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The gorgeous mosaic lives, at least in the form of Dov Hikind, the Borough Park assemblyman whose brush with law enforcement last year seems to have changed him as profoundly as the trip to Mecca changed Malcolm X. Hikind, long known as a combative disciple of Jewish Defense League capo Meir Kahane, is now billing himself as a new man, more attuned to the problems facing New Yorkers, more appreciative of New York's diversity, more sensitive to discrimination and intolerance.
Until you read the fine print, that is. Looking to run for higher office, Hikind may sound like Jesse Jackson ("We should really all get along and respect each other"), but his positions remain predictably conservative. He's still endorsing Republicans, he's still pro-life, he's still antigay. Nevertheless, Dov has a story to tell, the story of juror number eight.
She was one of 12 jurors who sat in a courtroom for months hearing charges by the federal government that Hikind had illegally used public funds for personal and political purposes, including travel expenses, fundraising, even his children's tuition costs. Had he been found guilty, he would have faced up to 10 years in prison. The jury took less than two hours to reach a not-guilty verdict.
Afterward, the aforementioned juror eight, a 35-year-old woman from Harlem, met Hikind for dinner at a kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side. Then he invited her to his Borough Park home for dinner on Shabbat. The episode may not seem extraordinary to some, but to Hikind it was a revelation. "My kids were fascinated" with having an African American in their home, he says. "We spent six hours talking about the case. It was unreal. What an incredible story!"
Being aquitted by a mostly minority jury has broadened his outlook, he says. But Hikind has hardly neglected his base in Borough Park, the conservative Orthodox Jewish community he has represented in Albany since the early 1980s. For years, Hikind's m.o. was straightforward: endorse a candidate (regardless of party affiliation) and get some petty patronage and local pork in exchange. His recent machinations have been slightly more sophisticated. A few months ago, he opened a new political club, the United New York Democratic Club, in Borough Park. According to Hikind, the club has more than 600 paid members, whose average age hovers around the mid 30s, in contrast with the geriatric hue of most political clubs these days.
Elected the area's district leader last year, he briefly put up a candidate in a civil court race against the Democratic party organization's candidate, peeved that county leader Clarence Norman hadn't consulted him over his choice. (The candidate dropped out after Hikind realized he had no chance of winning.) He's also made peace with his longtime neighborhood rival, City Council member Noach Dear. Although the two are hardly friends, they are no longer committed antagonists either. ("He does his thing, I do mine," Hikind curtly comments on the subject.)
But Borough Park no longer fulfills Hikind's political ambitions; he wants the entire city of New York. For the past year, he has talked about running for Brooklyn borough president in 2001, but Hikind told the Voicethat his real interest is in a citywide position. "If I had a choice, I'd rather be public advocate," he says. "It excites me a lot more than borough president." But there's a problem: he would need to get 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. In borough president races, there is no runoff; the candidate with a plurality wins. In what promises to be a crowded field for Brooklyn beep, Hikind would have a distinct advantage over the likes of Senator Marty Markowitz, Darryl Towns (Congressman Ed's son), and Jeanette Gadson (deputy borough president and Clarence Norman's candidate), the early contenders to succeed Howie Golden.
Meanwhile, Hikind is also the latest addition to the right-wing airwaves. He's got his own radio show now, holding forth Saturday evenings on WMCA-AM (last week's topic was "Hillary Rodham Clinton: Please don't run"). What's more, he now presents himself as Dov the Populist: "I'm going out there to meet people. I've been reaching out to people in the black community, the Latino community, and I'm very happy about the reception I am getting."
But rhetoric aside, Hikind's actions look mighty familiar. In last year's elections, for example, he stayed true to form, backing Republican George Pataki and even Al D'Amato, despite the presence of Brooklyn boy Chuck Schumer in the Senate race.
Hikind began the year expressing tolerance toward the gay community, distancing himself from the rabidly homophobic rabbi Yehuda Levin, head of Jews for Morality, who was running for the City Council in February. "I cannot support anyone who is homophobic," Hikind told a Brooklyn paper in January. "I can't and I won't." Gay activists applauded Hikind's stance and were further pleased when he cast a vote for the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination bill that passed in the assembly in March. But Hikind said the vote was an electronic mistake and filed a memo with the assembly stating that he would have voted no had he been present. "I have no intention of supporting that bill, unless someone changes the laws of the Torah," he declared. Lamented Lambda Line, a newsletter for the gay and lesbian Democratic club in Brooklyn, "We were optimistic that Hikind had, indeed, matured in his thinking on this issue, but were sadly mistaken."
Undaunted, the assemblyman is plowing ahead. His political action committee, Friends of Dov Hikind, has already raised more than $250,000 just for the upcoming election. But will that thwart his powerful enemies? During his trial, Hikind never hid his suspicion that Mayor Giuliani was behind his troubles, believing that the mayor engineered the investigation after the two parted ways over the 1994 gubernatorial race. The animosity toward Mayor Giuliani is still there. They do not speak, according to Hikind ("but that may be changing soon," he adds), and he frowns on the prospect of Giuliani in the Senate, noting how even his own conservative constituents are tired of the mayor's dictatorial style. "He's done a decent job as mayor, but I'm absolutely not excited about him running for the Senate," Hikind says. "I don't think people like this mayor at all. People look forward to a period when he's not around, when there's less confrontation."
And yet, Hikind has printed 10,000 buttons urging the First Lady not to run. It's not HRC's support for a Palestinian state that bothers him not only does Israel's new prime minister support a two-state solution, he admits, but even the Israeli lobby has conceded the issue it's what Hikind calls her "love affair" with PLO chairman Yasir Arafat that irks him so. "Arafat must be dealt with, but let's not forget who he is," the onetime JDL activist says. Continuing with the sexual metaphors, he adds, "I mean, you don't have to go to bed with him, which is what Hillary has done."