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Race Is On for the Future of Central Brooklyn

More than a few onlookers have characterized this political season’s most exciting local contest as a battle over race. “In Shirley Chisholm’s Brooklyn, Rancor Over White Candidacy,” read the headline of the front-page story in the Sunday Times in late June. Rev. Al Sharpton has weighed in, vowing to help protect a black congressional seat. A flurry of high-profile endorsements have come in for the various candidates from across the city, state and rest of the country, even as New York’s two leading politicians try to stay out of the fray.

Chisholm’s successor, venerable left-wing Congressman Major Owens, is retiring from the seat he’s held for twelve terms in Brooklyn’s 11th District, a jigshaw puzzle-shaped area bordered by Prospect Heights, Brownsville, Flatbush, and parts of Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, with Crown Heights, Boerum Hill and many other neighborhoods sandwiched in between. The candidate whose presence is stirring up the controversy is David Yassky, a two-term city councilman whose council district extends from Greenpoint through Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope. The three black candidates, State Senator Carl Andrews, City Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, and community activist Chris Owens (son of Major Owens), all have longstanding roots in the 11th district, which as of the most recent census is 58.5% black and 21.4% white. Most onlookers think that Yassky’s strategy is to let the three other candidates divide the black vote, and then try to carry the white vote. The flyer Yassky sent during Passover to Jewish voters in Crown Heights—in which he claimed that “He took on the establishment to put a nurse in every yeshiva, improve protection for shuls, create more affordable housing and return money to Holocaust survivors”—reinforced the prevailing wisdom about Yassky’s aims.

At the center of the controversy is the fact that the 11th district is a product of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965 as part of LBJ’s Great Society. The apportionment of congressional districts was subsequently aimed at increasing minority representation in the House of Representatives. After the 11th became a voting-rights district, Shirley Chisholm became its representative from 1968 until she retired in 1982, giving way to Major Owens, who has served it until now. When the Republican leadership in the House recently stalled the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, Yassky quickly issued a statement calling the move “deplorable.”

Meanwhile, Yassky’s recent move into the 11th District has generated a spate of criticisms, with Major Owens calling him a “colonizer.” According to Yassky’s press spokesman, Evan Thies, such a charge is not valid because as councilman, Yassky has “represented a big part of the 11th Congressional District.” Chris Owens disputes that claim, saying that Yassky’s “council district includes only a small part of the congressional district.” In truth, the heart of the 11th District, Crown Heights and Flatbush, falls well outside of Yassky’s terrain as a councilman.

Yet despite the calls by Sharpton as well as local black elected officials for the black candidates to unify behind one campaign, it’s clear that as the September 12th primary approaches, there will be four candidates vying for the seat. And thus race will continue to be a major factor. But so, too, will the candidates’ track records and actual positions on the issues. Progressives in the district and elsewhere should indeed take a careful look at each candidate before deciding who would best represent their interests.

Each candidate in the race has an intricate web of political alliances. Carl Andrews, a state senator representing Flatbush, Crown Heights and Park Slope since 2002, was recently endorsed by his former boss, soon-to-be-governor Eliot Spitzer, as well as former mayor David Dinkins and Comptroller William Thompson; he also has the backing of a number of his colleagues in the state assembly and senate, including Crown Heights Assemblyman Dov Hikind. Yvette Clarke, who succeeded her mother, Una, as councilwoman from Flatbush in 2001, has the support of some of the city’s leading female politicians, including Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and recent mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields.

Longtime community activist Chris Owens has local figures including former mayoral candidates Freddy Ferrer and Ruth Messinger and former public advocate candidate Norman Siegel in his camp. Owens also has the support of numerous current members of the House, including a list of stalwart progressives headed by John Conyers, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich, Maurice Hinchey, and Bernie Sanders. Yassky, a protégé of Chuck Schumer, does not yet have the support of his mentor (although Schumer’s silence is helpful for Yassky) or of any other current elected official. But he has been endorsed by a variety of figures from the area’s black and Jewish communities, most notably James Caldwell, president of B.U.I.L.D., the pro-Atlantic Yards group with close ties to developer Bruce Ratner.

Sharpton has not yet been won over by any of the candidates, but it’s clear that he won’t be backing Yassky, and it’s most unlikely that he’ll be helping Owens—Sharpton’s relationship with Owens’s camp has been notoriously frosty. Andrews, meanwhile, has sought to distance himself from his ties to the corrupt former Brooklyn Democratic Party boss, the now-indicted Clarence Norman. Each of the four candidates also boasts the support of various organizations, with Andrews leading in the number of endorsements from unions and Owens out front in those from political clubs. What all the various ties add up to is not altogether certain. In general, such alliances and endorsements are more suggestive of the candidates’ politics than predictive of their ability to win.

