Distraught over a dark secret from his past being revealed by the media, longtime political functionary and retired teacher Jeff Gottlieb of Flushing quit the race for the 6th Congressional seat today.
Gottlieb, 70, had been one of six candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for the newly redrawn district, which will represent a broad swath of Queens running from Ridgewood in the southwest through communities including Kew Gardens and Fresh Meadows to Oakland Gardens in the northeast.
He handed his candidacy over to Stephen Green, an attorney from Rosedale who is a member of the JFK Democratic Club. The move was made under a process by which a Gottlieb-appointed committee can turn over the signatures gathered for his nominating petitions to someone else within three days of the filing deadline, according to a source close to the campaign.
Gottlieb dropped out of the race, through the "declination" of the petitions gathered for him, because of the revelation that he had purposely set fire to his own apartment in 1971, said the source, a longtime political consultant. He characterized the incident — in which Gottlieb used gasoline as fuel, destroyed the apartment and damaged others in the same building, but apparently injured no one — as a "breakdown." Then a teacher living in Flushing, Gottlieb was initially charged with arson, a felony, but reached a plea agreement with prosecutors on criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. He took a leave from his job, received psychiatric treatment and returned to work for the beginning of the 1972-73 school year.
The New York Post broke the story on the incident online late Saturday night and in Sunday's paper.
"That story that came out about the arson really shook Jeffrey, really shook his family," the political source close to him said. He claimed that Gottlieb's political enemies were behind the revelation.
Gottlieb is expected to issue a statement about dropping out of the race tonight.
Aside from replacement candidate Green, five people are in the running for the Democratic nomination for the 6th CD, a redrawn version of the district now held by Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens, Nassau), who recently announced that he will not run for reelection in November.
They are state Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing), the party establishment's choice; Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows); City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village); Dr. Robert Mittman, a Bayside allergist; and "Ada" Juan Sheng of Flushing, a public access director and producer.
The primary is June 26. The winner will face Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), the presumptive Republican nominee, in November.
Gottlieb's candidacy had been controversial from the beginning. Until he entered the race, he had been supporting Meng. Once Gottlieb announced he was running, Lancman charged that he threw his hat in the ring at the party leadership's behest, solely to divide Jewish voters and thus make it easier for Meng to win. Lancman and Gottlieb are both Jewish.
The assertion was bolstered by a subsequent revelation, reported by the City & State website, that political operative Michael Nussbaum had earlier asked another active Jewish Democrat, Matthew Silverstein of Bayside, to run. Silverstein said no.
City & State next reported that Nussbaum employed a similar strategy when a crowd of Democrats was competing for the nomination for the seat now held by Halloran. The winner of that primary was Kevin Kim, who lost the race to Halloran.
Kim is a Korean American and Meng is of Chinese descent. The rapidly growing Asian population is seen as a key demographic group whose support is sought by both political parties in Queens. Republicans had won a victory in that respect when Councilman Peter Koo won his seat in 2009 as member of the GOP, but lost it in January when the lawmaker switched to the Democrats.