Home>Campaigns>Lakewood’s Orthodox community wants a seat in the Democratic caucus. Could it happen?

Rabbi Avi Schnall, center, with Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Assemblyman Gary Schaer. (Photo: Avi Schnall).

Lakewood’s Orthodox community wants a seat in the Democratic caucus. Could it happen?

Avi Schnall’s likely Assembly campaign will have to overcome strong Republican lean of LD30

By Joey Fox, February 17 2023 5:10 pm

The reddest State Senate district in New York isn’t in some rural Upstate county no one’s ever heard of. It’s not in a far-flung corner of Long Island. It’s not even on Staten Island, that famously conservative urban bastion. It’s in South Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the world – and it’s represented by a Democrat.

Despite his district backing Donald Trump by 41 points in 2020, State Sen. Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jew and the son of a rabbi, is a full-fledged member of the Senate Democratic caucus. That means he can exert significant influence in New York state government, which is run entirely by Democrats; on issues like school choice and religious freedom, Felder, and by extension the conservative Orthodox community he represents, has a seat at the table.

Now the Orthodox community in Lakewood, a massive majority-Orthodox township in New Jersey’s Ocean County, is aiming for the same thing. The 30th legislative district, home to Lakewood, is solidly Republican in statewide elections, but Orthodox leaders think they can get it to elect a Democrat to the State Assembly this year. In other words, they want their very own Simcha Felder.

They’ve already settled on their candidate: Avi Schnall, the director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America. Schnall, until recently a registered Republican, is still in the exploratory phase for now, but most insiders are treating his campaign as a sure thing.

If Schnall runs, he and his to-be-determined running mate will face off against Assemblymen Sean Kean (R-Wall) and Ned Thomson (R-Wall), two Monmouth County Republicans who haven’t ever faced a real general election race. (State Sen. Bob Singer (R-Lakewood), meanwhile, has a close relationship with the Orthodox community and would not be seriously challenged.)

Democrats are excited, Republicans are nervous, and it’s increasingly clear that the fight for the 30th legislative district will be a competitive one. But Schnall still faces a tough path to victory – so how can he do it?

Step 1: Win over Orthodox leadership and voters

First, a brief history of Lakewood. 

Lakewood was once a resort-oriented town, but in the second half of the 20th century, it began attracting Orthodox Jews thanks in large part to the growth of Beth Medrash Govoha, a yeshiva located in the heart of Lakewood. (For clarity’s sake, this article will broadly refer to Lakewood’s ultra-religious Jewish community as “Orthodox,” but there are important divisions within the Jewish community in Lakewood and elsewhere.)

The expansion of the yeshiva and its surrounding community became a self-reinforcing cycle, as Lakewood became a destination for Orthodox Jews and as new arrivals began having large families.

The population numbers tell the story from there. In 1980, the town had a population of just under 40,000; that grew to 60,000 in 2000, 93,000 in 2010, and now 135,000 as of the 2020 Census, making it the state’s fifth-most populous municipality. The vast majority of that growth has come from Orthodox Jews.

The rapidly expanding community is politically conservative, particularly on social issues, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re attached to the Republican Party. Instead, Lakewood voters – much like their Simcha Felder-voting counterparts in New York – listen heavily to what their community and religious leaders have to say, and pay attention to which candidates are most likely to advance Orthodox interests.

That lack of party loyalty can lead to some interesting results. In the 2017 gubernatorial election, most Lakewood leaders, among them the highly influential Vaad, backed Phil Murphy despite his liberal positions. With their endorsement, Murphy narrowly carried Lakewood over then-Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno, 50%-49%.

Three years later, on the other hand, Orthodox leadership stayed out of the presidential contest and allowed voters to decide who better represented their socially conservative viewpoints. The verdict was overwhelming: Donald Trump won the township 82%-17%, making it the most Republican municipality in the entire state.

Orthodox leaders have especially potent influence over local elections. The township committee is a mix of one Orthodox Democrat, two Orthodox Republicans, one non-Orthodox Democrat, and one non-Orthodox Republican; the main characteristic all five men share is that they had the backing of Orthodox leaders.

In fact, the current mayor of Lakewood, Ray Coles, is a Catholic Democrat. He last won re-election in 2020 while Trump was romping to a 65-point win on the same ballot.

So even though Lakewood may look prohibitively Republican on some levels, if Schnall can get the support of the township’s Orthodox higher-ups, that puts him in a hugely advantageous position.

And it’s looking like Schnall, who is widely popular among the various different factions of the Lakewood Orthodox community, will have that support. (The same was not true of Murphy in 2021, who had the Vaad’s endorsement but not the support of many lower-level Orthodox leaders; he ended up losing Lakewood 61%-38%.)

But there’s no guarantee that support will trickle down to the voting public. Kean and Thomson, the two 30th district assemblymen, won Lakewood in a landslide just two years ago, and Lakewood may not be willing to turn on them so quickly. What’s more, their ticket will be led by Singer, a former Lakewood mayor who has near-universal support among the Orthodox community.

Schnall will have to not just get Orthodox leadership firmly aligned behind him, but also make sure that individual voters who are wary of the Democratic Party are in his corner. Without any previous comparable races, it’s hard to know how doable that is.

Step 2: Get Lakewood out to the polls

Assuming Schnall does win over Lakewood’s voters, he’ll have to confront his next challenge: getting them to the polls.

With an estimated 140,000 people and growing, Lakewood could be one of the biggest juggernauts in state politics if its electorate was fully activated. But for a variety of reasons, the township doesn’t cast nearly as many votes as it could, especially in off-year elections. 

