By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Only seven years ago, Brooklyn City Councilman Noach Dear appeared to be headed for political oblivion, if not jail, when he was found receiving nearly $250,000 a year from a charity he headed called the Save Soviet Jewry Foundation. After an investigation by the state attorney general, Noach returned more than $37,000 to the now defunct nonprofit.
Today Noach Dear is running in a tight race for Congress, vying for Chuck Schumer's open seat with three other Democrats. Like Al D'Amato and George Pataki, the conservative Dear has been presenting a kinder, gentler version of himself, backing away from his right-wing voting record and lifetime of hostile rhetoric towards gays, blacks, and women. Indeed, the man who voted against several major AIDS and gay civil-rights bills before the City Council last year said that he "believes in equal rights for gays because discrimination is not a religious right."
No doubt Dear's makeover is based on necessity rather than conviction, a recognition that he's no longer running in the conservative confines of Borough Park, the Orthodox Jewish community he has represented in the council since 1983. In fact, Borough Park is not even in this district. The recently reconfigured 9th Congressional District is roughly 60 percent Brooklyn, and the rest Queens, and is comprised mostly of secular Jewish, middle-class communities. (Apparently, Dear didn't know this. He had 3000 signatures rendered invalid because they came from outside the district.) Ironically, the new design may work in Dear's favor, since voters in this district may be vulnerable to his attempts to refurbish his image.
One area where the tactic won't work is Park Slope, which has a sizable gay population. Look for progressives to come out with guns blazing against Dear from now until the September 15 primary. "The notion that somebody as reactionary as Noach Dear may be the next member of Congress for this district is very scary," asserts Alan Fleishman, a neighborhood activist with a long involvement in gay and lesbian issues. "Things have been quiet over the summer, but we're going to ratchet it up a few notches now."
On Monday, several gay rights and prochoice organizations held a press conference in Prospect Park, pointing out Dear's conservative record in the City Council. To wit: voting against the landmark 1986 gay rights bill, AIDS prevention advertisements, and the 1998 domestic partnership bill; opposing Mayor Giuliani's efforts to raise money for the Gay Men's Health Crisis because it would legitimize "a lifestyle that the heterosexual person is opposed to"; and consistently voting prolife, including voting against a 1994 bill making it illegal to block access to an abortion clinic. (Dear denied the Voice's request for an interview.)
The other Democrats in the race are all formidable and have a shot at winning. Dan Feldman, a longtime member of the state assembly, has the support of Brooklyn's Democratic county organization and many political clubs. Melinda Katz, an assemblywoman from Queens, is being heavily promoted by City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and the Queens county organization. She will benefit by being the only woman and Queens candidate in the race. City Councilman Anthony Weiner, whose face recently adorned The New York Observer as a "young political hotshot," is close to Chuck Schumer. He was endorsed by the late Tony Genovesi and his Canarsie club, and thus suffers from his death.
What Dear has going for him is moneylots of it. In 1996, he flexed his fundraising muscles by securing more than $2 million for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. (Gore even paid a visit to Dear's Borough Park home three years ago to raise money.) Dear has gone on to use his extensive contacts to build a considerable war chest of his own, raising $1.3 million by the end of June, more than his three Democratic opponents combined. He will hit the television airwaves with commercials over the next two weeks, and plans to send a self-promotional videotape to 20,000 residents in the district. The primary candidates will hold a debate September 3, at P.S. 206 in Sheepshead Bay.