Salvation in Spring Valley
September 4, 2013
“It is a story of corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power,” Daniel Friedman said as his voice aspired to a preacher’s cadence and elicited some amens from the mostly black crowd at a candidate’s forum in Spring Valley’s youth center. Lamenting the sins of the incumbent (and indicted) mayor he is running against, he vowed to revitalize the downtown of this multi-ethnic community. “Papa John’s is not economic development,” he roared.
Friedman, in the fourth year of a tenure on the Town of Ramapo Council he began at age 23, decided to try to exchange his current legislative role for an executive one a year ago. Before the mayor he planned to challenge was arrested in an FBI-led corruption sting. Before the building where he governs, Ramapo Town Hall, was raided by the feds. Before the village’s already swirling cauldron of ethnic strife, real estate interests and financial stress bubbled over onto the front pages of New York City newspapers with tales of wiretaps, clandestine meetings and undercover agents.
His polished and well-honed attacks on village officials for taking large pay raises while taxes climbed reflects a smart, disciplined campaign and he has relentlessly pursued impressed voters with the zeal unique to younger candidates. Friedman makes the only credible claim to outsider status on the village government’s problems. But his polish can also seem out of place amid the village’s traditional street theater politics. Friedman recently moved to Spring Valley from his home right outside the village borders.
Papa John’s could be as good at it gets for the village. The store is one of the bright spots on Main Street- because of its loud lights, not because it attracts many customers. While ethnic food stores in rundown buildings can still brim with regulars, a dozen newly built stores are vacant and have been since they were constructed.
As Democrats ponder their choices in Tuesday’s primary election, the signs of the mayoral aspirants clog the commercial artery. Cynical and disinterested residents have heard political promises of downtown renewal before. And the candidates know it.
Nearly four years ago, after Jasmin defeated him, Delhomme had pledged to work closely with the new Mayor, who swelled the community’s pride as its first Haitian-American mayor. But he soured as he felt Jasmin’s mayoralty was growing increasingly imperial and controlling. The always independent Delhomme wanted none of it.
In 2003, Delhomme, a revered figure for many Haitian youth, won a hot Democratic primary in a county legislative district drawn specifically to elect a Haitian and give that underrepresented community a voice in Rockland’s county government. But his bid faltered in the November election when his rival, David Fried (now a candidate for County Executive) successfully accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks on Delhomme’s cable show. Delhomme’s remarks were disturbing and widely condemned at the time, but he has been a relatively consistent vote for the religious needs of the village’s Hasidim as a trustee.
By all accounts, the prize in this election should be Demeza’s. Friedman and Joseph Gross, the two candidates in the race from the large and growing Orthodox Jewish population, were stunned by a pre-Rosh Hashanah rabbinical pronouncement barring community members from electing an Orthodox mayor. The edict rendered by Rabbi Israel Hager, leader of the large and powerful Vitznitz sect, could turn out the primary night lights for both Friedman and Gross, an incumbent village trustee and Hasid.
Asked about building code violations in the village, he promised not tougher enforcement but more affordable housing—the key concern of his constituency, young Hasidic families struggling with village property tax bills that are among the highest in the state. The crowd, unimpressed, also provided no applause when he said he wanted “the best public schools.” The tension was palpable—and unfair.
Gross’s candidacy was on life support for a while after Friedman knocked him off the election ballot with a legal challenge to the trustee’s nominating petition. He clawed his way back on with a court case of his own and is campaigning in the village’s many study halls and synagogues with unabashed verve, handing out High Holiday prayer books with his name on it.
Fighting with Friedman, also an Orthodox Jew, for that community’s support may leave both candidates as runners up. Orthodox voters, even if voting in lockstep, do not (yet) have sufficient voting power in a primary to elect one of their own without other coalition partners. And, as Rabbi Hager’s pronouncement revealed, may not want to even if they could.
Yet the village’s politically dominant Haitian-Americans—currently holding 4 of 5 seats on the village’s governing board- also find their power receding as an influx of Latinos joins the Orthodox as the fastest growing populations in town.
It is often difficult to tell whether Jasmin is running for re-election as mayor or matriarch. She refers to village taxpayers as “my people,” dispenses advice to both longtime associates and newcomers on health habits and dress and exudes the public warmth that marks the most successful retail politicians. She quickly climbed the political ladders in the often patriarchal Haitian community, with major assists from her mentor, former village mayor George Darden. Her mayoral victory was secured by the overwhelming support of ultra-Orthodox leaders—few of whom will publicly back her today.
Jasmin swats back talk of dissolving the high tax municipality with ringing defenses of the services it provides. And she understands the levers of power. She tacked a $300,000 road improvement bond on to a village board agenda, cornering her electoral rivals and fellow board members Gross and Delhomme. The Mayor pushed for an immediate vote; her colleagues understandably balked. The next day, Jasmin took to the radio, blasting her opponents for jeopardizing the village’s infrastructure.
Figuring Spring Valley’s electoral math can require an advanced degree. With two Orthodox candidates and three Haitian candidates (Vilair Fonvil, a frequent office seeker who would have easily won a seat on the Board of Trustees is also making another long shot bid for Mayor), victory depends on voting patterns in individual churches and religious sects. But the corruption scandals seems to have depressed, rather than motivated, the electorate. Outside the echo chamber of political activists, even reliable Democratic voters express a resigned skepticism about the ability of any of the candidates to lead effectively.
Lost in most of the electoral shuffle are the concerns of the village’s African-American voters Longtime owners of smaller homes on the village’s “hill” section and residents of the Gesner Gardens public housing complex—the base of Spring Valley’s once vaunted Democratic Party machine—find their concerns shunted aside in the ethnic fracas. Jasmin has retained support from some of those old line Democrats who are part of her administration. Sherry Scott, Jasmin’s appointed Village Clerk, and Patricia Caldwell, the former Democratic Party leader who chairs the community’s Zoning Board, are among the more prominent African-American leaders in Jasmin’s corner.
Late last month, the Board of Trustees voted to accept funds left in the bank account of the Tiger’s Den, a defunct recreation program for village teens (the Tiger is the mascot of Spring Valley High School). Few in the audience that night were even familiar with the program, once prominently housed on Main Street near the long-closed Village Tea Room restaurant.
White and black teens gathered at the Tiger’s Den, often with local teachers and recreation program leaders. When it opened, it marked a transition of its own for village’s Main Street, where teens formerly gathered at the soda fountain. It also tracked the emergence of a reform, multiracial movement within Spring Valley’s Democratic Party. Village leaders were toppled in primary challenges lead by a secular Jewish housewife named Rhoda Friedman, who turned a random stint as an election day poll watcher into a 30 year career as Spring Valley’s chief powerbroker and one of Rockland County’s most influential political leaders.