New York’s 9th Congressional District will forever be remembered not only for the departure of disgraced veteran Congressman Anthony Weiner but also for who replaced him. Bob Turner’s victory marked the first Republican win in that district since 1923, and his September 2011 election stunned the Democratic Party.
The historic political upset saw Weiner supplanted with a political novice, a modest 70-year-old media executive and grandfather of thirteen. A mild-mannered and unassuming man, Turner’s demeanor stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, and his background as a businessman who entered the political arena late in life is unusual for a politician.
Turner, who recently returned from a weeklong visit to Israel as part of a congressional delegation, spoke with The Jewish Press about his victory last September and his views on Israel and the ailing U.S. economy.
The Jewish Press: Many ascribe your win to general anti-Obama sentiment, a Jewish backlash against Obama’s policies regarding Israel, and the Orthodox Jewish reaction to your opponent’s endorsement of gay marriage. To what do you attribute your victory?
Turner: I’d say it was a perfect storm. I recognize how strongly Democratic this district is, but there’s an enormous discontent and backlash now on the economy, Israel, the job picture. And I think people were ready for a different message. It also reflected a disappointment with the current system and the elected officials. The fact that I never held office and didn’t look like a long termer had an appeal, and people thought I was running for the right reasons.
They saw that here’s a guy with practical sense, he’s not in politics, he doesn’t have a particular ax to grind, he’s not going to rip off the system and try to keep himself elected forever. So let’s give him a shot. He seems on the right side of the issues in terms of the economy, taxes, deficit, all of those things that are on people’s minds now that are serious issues.
You recently said of the balanced-budget amendment that “You cannot trust those guys in Washington to do what’s right, and they haven’t.” The payroll tax debacle further confirmed the public’s dim view of elected officials. Now that you’re in Congress, would you agree with the public’s disillusionment with our government?
The dysfunction right now is between the House and the Senate, where even philosophically there’s an enormous difference. [Speaker of the House John] Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid epitomize that. In my limited time, I’ve seen the House leadership work pretty hard to put sane programs together while trying to herd the more right-wing parts of the party, the deficit hawks and so on. When we put a balanced budget together, we thought we had seventy-two Democrats who were going to come aboard. I watched the leadership get everyone into their tent, coaxing and cajoling, and educating. And they got the bill up, and the Democrats bailed. Why? For political reasons. That’s very divisive, it’s stupid politically. That was a sad day.
We had a similar thing with the payroll tax cuts. The House puts a reasonable plan together and the Senate rejects it. In the end we Republicans just folded. Now very soon we’re going to have to deal again with the same thing, and we moved the leverage from our side of the table to theirs.
Steve Goldberg, a political consultant, summed up your win by commenting, “The notion that dislike for Obama sliced through such a heavily Democratic district is unthinkable, except that it happened. The lesson for the Republican Party is to have a clear, understandable, disciplined message delivered by a coherent, believable candidate that will give the American people a sense that he or she can actually lead this county and defeat President Obama.” Which of the Republican presidential candidates do you think best fits that description?
In some way, all of them can fit it. They all have something going for them. I’ve been resolved to let the process work and let the strongest candidate emerge. I can praise Romney’s leadership and business experience. I can praise Newt’s intellect and his innovation in past government. I can praise Santorum’s social stances and morality. Everyone, except Ron Paul. The process will work its way out and the faults that people have will come to the fore, as will some of their strengths. I see it working already.
Many Orthodox Jewish voters voted against your opponent as a repudiation of his support for gay marriage. How strong of a factor do you think social conservative values will be in the upcoming election?
I think social values will be a factor, but it will not be as important as I would like. That’s the reality of it. Even among religious groups that’s not always the very first issue. It’s the economy.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind and former mayor Ed Koch played essential roles in your election, highlighting Obama’s Israel policies to Jewish voters. Can you point to any significant change in the Obama administration’s approach to Israel as a result of your victory?
It’s very tough to know his motivation. We know that right after this victory he gave his most pro-Israel speech at the UN. Ed Koch seemed to think that this victory had a lot to do with it. I would agree. Now it has to stick in terms of policy. Diplomatically Israel and the United States could be a lot closer. Our intelligence communities work extremely well together, our defense cooperation is first rate, and Israelis will tell you the same thing. Diplomatically, and this has enormous consequences, when Obama snubs Netanyahu, that weakens Israel’s hand. It has real consequences. There’s where we need to improve the president’s position.
There is a strong belief among many of Israel’s most committed American supporters that the Republicans are to be trusted more than the Democrats where Israel is concerned.
