Meet Blake Morris — The Man Who Wants To Take Down Simcha Felder
Progressive Democrat challenging conservative State Senator pitches street safety in fight against the man who killed speed cameras.
New Yorkers were outraged when the State Senate failed to reauthorize the city’s school zone speed cameras. But are they mad enough to throw the bum out?
That bum, of course, is Senator Simcha Felder, the Borough Park Democrat-in-name-only who caucuses with the Republicans to give the GOP control of the chamber and, by extension, make himself the most powerful man in Albany.
As chairman of the Cities Committee, Felder declined to act on an Assembly bill that would have extended speed cameras and doubled their numbers. The bill has the support of a majority of Senators, but Felder opposed it, so it stalled in his committee. The Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not discharge the bill and overrule Felder, fearing the loss of the DINO-saur’s support.
Albany politics as usual — except for one thing: Felder is finally facing an election challenge after running unopposed in 2014 and 2016. In that most-recent race, he even ran on the Democratic and the Republican lines.
Felder’s opponent, Blake Morris, thinks the whole thing is “crazy.”
“Democrats are going around saying, ‘The Republicans blocked the speed camera bill,’ but it was Felder,” said Morris. “Yet he’s the senator whose name could not be mentioned. Everyone in Albany is scared of angering him. But he killed speed cameras.”
More anger towards Felder could help Morris get some traction against the incumbent, whose conservative politics — Felder is opposed to abortion rights, for example, and has called for armed guards in schools — does play well in a district that President Trump won by eight points in 2016. But Felder’s stance against safety has been roundly attacked; it even forced the local police precinct to dispatch volunteers with flashlights to slow down speeders on Ocean Parkway.
Felder, who actually supported higher speed limits even as cameras and speed caps have brought crashes down, would lose the election if more people knew about the issue, his opponent believes.
“Many people know the speed cameras died, but they don’t know it was Felder,” Morris argued.
But it’s not just the speed camera legislation that motivates Morris, who has worked with the Straphangers Campaign and the Department of City Planning and been an outside counsel for the MTA. He offers a full slate of street safety and transit initiatives that put Felder’s record to shame.
Morris said he would get express subway service on the Coney Island-bound trains cutting through his district. “It doesn’t require capital improvement,” he said. “It’s just by planning.”
He also would turn the barely used Bay Ridge freight line into a new subway line and a bike path. “It runs from New York Harbor to the Sunnyside Yards. We could build a bike expressway right away, and then, if we add another track, we could do streetcar down there,” he said. “It passes under so many subway lines and there’s no east-west rail in Brooklyn. It would make people’s lives a lot easier. And it leads to the ferry at the Army Terminal, which is owned by the city.”
And Morris also supports fees for on-street parking. “There should be one fee for New York-registered cars and another fee, higher, for cars not registered in the city,” he said. “There are a lot of cars that are not registered here. We need to clean that up.”
Felder, Morris says, “does nothing on any of these issues.” (Felder did not return our call or email.)
But can Morris win? Like any other race, the answer will depend on who is listening.
Felder’s strongest support comes from the poorest area in the district: Borough Park. Morris considers that an irony, given that Felder “votes against their interests.” (It’s also the area where Trump was strongest.)
“These are the people who most need government services the most, but Felder empowers Republicans, who eliminate and trim social programs,” Morris said.
On the fundraising front, Morris is trailing badly. He’s raised all of $41,717.54 — a good third of it from his wife and himself. But the vast majority of his donors are real people, giving $3 to $100 to support the insurgent. Meanwhile, Felder, who never had to raise money before, has suddenly gone dialing for dollars, raising $429,460 this year alone from a group of usual suspects that includes real estate firms and developers, auto dealers, law firms, his fellow politicians, retailers, health-care firms, police unions (including $3,000 from the anti-speed-camera Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association), and other people with business before the State Senate.
“Felder never says, ‘I represent the 17th District,’ but he does say, ‘I represent my community,'” Morris said. “Well, that’s his community. But special interests like developers don’t like me. They tell me, ‘Everything you stand for, we don’t want. We will crush you. Republicans protect us.'”
The district is 60 percent Jewish, mostly Orthodox like Felder (Morris is Jewish, but not Orthodox). When it was created in 2012, the 17th District was carved out for a candidate like Felder, but there are pockets of progressives in Ditmas Park and Kensington that Morris is targeting. “Everywhere else, I get called ‘that dirty progressive,'” he said. “This district has never had a choice. We had a tyranny in the 17th district — and now it’s metastasized to the entire state.”