Redistricting and neighborhoods: How Albany broke up the Soviet bloc

From left to right, Fanya Vasilevsky, Raisa Rovinsky and Leonid Rovinksy have been pleading to unite the heart of Russian-speaking Brooklyn into one State Senate and one Assembly district. Photo: Michael Keller

Fanya Vasilevsky came to the United States from the Ukraine more than 30 years ago, after her son returned from kindergarten one day and said he didn’t want to go back to school unless he could become a Ukrainian instead of a Jew. Her friend Eugenia Leibovich survived four years in Ukraine’s Zhmerinka ghetto during World War II, and Jana Korotkin said her grandfather was buried alive by Nazis in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk.

The three women eventually settled among thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the enclave of Brighton Beach, where they sit in Vasilevsky’s home at a table laid with china tea cups, brown bread and jam. From their painful family histories to their staunchly conservative politics, they say they speak with a united voice – except when it comes time to elect their representatives.

The community in southern Brooklyn with origins in Russia and the former Soviet republics is divided between multiple districts in the New York State Senate and Assembly, its conservative voters diluted amid the liberal ocean of Brooklyn. Its frustration grows out of a loophole in the laws that looms large in the battle over redrawing New York’s legislative districts: While the federal Voting Rights Act ensures that racial minorities get grouped together in strong enough numbers to have critical mass as a voting bloc, communities defined by religion and national origin do not.

The proposed lines from the state legislative task force on redistricting show one result: politicians have sliced Brooklyn’s Russians into multiple districts that make it impossible for members of that community to determine the outcome in any of them.

“We do come from the same background,” Vasilevsky says. “We do have the same mentality. And we want to be able to vote together with one voice.”

Nearly 125,000 Russian-speaking Jews live in Brooklyn, according the United Jewish Appeal’s 2002 Jewish Community Survey of New York, most of them in southern Brooklyn. History and culture have armed them to react to perceived incursions on freedom and democracy with unusual fervor.

Vasilevsky and her friend Raisa Rovinsky say the Obama administration is expanding the federal government so broadly that they are experiencing “déjà vu,” and consider the division of their community to be a deliberate effort to dilute their voting power.

A retired federal employee, Vasilevsky testified twice before the state task force in charge of redistricting. She presented its leaders with a petition in English and Russian with more than 100 signatures urging the unification of Russian voters in Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Midwood – the most heavily Russian neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn – into a single district in the Senate and another in the Assembly.

“We survived the Soviet regime, Holocaust and WWII Leningrad Blockade,” reads the petition. “We are asking you to keep our community together and not to deprive us of meaningful political voice!!!”

But so far to little avail. Both the current districts and the redistricting commission’s proposed maps divide the Russian-heavy neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn between two Senate districts — one of which is based in Staten Island — and four separate Assembly districts. Much of the community has been assigned to Republican Martin Golden’s proposed Senate district, which stitches together several conservative neighborhoods but leaves Russians in the minority.

“What’s primarily bothering a lot of Russian-speaking Americans is that the Republican Party has decided that the priority in terms of creating a Senate district should be given to the Jewish orthodox community,” said Alec Brook-Krasny (D-Coney Island), in reference to the “Super Jewish” Senate district proposed for Borough Park and Midwood as a seat likely to go to a GOP candidate. “I think its an underestimation of a powerful community on the Republican leadership’s part.”

In 2006, Brook-Krasny became the first Soviet-born politician to be elected to New York’s State Assembly, winning a district that combines heavily Russian and African-American neighborhoods.

But conservatives in the community argue that the district’s diversity disenfranchises them because the its mixed population protects Brook-Krasny, a Democrat, from a Russian GOP challenger.

“He’s not representing the Russian community, because he votes Democratic down the line and the Russian community wants a smaller government,” said Joseph Hayon, the president of the Brooklyn Tea Party and a Republican candidate for state Assembly in 2010. “You should try the best that each community is represented by their own.”

The three-judge panel overseeing redistricting in New York has asked its special master, Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann, to keep so-called communities of interest united where possible. In doing so, Judge Mann can consider religion and national origin. But a principle is much different from a law – and the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that encourage grouping blocs of voters apply only to racial groups who have faced historical discrimination.

“The problem is you can’t say Jews have to be protected because we don’t have a history of Jews getting discriminated against for elected office for quite a while,” said David Pollock, Director of Government Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

As a result, political calculations by Republican and Democratic leaders determine which groups stay united, and community unification takes a back seat to the needs of incumbents.

Despite the divided districts that frustrate Vasilevsky’s efforts, she continues to work tirelessly on behalf of her favored candidates. The table in her foyer is covered with flyers for David Storobin, the Soviet-born Republican candidate vying against Democrat Lewis Fidler to fill the Senate seat vacated by the disgraced Carl Kruger. She and her friends denounce the taxes and regulations they say are stifling the community’s small businesses.

Said Vasilevsky, “When the Democrats come to power they reach into our pockets, and that’s what happened in the Soviet Union.”

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