the offices. Mr. Davidzon says the station breaks even, maybe. He pours money from his profitable Russian-language newspapers into the station; this may have left him more influential than wealthy.
How is your business? He hikes his eyebrows.
“Could be worse,” he said. “Radio station is not a business; it’s tool.”
Fifteen years ago, few claimed riches here. Brighton Beach Avenue, with its Cyrillic-lettered signs, dowdy clothing stores and grocery stores selling mountains of sausages, pickled vegetables, smoked fish and prepared borscht and pirogi, all in the cool shadows of the elevated subway tracks, had the feel of a shtetl.
That world is fast disappearing. Now, the light pink Oceana condominium complex, with its pool, sculptured gardens, balconies and $1.7 million penthouses, dominates the east end of Brighton. Walk 10 blocks farther, to Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, and you’ll find Russian buyers tearing down old homes and putting up sprawling affairs designed in the Roman Imperial style, with massive bronze crests, spiked gates and enough marble to empty the quarries of Carrara.
This Russian émigré community, thick with doctors, lawyers and scientists, has come into its own. Mr. Davidzon lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a pleasant apartment building east of Coney Island Avenue. He has a stuffed plush tiger, some ornamental dolls in a case and a handsome living room.
He was born in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, and moved with his mother and geologist father from place to place in the dying days of the Soviet empire. He was a science student and an inventor, matriculating at good schools and applying for patents. “Jew” was a word that Soviet bureaucrats all but hung around his neck.
“I would submit scientific articles in English, and it would come back in mail delivered by KGB,” Mr. Davidzon recalled. “It was very difficult economically. For me, Soviet Union was a jail.”
He immigrated here and took a computer tech job at Baruch College. Was he anxious about starting over? He shrugged, smiled. He’s one immigrant among many; why do you ask. “I was a father of two, with a wife, new to this country,” he said. “Of course I was anxious.”
He made friends, black, white and Asian, and took no vacations. (Time off makes him edgy, he said.) Inventor, entrepreneur, scientist, he’s a man perpetually playing four angles and eight projects.
“He’s a character on levels I’m probably not even aware of,” said a politician who has known him for years. “He’d be a character in Moscow, much less in New York.”
He came to his radio empire almost off hand. His daughter, an opera singer, was in a competition, and he showed up. “I realized I liked the business,” he said. “I asked the owner, ‘What do you want ...’ ”
Yelena Makhnin, wiry and sharp-eyed, with a wry smile, is executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. “I remember that day he was looking around,” she said. “I know Gregory. He is a very fast learner.”
He plunged the radio station into politics. He had a daily show, conducted voter-registration drives on the boardwalk and ran campaigns — 18 in all. “For those who cannot speak English well, it’s not just about politics,” he said. “It makes us full American citizens.”
He’s not a Putin-level potentate. The Hasidic Satmar of Williamsburg and the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights vote based on the divinations of a grand rebbe. Not the Russians.
“You can’t just tell them: Vote this way,” Mr. Davidzon said. “No, no, no. If they don’t believe you, they kill you. But if you convince and they believe, they vote in bloc.”
EARLY January, cold and dark and damp, and the doors of the Baku Palace swung open to Brighton and Sheepshead Bay royalty. Men in tuxedos and women in shimmering, form-fitted dresses swept into a purple-lighted ballroom, where Gregory Davidzon celebrated the seventh anniversary of his station.
Platters of the fillets known as langet, chicken à la Baku and blintzes with black caviar were piled high on the tables. A disco ball twirled, and onstage, between silver Christmas trees, a singer with a mohawk spike of blond hair, dressed in tight white leather pants and wearing a black glove, twirled and moonwalked, singing a Kiev-meets-Michael Jackson version of “Thriller.”
Mr. Davidzon spun like a pinball from couple to couple, pressing hands, leaning in to tell a joke or listen to one, and thanking, thanking, thanking. Assembly and Council representatives showed up, as did Mr. Markowitz and Mr. Liu.
For months, federal prosecutors have been circling the comptroller, making arrests and examining with forensic care his fund-raising operation. Again Mr. Davidzon shrugs.
