This year the Westchester Republican Party has found a congressional candidate it can confidently rally around. The party’s choice for Democrat Nita Lowey’s seat is Joe Carvin, a hedge fund manager who is also supervisor of the Town of Rye. He’s fiscally conservative and socially moderate, the kind of mainstream Republican, suburban husband and father that Westchester voters are comfortable with.
Lowey is still the odds-on favorite in the general election — she won in 2010 with some 60 percent of the vote — but the more important contest may be over the future of the Republican Party in Westchester. Jim Russell, a state employee and perennial candidate who got on the primary ballot following a petition drive, is also running in the GOP primary, two years after his racist writings prompted GOP bosses to unsuccessfully sue to remove him from the race.
In 2010, it was Russell who was the anointed Republican nominee. Then, not long after he secured the nomination, a 2001 essay he wrote for the Occidental Quarterly drew public scrutiny. In it, Russell spoke out in support of racial separatism and anti-Semitism. “It is normal and healthy for people to prefer the company of their own kind in their neighborhoods and schools,” he wrote. He also quoted T.S. Eliot's statement that "reasons of race and culture combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”
Despite the rebuke of his party, Russell won 38 percent of the vote against Lowey in 2010, and his continuing strength has surprised and alarmed some in the GOP.
“In a low turnout election, anything can happen,” said Carvin. “He could sneak through if people don't know who he is.” And turnout is expected to be very low in the primary on June 26th — a New York primary has never been held on that date. To complicate matters, Russell could benefit from the burgeoning tea party movement in Westchester.
For Carvin, the stakes are not only political — “If Russell wins it will tarnish the Republican Party as racist,” he said — but also personal. Carvin is married to an African-American woman, and they have two children together.
“I think Russell is a white separatist anti-Semite,” said Carvin, “His views de-legitimize my children.”
Russell hasn’t renounced his writings, but instead told me that they have been “mischaracterized.” In this campaign, he is not emphasizing his racial views. “I want to build strong national economy, to stop outsourcing American jobs, and to repeal NAFTA,” he said in an e-mail. He is also outspoken about immigration, another area in which he sees dangers in mixing groups. “I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, where I witnessed firsthand the destructive effects of uncontrolled immigration,” he said.
Carvin is reaching out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. “I’m trying to expand the base,” he said. He co-founded Building Community Bridges, which promotes interracial and intercultural understanding, and recently Carvin joined the NAACP as part of his outreach to the black community, though he doesn’t support all its views. Carvin favors a path to a green card for illegal immigrants, as he tells Latino audiences in Spanish. (Carvin also speaks Wolof, the language of Senegal, where he lived and worked for four years. I was also in Senegal at the time and met him there.)
For Westchester Republicans, Carvin's biggest liability may be that he voted for Obama, which he says he now regrets. Russell has seized on that fact. “Carvin admits voting for Obama at Tea Party rally,” states a headline on the Russell website, accompanied by two photos, one of Carvin’s mixed-race family, another of Russell’s wife and three blond children.
But Carvin has spent much of his campaign attacking Obama administration policies, particularly its alleged failure to face fiscal reality. As Supervisor of Rye Town, Carvin cut the budget for four years, he points out. But Lately Carvin has been zeroing in on Russell’s views on race, trying to let voters know who Russell is. “He’s David Duke on the Hudson,” says Carvin. If Russell wins, Carvin says he has no choice but to support Lowey.