It was not a happy phone call. Earlier this week, Larry Magarik dialed the office of one of his representatives in Albany, State Sen. Simcha Felder, with a complaint: Felder had made no public statement about President Donald Trump’s widely panned comment equating neo-Nazis with those opposed to them in Charlottesville last week.
Felder is an Orthodox Jew and represents neighborhoods including Borough Park, a part of Brooklyn that has a substantial Jewish community. His district went for Trump in a city the president lost by 60 points. Felder won his seat as a Democrat in 2012, but he caucuses with Republicans and ran on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative tickets in 2016, unopposed.
Magarik, a lawyer, says he “skirmished” with the staffer who answered the phone at Felder’s office. Ultimately the answer was that Felder had no public comment. So Magarik emailed Felder reiterating his concerns and that may have been that.
But then something happened: Magarik got a call from Felder himself, which is how a strange profile-in-courage story developed.
Public Felder meet private Felder
It turns out Magarik wasn’t the only constituent to call Felder’s office on this issue, prompted by the group NY Senate District 17 for Progress, an advocacy group formed this year that has pressured Felder to stop aiding Republicans. Magarik saw an email from the group and made the call.
Felder personally returned two calls, according to Avi Fertig, the senator’s communications director. This is something he does from time to time on particular issues.
Magarik has badgered Felder before — he urged Felder to support the DREAM Act, for example — but had never received a response. This time he got one, and Felder said he “privately” condemns Trump’s equivocation about the neo-Nazis, but “not publicly.”
Magarik was not exactly happy with this explanation. He told Felder about his family’s history in relation to the Holocaust and immigration. Felder noted that he had a similar family narrative, Magarik said.
So why wouldn’t Felder say publicly what he appeared to believe privately? Felder told Magarik his primary concern is “constituent services,” not making press statements. But he also told Magarik he would condemn Trump on this issue if a reporter asked.
So I called Felder’s office (Magarik’s son is a friend and alerted me to the promise). Would Felder condemn Trump’s habit of rhetorically covering for homegrown neo-Nazis?
Fertig, Felder’s communications director, came on the line. He explained that Felder was holding his fire in case some event along the lines of Charlottesville were to happen “in his area,” when a strong statement would be more “impactful.”
So Felder made no statement.
Why does Felder matter?
It’s not as if a press statement is what’s missing in keeping neo-Nazis at bay. But the phone tag provides a window into the extremely bizarre world of Simcha Felder.
It’s not that he doesn’t know from the Holocaust. In 2014, Felder shepherded through a legislative resolution honoring Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, who is credited with saving numerous European Jews from Auschwitz, including some two-thirds of Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn.
Other Republicans, even in GOP strongholds, generally came down clearly against Trump on the Charlottesville saga, in the end. But mostly Felder does what he wants to do, and always has — most notably when he crossed party lines to almost single-handedly enable a Republican majority in the State Senate, resulting in the death of Democratic priorities like stronger health care or immigration protections.
That doesn’t seem to have bothered Felder’s voters, because he is indeed focused on “constituent services,” issues like speed limits on Ocean Parkway or vouchers for private schools, important to some of his conservative religious voters. His website includes one press release this year. He rarely comments on bills in motion, or issues outside his district.
That has worked for him in the past, and launched him to multiple terms. In the Trump era, will it change? Will national politics be impossible to ignore even locally? Will a more engaged electorate force him to change his longstanding political calculus?
So far, Felder continues to be Felder.