That’s a major problem in the 30th district, which includes six Monmouth County towns in addition to Lakewood. Lakewood represents around 60% of the district’s population, but in recent elections, it has only accounted for around 35% or 40% of the electorate. Howell, the next-biggest town in the district, cast nearly as many votes as Lakewood in the 2021 gubernatorial election despite only having around one-third of Lakewood’s population.

In other words, even if he makes significant headway in Lakewood, Schnall could still easily lose because of Monmouth County, where the Orthodox community has a drastically smaller footprint.

When Murphy won Lakewood in 2017, he didn’t come particularly close to winning the 30th district overall, because Lakewood got substantially outvoted by the rest of the district. Murphy won Lakewood by just 114 votes, while Guadagno netted 6,694 votes from the six Monmouth County towns, giving Guadagno a 58%-41% win districtwide.

Some of Lakewood’s turnout problem isn’t fixable. According to Census data, a full 51% of the township’s population is under the age of 18 – a bonkers statistic caused by the large number of children most young Orthodox families have – meaning that tens of thousands of Lakewood residents aren’t yet eligible to vote yet anyway.

But if Schnall and other Orthodox leaders make a real push to overcome voter apathy and religiously based skepticism of politics, they could make a serious dent in the more than ten thousand adult Lakewood residents who aren’t registered to vote. And with Lakewood’s level of population growth, more potential votes are moving in or turning 18 every day.

Schnall will likely have plenty of funding for his efforts. Such discussions can veer uncomfortably close to antisemitic stereotypes, but the basic reality is that developers and other businesspeople in Lakewood have a lot of money, and many would be happy to spend some of it to get a member of the Lakewood Orthodox community elected to the legislature. (There’s already one Orthodox Jewish Democrat in the Assembly, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, but he’s from a different Orthodox community in Passaic County.)

Republicans, on the other hand, typically struggle to fundraise for legislative races, and the addition of a pair of unexpected seats to defend won’t help. After a repeated cycles with no real primary or general election threats, Kean and Thomson collectively have close to $60,000 saved up, a total which Democrats could quickly surpass.

Even with a major money advantage, though, it remains to be seen whether Schnall can substantially change the township’s tendency towards low voter turnout. If he can, then all bets are off about what’s possible districtwide.

Step 3: Neutralize Republican attacks

Of course, Republicans won’t be sitting around waiting for Schnall to outmaneuver them. Now that they know their hold on the 30th district could be at risk, they’ll spend the months to come strategizing about how to protect Kean and Thomson from Schnall and his still-undetermined running mate.

Doing so may require an awkward double-pronged campaign in the two halves of the district, however. 

Republicans will want to do as well as they can in Lakewood, appealing to socially conservative voters who traditionally support Republicans and who are instinctively skeptical of Democrats, even Orthodox ones. But at the same time, their most effective strategy in other parts of the district, particularly Howell, may be to run against Orthodox Jewish influence.

Like a number of other Ocean County townships bordering Lakewood, Howell has seen an influx of Orthodox Jewish residents in recent years, and the prospect of further expansion is a key issue in local politics. Republicans could absolutely make that a central component of their campaign against Schnall – and yet doing so could further jeopardize their standing in Lakewood.

There’s also the Singer conundrum. Publicly, Singer is near-certain to back Kean, Thomson, or any other Republican on his ticket. But Singer has close ties to the Orthodox community, including Schnall, and it’s unclear how he’ll fit into the broader Republican campaign to keep the 30th district.

Schnall and his running mate, whoever he may be (it will likely be a man), will have the ability to play Republicans’ conflicting priorities off of one another. That said, if Republicans are successful at activating voters in Howell and Wall, then there may not be much Schnall can do to overcome their numerical advantage.

What happens if it works?

Let’s say Schnall does indeed launch his campaign; let’s say he gets unwavering support from the Orthodox community; let’s say that, come November, he overcomes every obstacle and wins a seat in the New Jersey Assembly. What then?

Schnall, like most of his fellow Orthodox Jews, probably holds positions on some issues that would put him out of sync with the larger Democratic caucus. It’s unlikely, for example, that Schnall would be an easy vote for legislation expanding abortion access, something that has come up repeatedly in the legislature in recent years.

But the purpose of getting Schnall elected in the first place is to give the Orthodox community a seat at the table, and that won’t happen if Schnall doesn’t play ball with Democratic leaders. Presumably, then, Schnall would be a reliable member of the Democratic majority, even if he didn’t always agree with the party’s stances.

Felder, the New York state senator, provides an instructive example. For years, Felder, who also runs on the Republican Party line thanks to New York’s ballot fusion laws, caucused with the then-majority Republican caucus. When Democrats retook the State Senate in 2018, he found himself adrift, and spent six months without a caucus at all.

But in July 2019, he buried the hatchet with Senate Democrats and rejoined their caucus, promising to be a more reliable vote on major legislation going forward. Though Felder’s deeply conservative constituency will always set him apart from his Democratic colleagues, he’s now ensconced in New York’s majority party – just as Lakewood wants to be in New Jersey.

Out of necessity, this article has been operating largely in hypotheticals. What if Lakewood’s Orthodox voters flock to Schnall? What if Republicans use anti-Orthodox messaging in Howell? What if Schnall beats the odds and wins?

It would be nice to ground these speculations in more concrete historical examples or quantitative analysis, but there simply isn’t any precedent for what Democrats are trying to do this year. The modern 30th district has never hosted a competitive race in its entire existence; who could predict how it will behave now?

One thing that is clear is that, assuming Schnall goes through with his campaign, Orthodox leaders are deadly serious about getting him elected. They’ve got a long, tough road ahead of them.

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