On an Indian summer day in mid-October, Bob Turner stepped onto a porch in the Rego Park neighborhood of Queens, New York and rang the doorbell. A middle-aged woman answered and Turner announced he was running for Congress against Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner.
“Good!” the woman exclaimed. “Tell him to grow up and stop screaming like a moron!”
Welcome to New York City politics. Democrat or Republican, words aren’t often minced around here.
Her comment most likely referred to Weiner’s tirade on the House floor over an aid bill for 9/11 responders, directed at Republicans in general and fellow New York Rep. Peter King, a Republican, in particular. But Weiner entered the public eye long before that, as an articulate voice for a public option in the health care reform bill. He also crusaded against Glenn Beck for advertising for Goldline, a retail seller of gold coins. All this endeared him to progressives and made his name a curse word among conservatives.
Now Turner, a lifelong New Yorker with an unabashedly fiscally conservative streak, is looking to take Weiner’s job as congressman for New York’s 9th District.
“The health care bill was the primary stimulant to get me into this race,” Turner told The Daily Caller at a sunny Oktoberfest event in Brooklyn. “But I’ve had a major dissatisfaction with the radical left turn this administration has taken from the very beginning.
“I’m tired of yelling at the television set and I thought I’d do something about it,” he said.
Television is one thing Turner knows very well. After two years in the Army, he took a job as a clerk at ABC. That was the beginning of a 40-year career during which he served as CEO of four different television production and syndication companies.
Turner was responsible for Rush Limbaugh’s brief foray into television. He also produced shows for Phil Donahue and Jerry Springer, as well as “The Price is Right” and “Family Feud.”
In 2002, financial syndication rules that had prevented networks from producing or syndicating their shows were allowed to expire. Suddenly, Turner’s network customers became his biggest competitors. With independent syndication companies going the way of the dinosaur, Turner got out of the business. He went into semi-retirement, managing a small handful of business interests on the side.
Many of Turner’s positions are consistent with that of a businessman. They’re also surprisingly conservative for a New York Republican. Turner wants to repeal health care reform and scorns the stimulus. He also unapologetically supports across-the-board income tax cuts, including for the dreaded wealthiest two percent, and lowering corporate taxes.
“A rising tide lifts all boats, and it’s as simple as that,” he said.
That makes Turner’s challenge to Weiner a quintessential businessman-versus-career-politician race. In today’s rabidly anti-incumbent atmosphere, that gives Turner a compelling narrative.
But can he win in deep-blue New York? Weiner is one of the most liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives. But Democrats only have a 5% identification advantage in his district according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, far less than surrounding districts in Queens and Brooklyn.
Weiner’s seat was previously held by Charles Schumer, now a Democrat senator. The district was heavily gerrymandered to include significant white, middle-class, and Jewish populations.
But Turner says the demographics of New York’s 9th have shifted significantly, and in his favor.
“Many of the traditionally Jewish liberal voters have moved to Westchester and Nassau,” he said. “And they’ve been replaced in Brooklyn and Forest Hills with a more orthodox community and a Russian community with a very different social and political agenda. This will be the telling point here.”
The contest is tough to gauge since virtually no polling has been done. But earlier this month, Weiner suddenly fired off a round of press releases, calling Turner a “right-wing extremist,” and claiming he wants to privatize Social Security and curb access to abortions. Turner’s campaign believes Weiner did an internal poll and didn’t like the results.
Turner fired back, calling Weiner a “desperate liar.” He has also challenged Weiner to shut down his campaign office, located outside the 9th District in Manhattan.
Hoping to capitalize on Weiner’s absence from the district, Turner has been going door-to-door relentlessly. He has a grandfatherly gentleness that seems to appeal to voters, his eyes twinkling as he makes his sales pitch to district residents in a thick New York accent. He’s also intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the 9th District that can make campaigning complicated: the delicate rituals and sensibilities of the orthodox Jews; the occasional language barrier in Russian- and Polish-American neighborhoods.
What’s next? Turner has been hammering Weiner over a statement in which the congressman claimed that he and the health care bill “are one.” Turner has also been buying massive billboards throughout Queens and Brooklyn to drive up his name recognition.
Weiner has been campaigning mostly by press releases. He likely has his sights set much higher: He’s widely rumored to be planning a run for mayor of New York City in 2013.
But first he’ll have to get past Bob Turner.