In terms of money, Yassky easily has the deepest pockets. As of the last campaign filing (the end of March), he had over $800,000, or more than the three other candidates combined. It’s safe to say that when the newest numbers come out (for the filing period that ended on June 30), he’ll be well over one million. Yassky’s spokesman Thies says such success shows that Yassky has “support from all over New York.” As both councilman and candidate, Yassky has raked in plenty of cash from large developers. During the developer-friendly rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the spring of 2005, Yassky’s coffers swelled by several hundred thousand dollars. And as suggested by the headline of a recent Daily News story, “Recent Estate Biz Boosts Yassky Run,” the pattern is holding steady for his congressional race.

While all of the candidates share similar positions on many core issues—universal health care, funding for education, open immigration, etc.—Owens is the only one who opposes the massive Atlantic Yards project. Andrews and Clarke support the project without qualification, and in the wake of the endorsement from B.U.I.L.D.’s Caldwell, Yassky sought to insert a three-million dollar council budget item covering job training in the project, an expense that Ratner had been expected to pay for. According to Thies, Yassky does favor “more government” and “a comprehensive traffic plan” for the site, and Yassky has elsewhere called for a reduction in the scale of the project. Thies downplays the importance of the project, maintaining that “money for schools, job training, skyrocketing asthma rates, health insurance, and unemployment” are the primary concerns of the district. Even as Yassky stresses his credentials as an environmentalist, the Atlantic Yards project, Thies says, “is not the biggest issue in the district.”

Owens, however, sees it differently. He argues against the project because of “the 1.5 billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies that we’ll be paying off for a long time; the fact that the quality of the air in downtown Brooklyn, which will then be blowing out across east Brooklyn, is going to get worse; and the time it takes to get through traffic in downtown Brooklyn is only going to be longer.” In response to a recurring pro-Atlantic Yards point, Owens says that “The jobs that will supposedly be produced by this project are not guaranteed for Brooklynites or people of color, or even necessarily good jobs.”

One of the project’s biggest boosters, Borough President Marty Markowitz, recently attacked Owens over the Atlantic Yards project, telling the New York Carib News that Owens “sucks up to the affluent minority. That’s who he does the dance for.” Markowitz is sitting out the race, but clearly is opposed to Owens, who endorsed Green Party candidate Gloria Mattera in last year’s race for borough president. Owens says the charge that the Atlantic Yards opposition is being led by the “affluent minority” (a.k.a. white yuppies) is “patently false.” He notes that the leaders of the coalition against the project include Reverend Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church; Reverend Dennis Dillon, publisher of The New York Christian Times; Congressman Major Owens; State Senator Velmanette Montgomery; and Councilwoman Letitia James. Because of this, Owens says, the claim regarding the Atlantic Yards opposition by Markowitz and others “is designed to divide and conquer and to play the race card as cynically as Yassky is playing the race card in this congressional race.”

Regarding the future of the proposed project, Owens says that it’s “not a done deal. The Environmental Impact Statement still has to come out. And as long as community organizing groups like Develop Don’t Destroy continue their excellent work, they will be a force to be reckoned with, and will be able to help leaders like my father, Velmanette, Tish, and myself continue to exert political pressure.” Like many other local activists and residents, Owens wants alternative plans to be considered. “Nobody is against development, or a project over the rail yards,” he says. “The question is what type of project, and how much community input there will be in creating it.”

None of the candidates claim to support the Bush administration’s disastrous Iraq War. “We must exit Iraq now,” Clarke flatly states on her website.” Andrews’s site, meanwhile, declares that “if you sent Carl to congress you’ll be sending a clear and loud message that it’s time to get the United States out of Iraq and bring our troops home.” Owens says that the position on his site—”Pressure must be continuously placed upon the Bush administration to bring our troops home now”—means that he strongly supports the Murtha Plan calling for immediate redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq. The Iraq conflict, he says, “is the most important issue facing the U.S., because, among other things, it sets the context for all discussion of funding for domestic programs.”

In his campaign literature and on his website (at least as of early July), Yassky does not clarify his view of the Iraq debacle. Thies, however, maintains that Yassky has had a “clear position since the beginning: the war is a mistake.” Thies further stresses that Yassky was one of the co-sponsors of the City Council’s 2002 resolution opposing the original invasion of Iraq; it should be noted that there were 31 other co-sponsors, and that—unlike Charles Barron, the council’s most dedicated foe of the war—Yassky has not co-sponsored any subsequent resolutions opposing the Bush administration’s handling of the occupation or calling for U.S. withdrawal. Thies explains that Yassky’s current position is the U.S. “should get out as soon as possible”—yet while he “supports the spirit of the Murtha plan,” it’s “difficult to put a time limit” on withdrawal.

For central Brooklyn progressives, the choice thus boils down to an heir not just to a congressman father who is retiring, but to the traditions of local community activism and the Congressional Black Caucus; or to the protégé of the New Democrat Chuck Schumer, a friend of large developers and half-hearted foe of the war in Iraq. Only time will tell which tradition will represent the future of central Brooklyn.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2006

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