By MELANIE GOLDBERG
Clint Eastwood may not be the only one to debate with an empty chair.
Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, whose district runs from Manhattan Beach north to Midwood, refused to debate not only during his Democratic primary campaign against insurgent Ben Akselrod back in September, but also more recently against Republican candidate Russell Gallo and Akselrod, now on the Independence Party line.
Each year, the Manhattan Beach Community Group offers to run televised debates for all local candidates so that they may reach their constituents more directly, and so that their constituents can ask the questions they care about. This year’s was scheduled for Oct. 24.
Gallo assailed Cymbrowitz, who has served in the Assembly for 12 years, for his refusal to debate. “I think it’s disgraceful,” he said. “Democrats in New York City don’t generally have opponents. In a sense they have absolute power. The voters should be able to see this debate so we can let them decide.”
In a statement released to Gallo’s campaign on Oct. 15 as well as to the community group, Cymbrowitz stated that “MBCG is unable to be impartial” in the debate.
When asked to elaborate on what that meant, Cymbrowitz’s aide, Laura Singer, responded via email that she had “been advised that a debate has not been discussed for the general election in the 45th Assembly District,” and that “the issue was with the sponsor of the debate, not the debate itself.”
The community group posted a note on its Web site saying it would go ahead with the debate. “We will have an extra chair in case Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz changes his mind,” it said.
Gallo and his campaign managers were not shocked at the Cymbrowitz campaign’s decision, though, since it has been a common strategy for incumbents in local races to avoid debates.
With Republican victories in local races for State Senate race and Congress, it may well become more difficult for Democrats in southern Brooklyn to act as if their opponents don’t exist. Cymbrowitz also faced a challenge within his own party; in September, he won the Democratic primary by a relatively slim margin for an incumbent, 7 percentage points.
Akselrod’s decision to run on the Independence line – which could divide voters opposed to Cymbrowitz – angered Gallo, who charged that the vote count used to determine the Independence Party’s nominee was unfair.
“I’m sure voters’ frustration of Cymbrowitz had a hand in the fact that he won the primary by so little,” Gene Barardelli, Gallo’s campaign co-manager, said. “But it could also have been the result of a low voter turnout.”
Generally, though, low voter turnout favors incumbents, since they have the funds to advertise themselves in the election and the current backing of their party to get out their vote.
“There will be a time when conservatives will take over the district,” political consultant Bob Liff said. “The Republican Party’s current challenge is to make their voice not a minority voice. But Cymbrowitz is smart enough to know he wants less press. You want to give your opponents less oxygen.”
Barardelli said that voters should have an opportunity to hear the voice of opposition. With the 45th Assembly District’s demographics changing – there is a large population of Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews – sometimes the party representing them has to change as well, he said.
“I still find that Cymbrowitz has been a diligent assemblyman,” Liff said. “I find him a smart, talented and hardworking official. The public cannot ignore that.”
Barardelli touted Gallo, a sergeant in the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority police, as a man who “doesn’t know the meaning of politically correct. What he says is who he is.”
Gallo has announced that he “believes that marriage can only be between one man and one woman.” He also sent a letter inviting Chick-Fil-A, the fast-food chain that enraged gay activists by spending millions of dollars on the campaign against legalizing same-sex marriage, to come to Brooklyn. (Cymbrowitz voted against the measure that legalized same-sex marriage in New York State.)
“It’s refreshing,” Diana Sepulveda, also Gallo’s campaign co-manager, said. “Gallo is brutally honest in real life He’s saying what he thinks and feels.”
On Oct. 15, Gallo received the support of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “It draws even more attention to him [Gallo] as a candidate,” Diana Sepulveda, also co-manager of the Gallo campaign, said. “The association is what opens the conversation.”