One Jewish Democratic official called it “touching the third rail of Queens politics.”
A Democratic district leader from Jackson Heights posted one word and a symbol on her Facebook page last week and it has sparked criticism. Depending on whom you ask, her comment ignited a hot debate within the Democratic Party, or was just exploited in a cynical ploy in an obscure political race that is part of the ongoing battle between the Queens Democratic establishment and a group of anti-establishment party members backed by several citywide elected officials.
It all started last Wednesday when Jessica Ramos, a district leader in the 39th Assembly District in Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst, posted a Facebook status that read “Palestine <3,” the symbol and digit representing a heart in webspeak. The post was referring to the current fight between Israel and Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip. The clashes ignited after the murder of three Jewish boys in the West Bank. A Palestinian child was also murdered, allegedly by Jewish extremists.
“This is the third rail of Queens politics,” said one high-ranking Democratic official. “Queens has a large Jewish population and Democrats here have always been very pro-Israel.”
But Ramos said she was merely making a statement in support of civilians being killed and wounded in the war, not of either side’s policies.
“Feeling empathy toward any people who have lost loved ones to political violence cannot be controversial,” she said. “I am not anti-Palestine. I am not anti-Israel. I am, however, antiviolence. I cannot bear to see all the photos of dead children circling the Internet. In my district, people of all faiths and no faith coexist every day. Peace is possible if we focus more on talks, not bombs.”
She noted that over 100 Palestinians had been killed in the fighting. At the time she posted the status, no Israelis had died, besides the three boys, though one Israeli was recently killed by a rocket fired from Gaza.
Her comment received more than a dozen “likes” and nearly three dozen comments as of Tuesday, most of which were in support of her.
Some key Democratic officials, including Borough President Melinda Katz, Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) and Assemblymembers Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park), Michael Simanowitz (D-Kew Gardens Hills) and Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) have all historically taken staunch pro-Israel views, as has Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Queens, Bronx), the party’s chairman.
Mayor de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan, Bronx) have also expressed support for Israel in the most recent clashes.
Jackson Heights once had a large Jewish population, but that has dwindled down to just a small group, many of whom live in an adjacent assembly district. The majority of the district is Hispanic, with sizable Muslim and South Asian communities.
Ramos, who is of Colombian descent, has been district leader for four years. Democrats have two male and two female district leaders in each Assembly district and they help choose the county party’s choices for judgeships and endorsements for city, state and federal races.
She is facing a primary this year from a candidate backed by the Queens Democratic establishment, Yanna Henriquez of Corona. The challenge comes after Ramos bucked the Queens establishment by backing Mark-Viverito for speaker when party leaders wanted Councilman Dan Gardonick (D-Manhattan), though some who have endorsed Henriquez said it is because she is from the Corona section of the district. More of that neighborhood was added after the 2012 redistricting.
Ramos said she believes the controversy over her comment has “everything to do” with the district leader race.
“If you look at my Facebook page, I have posted pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian comments,” she said. “I am an advocate for peace.”
She also accused her opponent of controversial tactics as well, noting that a photo of Henriquez, who works at a Dominican-American advocacy group in Corona, at a recent event with Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) where Henriquez was representing her organization, was linked to her campaign Facebook page. Henriquez did not respond to a request for comment via Facebook.
At least two Democratic sources said the controversy likely stemmed from the campaign.
“[Ramos] is not the only one who has made a comment expressing support for the Palestinians,” one Democratic operative said. “But she is the only one in hot water with the leadership and facing a primary. Nevertheless, it’s not probably something you’d want to touch if you’re in a tight race.”