In this young Chinese-American politician he sees a mirror image of his own consuming hunger and drive. He endorsed Mr. Liu over three Jewish candidates in the 2009 Democratic primary for comptroller. In the runoff, Mr. Davidzon doubled down on his endorsement. The 46th Assembly District covers the thumping heart of Brighton Beach. Mr. Liu, of Queens, edged out David Yassky of Brooklyn, who is Jewish, in that district, and won decisively citywide.
Mr. Davidzon grinned and said, “Some election districts in Brighton, it was zero for Yassky.” He made a circle with thumb and forefinger and repeated: “Zero.”
Mr. Davidzon refuses to toss over Mr. Liu. “If Chinese people did something wrong, it’s because their community just started in politics,” he said. “It’s like a game they don’t understand fully.”
Mr. Davidzon owes his success to a precise understanding of his political landscape. He lives in an age of political dinosaurs, not the least the Brooklyn and Queens Democratic Party machines. County leaders have become distant figures. They are behind-the-curtain players, handpicking candidates, drawing district lines, appointing judges and ensuring that court assignments go to connected lawyers.
Their weakness is on display only on Election Day, when they can rally few of their troops. When Mr. Weiner was forced to resign, the Queens Democratic bosses selected a longtime and obedient soldier to take his place: Assemblyman Weprin.
County, state and national Democratic leaders sluiced hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mr. Weprin’s campaign coffers. Much of that money, more thany $170,000, went to consulting firms closely aligned with the Queens Democratic machine. Evan Stavisky, partner in a political consulting firm called the Parkside Group, ran the campaign. A few weeks before the election, Mr. Stavisky boasted of the “the most robust field program that’s ever been conducted in Queens County.”
Mr. Turner, the Republican, raised far fewer dollars. But he ran everywhere, sewed up Orthodox communities and gave about $40,000 to Mr. Davidzon, who treats his endorsements like blood guarantees. “I believe I could have made more from Weprin,” Mr. Davidzon said. “But Bob had energy; he was for less taxes, less bureaucracy.”
Mr. Turner swept the Russian sections of south Brooklyn by at least 2-1.
The victory seemed to herald a new age of Russian political power. But instead it may seal the community’s redistricting fate. The Russian political players of south Brooklyn take pride in their unpredictability, as they toggle between parties from election to election.
The career politicians who draw political lines view electoral unpredictability as kryptonite. Why create a Russian district in the State Senate when Russian voters could as easily swing Democratic as Republican?
Gary Tilzer, a journalist and political consultant, has worked with Russian-American candidates for more than a decade. He watches as the community’s leaders struggle for minor concessions like Russian-language ballots.
“This is a tragedy,” he said. “They work very hard and produce lots of votes, but the parties treat them like serfs.”
The Russians now move in several directions at once. Mr. Davidzon and Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, a Democrat and a Russian-speaking immigrant who owes his own election to Mr. Davidzon, are putting shoulders to the wheel for Mr. Fidler in the coming Senate election. Others — doctors, lawyers, professors — talk of creating Russian Jewish political action committees and deploying money carefully.
“As our people move away from the central ghettos, our bloc voting power diminishes, but our economic power grows,” said Daniel Igor Branovan, a physician and an influential force in this new segment of the community.
Once Mr. Davidzon himself dreamed of running for the State Senate in a majority-Russian district. His prospects are no longer so clear. He speaks English with a heavy accent. His business world remains bound up in the Russian community.
For all his political acuity, he has yet to register to vote. So what does his future hold?
He offered that shrug.
“I think about running, yes,” he said. “But where? For what? In my life, I change my environment many times. I was in Russian, scientific, media environment. Maybe time to try political environment.”
But has his time slipped by, as he works so hard? He often calls his friends and allies in the morning’s early hours and talks and talks. Mr. Brook-Krasny’s furnace burns hard, but when that phone rings, sometimes his friend exhausts even him.
“I say, ‘Gregory, it’s 3 a.m.; go to sleep,’ ” Mr. Brook-Krasny said. “He tells me: ‘But it’s my life. I can’t stop.’ ”
Âåðíóòüñÿ ê ñïèñêó Ñîòðóäíèêîâ