At 9:30 p.m. on June 28, polls for the Democratic primary for Congress in New York were closed and 630 precincts for the Third Congressional District had just started reporting. Shiraz Restaurant, located at 770 Middle Neck Rd., was ready for Councilwoman Anna Kaplan’s election night party—plates of festive food were put on a long table by the window, and the restaurant was decorated with her campaign posters everywhere. A few dozen of Kaplan’s stout supporters were already sitting at the tables. Two TV sets were playing local news, but most of the guests were checking their phones for election updates.
The Town of North Hempstead councilwoman’s bid for the seat vacated by retiring Congressman Steve Israel was described by many as historic. If elected, she would become the first Iranian American in Congress. Her four opponents in the Democratic primary were all lawyers like Kaplan, and they were Attorney Jonathan Clarke of Jericho, former North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman of Great Neck, Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern of Dix Hills and former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove.
In May, the five Democratic candidates held a debate at Great Neck House, where they discussed issues such as campaign financing, Social Security, the Iraq War and U.S.-Israel relations. Throughout her campaign, Kaplan managed to differentiate herself from the other candidates by emphasizing the issues and needs of immigrants. She also heavily canvassed Asian Americans, a growing population in Great Neck.
At 11 p.m., many tables at the restaurant were fully seated. There were volunteers from high schools and elderly ladies who, in a Persian accent, told me that they had known Kaplan since she was a little girl. By this time, most people learned the news from their phones that Suozzi was declared the Democratic nominee, winning comfortably with 35.5 percent of the votes. Kaplan won 15.3 percent, which placed her fourth in the race, a disappointment to her supporters. However, when Kaplan finally entered the restaurant, attendees broke into loud cheering and clapping.
Kaplan took the time to walk around and shook hands with her supporters at each table before returning to the podium. In her concession speech, Kaplan highlighted her campaign achievements: 62 percent of her team members were female, her campaign staffers were paid at least $15 an hour and she received the endorsement of Emily’s List, a progressive national organization that aims to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.
She congratulated Suozzi and thanked her Democratic opponents for a clean campaign. She applauded them for keeping the “battle of ideas on how to improve this district.” She expressed her confidence in the solidarity of her party by taking a jibe at “the mess that the Republicans had gotten themselves into.”
Kaplan recalled her memory of fleeing Iran at age 13 and arriving in the United States, separated from her family and “not knowing the language in a strange place and surrounded by strangers.” She said, “If I could go back and tell that girl that one day she would run for Congress in the United States of America, she would have never believed me. My story would only be possible in the United States. The United States of America is the land of possibilities.”
It was an emotional night for many people in the room. Kaplan’s two daughters could not stop sobbing at their mother’s loss. Sabereh Samet, a longtime aide to Kaplan, burst into tears when Kaplan thanked her for being “a sister [she] never had.”
In an election year, when everyone is getting tired of campaign rhetoric and politics, it’s easy to forget that politics actually involves real people with genuine emotions. Perhaps it’s a rare find in online political reporting and discussions, but it was here in this cozy restaurant called Shiraz in Great Neck.
In November, Democratic nominee Tom Suozzi will face the Republican candidate, New York State Senator Jack M. Martins, in the general election. Their fight for the Congressional seat in the Third District is rumored to be one of the top five battleground races in 2016. After all, it was not until a few years ago that Nassau County had more registered Democrats than Republicans. In this closed primary, only 18,385 registered Democrats in the district voted, while in election years, there were usually more than 300,000 people casting their ballots. Everything is still up in the air, and Kaplan vowed to help get her fellow Democrat elected. But for now, she said, “I would take a few days’ rest before starting anew.”