I agree. The Democrats are getting more consolidated with a stronger far-left bias. And I don’t think that’s a group to be trusted with Israel’s security. The party that I knew is hardly there anymore. It’s dominated by some of the strongest labor unions and various groups that advance a leftist, one world, socialist agenda. That’s becoming the heart of the party, and I hope they can fix it. If they can’t, it would be a detriment not only to the Democratic Party but to the whole country. I think the left is becoming more vocal and shrill, screaming that they’re being polarized by the rest of us. I hope people begin to see through that. The Democratic Party is saddled with these guys, and Obama does some of the things he does to satisfy that wing of the party. He’s a very political person.
Newt Gingrich publicly called the Palestinians “an invented people.” Do you agree with that statement and to what end do you think the Israelis should pursue this line of argument in dealing with the Palestinians?
Newt knows the history of this term “Palestinian,” the ethnicity of this people. Historically he’s correct. Politically, diplomatically, it’s too late. I don’t think there is much to be gained by pursuing that, but it’s important to recognize it, maybe as part of exposing the attempts by the left and the Muslim world to delegitimize Israel. They talk of Israel as if it were an invented state, ignoring their real history and their ethnic roots to the land under their feet.
You just returned from a trip to Israel. You’ve been there before, but how did seeing the facts on the ground as an elected official change or solidify your view of Israel and its security needs?
This time I met people at all levels and all locations. I met the prime minister, the defense minister. I went all over the place, even to Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. I was in Israel eleven years ago, right at the beginning of the Intifada. Security at that point was at a heightened level. Today one can go just about anywhere – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee, Masada. You don’t see security; it’s invisible. You could be in Miami.
And there’s a sense of optimism that I think is part of a natural Israeli mindset. They are confronted with a series of problems and they figure out how to deal with them. I was at Sderot, where the rockets are being fired. They responded with shelters and drones but more importantly the Iron Dome missile anti-rocket system, which they have perfected in an incredibly short time. They work out of necessity, but they have the confidence that they can handle what’s thrown at them. And they’re good.
After speaking with your Israeli counterparts in the Knesset, what impression do you have of the current American-Israeli relationship?
I saw that military cooperation is at a very high level, also in the area of intelligence sharing. Economically the investments in technology and start-ups are ideal. There is and has been a weakness in diplomacy. I think some of the early missteps of the Obama administration have been a real problem. But Israel sees a need for American support, and America sees a need for Israel as a strategic partner. We have common enemies, and our common cultural values are very important.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently called Israeli settlements in the West Bank “deliberate vandalism.” Did you visit those settlements, and how would you describe them?
I think that statement is absurd. They’re suburban housing – lovely, sophisticated, planned communities. I visited these communities, some around Jerusalem, and they are just a natural outgrowth and extension of a thriving city. It’s important to note too that the so-called housing freeze was supposed to be imposed on everyone, and I have yet to hear any criticism of the Palestinian developments, which are far more extensive than anything the Israelis have done.
With Syria on the verge of collapse and Egypt swept away by Islamists, Israel now finds itself in a new neighborhood. Did you speak with Israeli officials about this new Middle East reality?
I spoke to ministers, and their opinions indicate that the situation is worsening. And if [the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty] does collapse, there will be a greater effort on Israel’s part to police the Sinai, which has already had a number of lawless incidents. In Syria, the Assad regime is spending most of its energy trying to suppress its own people. The struggle in Syria may be more ethnic and tribal than ideological or political, but the collapse of this regime will be a defeat for Iran. Then we’ll have to see what replaces it.
You advocate keeping a military option open regarding Iran. With the current tension in the Strait of Hormuz, do you think Obama’s recent signing of tougher sanctions against Iran was too little too late?
They could actually have been a little tougher on the Iranian bank, but I think we’ve done everything publicly in the right way. What’s happening non-publicly we don’t know. I can only hope that we are doing whatever we can, financially and through intelligence. I hope we are concentrating a great deal of our efforts in the cyber war, getting information to the Iranian people, offering them alternatives, attacking the regime theologically and philosophically.
Do you believe this administration would have the nerve or willingness to pursue a military option against Iran?
I don’t know if this administration has the chops to do what may have to be done.
What impression do you have of the mindset of the Israeli public as the threats to Israel’s security seem to be growing worse by the day?
There’s no diminishing the reality of the threats. But despite that, I’m looking at a vibrant, confident and optimistic society. I saw it on all levels. They fully comprehend the size of the problems and the challenges ahead, and they’re going through with their lives and doing what has to be done to solve these problems. And they will. And I will work toward gaining and improving American support toward that end.
Are you satisfied with your performance in Congress thus far?
I can’t be that thrilled; we have an enormous task ahead of us. The looming deficit threatens our entire economy, all our social programs, etc. And we’re not addressing it because of the split in Congress. We passed two dozen bills to help restore this country to prosperity and they’re sitting in the Senate. The defeated balanced budget amendment was just awful. So there has been some frustration, but I still have my eye on what has to be done, and I think there’s a way to do it.
My sense is that nothing significant will happen until Republicans take over the Senate. [We] would at least control the agenda and we could get some of these things done. If we don’t, God help us.