‘Engaged but not organized,’ Russian voters are a complex bloc to capture

The Bukharan ensemble Shashmaqam performs at a get-out-the-vote event in Brighton Beach. Photo by Sharon Lurye.

On the last Saturday before the New York City primaries this month, a concert on the Brighton Beach boardwalk drew a crowd. Belarusians played klezmer music, Georgians leapt in the air with swords twirling and Bukharan Jews sang plaintive folk music from Central Asia. It was tailor-made to draw the attention of a neighborhood where 50 percent of the population speaks Russian at home.

Behind the black-clad Georgians and the Bukharans with their robes of gold, Susan Lerner was focused on keeping stacks of election information and voter registration forms from blowing away in the wind. As the executive director of good government group Common Cause, she paired up with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance to put on the show. In between sets, she’d go up to the mic to remind viewers to vote on Tuesday — especially in the crucial district attorney’s race.

Demographics factors suggest that Russian speakers should be a major voting bloc. Russian-speaking immigrants tend have high levels of college education, according to the City University of New York’s Election Atlas. The majority of them immigrated decades ago, giving them time to become citizens. In presidential elections, they overwhelmingly vote Republican, a unity that could give them more political sway.

Yet the reality is far more complex.

“In a sense, Russians are very much engaged in politics, but they’re not very well organized,” said Samuel Kliger, founder of the Research Institute for New Americans (RINA), which specializes in studying the Russian-speaking community.

Ideological diversity can make it difficult to act as a unified voting bloc. Although Russian speakers reliably vote Republican in the presidential race, they are otherwise “not homogeneous,” Kliger argues. After all, this group includes people everywhere from Tbilisi to Tajikistan.

Voting patterns show the complexity of Russian speakers’ ideological views. In 2004, according to the research institute’s exit polls, a whopping seventy seven percent of New York City’s Russian-speaking community voted for George Bush. Yet in 2009, according to the Election Atlas, around 50 percent of New York’s Russian or ex-Soviet residents registered as Democrats.

Kliger attributes this discrepancy to Russian Republicans who registered as Dems so they could vote in primary elections. For conservative Russians, a deep aversion to socialism born of Soviet memories collides against a pragmatic desire to have a real voice in city affairs.

“You want to be involved in the politics of the city,” said Marat Filler, a Ukraine-born Democrat who unsuccessfully ran against incumbent Chaim Deutsch in the City Council primary on September 12. “You want to have a say.”

Take that district attorney race that Lerner stressed was so important. No Republicans ran for the position, so the Democratic primary was the final vote. If you weren’t registered as a Dem, you didn’t have a voice.

Filler himself hoped to gain the votes of conservative Demcorats by styling himself as “centrist” with more socially conservative views. For example, he attacked Deutsch for allegedly voting for a bill that “made it legal that a man can go into the woman’s bathroom.” Deutsch’s voting record does not show that he ever voted on such a bill, although he did vote to make single-user stalls gender-neutral.

“It’s the most conservative district in the Eastern Seaboard — amongst the Democrats,” said Filler.

However, Filler’s centrist strategy didn’t work. Deutsch won with 81 percent of the vote in the primary. The community is more progressive than it’s been portrayed in the media, said Dmitri Daniel Glinski, president of the Russian-Speaking Community Council of Manhattan and the Bronx.

There is “the ideological stereotype, especially abused by some in the media, which states that our people are somehow all conservative, materialistic, prejudiced against others races, sexist, homophobic…” he said at a forum for Russian-American organizations on September 18. “Not true. As any other ethnic group, we have a wide variety of views.”

Volunteers for Marat Filler on Primary Day, September 12, 2017. Photo by Sharon Lurye

Differences across generations are particularly stark. Brighton Beach was the fifth-most pro-Trump neighborhood in all of New York City — eighty four percent voted for him in the Republican primary, according to the New York Times — and his vote share amongst Russian Americans as a whole was in the 60’s for the general election, said Kliger.

However, that’s still less support than for George Bush. The lower vote share, Kliger says, is because younger Russian-Americans were split roughly half-and-half for Clinton.

“They kind of see themselves as Americans rather than Russian immigrants,” he said.

Several older, retired Russian-Americans interviewed for this article, who declined to give their names, bemoaned that the younger generation is “brainwashed” in college to become Democrats. Younger immigrants don’t remember what life was like in the Soviet Union, and as such, don’t share their elders’ intense hatred of welfare programs and belief that unemployed people are “standing on the neck” of working taxpayers.

“A lot of these people, they know what socialism is,” said Filler, 32. “They stood in bread lines.”

There’s at least one case where Russian-Americans did unite to create a significant electoral bloc. It was September 2011, when there was a special election for Anthony Weiner’s empty Congressional seat in Brooklyn and Queens. In a low turnout election, Republican Bob Turner shocked the city by capturing a seat that had been Democratic for almost a century.

RINA exit polls of 340 Russian-American voters found that 97 percent of these voters in Queens and 81 percent in Brooklyn voted for the Republican — even though only 41 percent were actually registered as Republicans.

The deciding factors were the economy and Israel, wrote Kliger in a RINA research paper. He estimates that around half of Russian-Americans are Jewish, and of those, 61 percent have relatives in Israel. Voters wanted to “send a strong message to Obama to change his attitude toward Israel,” Kliger wrote.

In doing so, they also sent another message as well: when there’s a message that can unite Russian-speaking voters, they vote. And their voice matters.

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