For Brooklyn Tea Party, Religion and Culture Are Unifying Factors

By Eric Paternot

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SHEEPSHEAD BAY, BROOKLYN – In the back room of a the Kosher Hut restaurant on Kings Highway, Republican candidate Joseph Hayon, 32, stood  up to address a group of close to 20 men and women, predominantly Orthodox Jews,  who arrived  to attend the Brooklyn Tea Party’s weekly meeting on a Sunday afternoon.

Joseph Hayon, 32, attacks his opponent Steven Cymbrowitz, a democratic incumbent in the race for the New York State Assembly's 45th District. Hayon stands before a crowd of less than 20 members of the Brooklyn Tea Party at the Kosher Hut on Kings Highway in Sheepshead Bay, on Sunday Oct. 24, 2010.

“It couldn’t be more deceptive than this,” said Hayon pointing to a flyer from opponent Steven Cymbrowitz, a democratic incumbent in the race for the New York State Assembly’s 45th District. “It looks like these rabbis endorsed him, but if you read underneath the picture it actually says none of them did.”

Around the country, conservative candidates are reaching out to Tea Party organizations in an effort to harness their energy leading up to the midterm elections. But whereas some candidates anoint themselves as representatives of the movement, here in Brooklyn they must first win the appraisal of the local Tea Party in order to obtain an official endorsement. And this quest has taken cultural and religious undertones, effectively turning the Brooklyn Tea Party into a political minority within a minority.

“We are totally autonomous,” said John Press, 46, president and founder of the Brooklyn Tea Party. “Obviously, we wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Tea Party movement nationally – we share their core values – but that said, we are grassroots.”

David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in Manhattan, says the very notion of a unified Tea Party is misguided.

“Anyone can have his or her own Tea Party,” said Birdsell. “It is not by-and-large a formal organization that deserves a capital ‘t’ and a capital ‘p.’”

Founded in April 2010, the Brooklyn Tea Party is still in the process of defining its agenda and building its base. Most of the attendees on a recent Sunday were Orthodox Jews.

Joseph Hayon says this has more to do with the foreign policy than with the large Orthodox Jewish demographic in this part of the borough. Obama’s position on Israel, from settlements to the Gaza flotilla incident, “has turned a lot of people against the president,” said Hayon

But for Hayon, a regular at Tea Party meetings since he first came across the group on Facebook, the movement’s attraction is not solely based in its opposition to the current administration.

“The Tea Party support definitely adds name recognition,” he said.

Candidates like Hayon can call themselves members of the movement, but obtaining the Brooklyn Tea Party’s official endorsement requires a three-point pledge.

In addition to reducing government spending by five percent every year for three years, the pledge includes two requirements that are “unorthodox for Tea Parties,” Press acknowledges.  Namely, candidates must oppose the construction of the Islamic Center near Ground Zero and support Arizona’s immigration laws.

The stances are connected to Press’s belief in a concept he calls “culturism,” a term which he defines as the opposite of multiculturalism. He says the foundation of Western society lies in its Judeo-Christian heritage.

“We have one culture as a people and a right to protect it,” he said, later stating that one of the reasons he founded the Brooklyn Tea Party was to use it as a platform to disseminate his ideology.

But for some Tea Party activists, this is going too far.

Paul Affenita, executive director of “Tea Party 365,” a group that covers Manhattan and Long Island, says any departure from the strictly fiscal issues the group is known for would limit Press’  outreach potential.

“We do not focus on Mosque issues or any kind of religious issues,” he said. “The people associated with us can be agnostic, atheist, what have you.”

Back at the Brooklyn Tea Party, some activists fully embrace the “culturism” argument.

Rosemarie Burtchell, a Christian senior citizen who attends each meeting, says she identifies with the organization because its platform echoes her religious beliefs.

“We have Jewish candidates, we have Christian candidates, and we are all uniform in our religion,” said Burtchell. “We are against gay marriage and abortion.”

As the Brooklyn Tea Party fights to find a voice in its first electoral test, John Press says he is not about to change his message.

“My people are totally empowered by the idea of fighting the mosque and supporting Arizona,” he said.

With a budget that does not exceed $40 a week and a following of 213 friends on Facebook, Press says the organization’s objective is not so much about political gain as it is about promoting awareness.

“We want to be the spark that lets people know that there are conservatives in Brooklyn,” said Press, before adding “culturism is not a Tea Party issue, but I hope it will be some day.”