Steal This Election

The Mugging of Councilmember Una Clarke by Brooklyn’s Black Political Elite

Dear Councilmember Una Clarke:
On January 12, 2000, you received a letter advising you that a group of local politicians had reserved the Black political arena for themselves and their cronies, and, as such, they instructed you that without dialogue with your constituents or their own, they had decided that neither you [nor] anyone else should offer the community a choice in the 11th congressional district in this year's September Democratic primary. We urge you to ignore their directive that you should not run against the incumbent Congressman Major Owens.—Community activists Bob Law, Al Pertilla, and Danny Gant in an open letter to Una Clarke

In February, after the Coalition for Community Empowerment—the "head negroes in charge" of black power politics in Brooklyn—failed to spook councilmember Una Clarke out of running in the 11th congressional district race, incumbent representative Major Owens compared Clarke to Nazis. "What this opponent represents is a whole new kind of evil being introduced into the community," Owens said in an interview with reporter Kerri Lyon on NY1's Inside City Hall. "Whether it's [Joerg] Haider in Austria or Adolf Hitler, when you appeal to ethnic loyalties as a way to ascend to power it is the worst possible way to come to power." Then for the next seven months, Owens allegedly launched and intensified his own Machiavellian campaign, pitting his Jewish, black American, and West Indian constituents against one another.

Last week, as Clarke stood shoulder to shoulder with Public Advocate Mark Green, Owens, a frail dinosaur trapped in an insurgent's stampede, dropped his challenge to her nominating petition. He'd sued to get Clarke kicked off the ballot on the ground that Clarke, a naturalized citizen born in Jamaica, "was not a citizen of the U.S. when she registered to vote and enrolled in the Democratic Party." And even if Clarke was a citizen, Owens contended, she had not been naturalized long enough to qualify as a congressional candidate. He added that the "registration" and "enrollment" forms Clarke filed with the Board of Elections were "inaccurate or incomplete."

But Owens's backing off his controversial strategy in no way signaled a lull in one of Central Brooklyn's nastiest political feuds in memory. In a statement, Owens maintained that "vital information is missing" due to a "mysterious manipulation of the records" at the Board of Elections.

"Whether it's [Joerg] Haider in Austria or Adolf Hitler, when you appeal to ethnic loyalties as a way to ascend to power it is the worst possible way to come to power."

"He was trying to make me out to be a criminal and have me deported," charges Clarke, adding that Owens, whom she helped get elected to Congress in 1982, and who returned the favor by getting her elected to the City Council in 1991, was fed misinformation about her immigration status. "I heard through the grapevine that somebody told him I became a citizen in 1993, so that's how he felt that I had voted prior to becoming a citizen," explains Clarke, who represents the 40th council district,which includes the mostly West Indian and black American enclaves of Crown Heights and Flatbush. "If I only became a citizen in 1993, it means that I violated the charter when I ran in 1991. But my answer to that is, if you're telling everybody you were my sponsor in 1991, why didn't you say, 'Una, may I see your naturalization papers?' "

Owens's camp has a different spin. "[I]t is a fact that in 1982 Una Clarke told Congressman Owens and many others that she voted for the congressman in the primary and general election," the campaign charged. "This was one year before Una Clarke became a citizen in September 1983."

Clarke accuses Owens of running a dirty-tricks campaign. "Major is going to get nastier," she warns. "His job is to be nasty because if you don't have a record to run on you have to stay nasty." Clarke points out that Owens's camp has filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for all of her records related to her activities in the City Council; talked to former staffers; tried to buy information from a former landlord who had sued Clarke and the city in a dispute over back rent for her old district office; and spread rumors that Clarke has positioned her daughter to succeed her when her term expires in 2001.

"She's the nasty one!" Owens told the Voice. "Nobody in my camp has filed a FOIL on her; we've not talked to her staff or her landlord. As to her daughter, that rumor came from a thousand places."

Increasing tensions is the battle over some high-profile endorsements of both candidates. In addition to being anointed by the Coalition for Community Empowerment, Owens has the support of groups such as the Working Families Party, the United Auto Workers, and ACORN, the well-known Brooklyn-based activist housing movement. On the other hand, support for Clarke includes Mark Green, Queens borough president Claire Schulman, and the powerful Local 420, which represents about 20,000 nurses, housekeepers, dietary aides, technicians, and laundry workers in city hospitals.

It was the endorsement of Clarke by former mayor Ed Koch that provoked the most acrimonious response. "Mr. Koch has never supported grassroots, progressive thinking and community action on behalf of poor and disenfranchised New Yorkers," Owens's son, Chris, who is the incumbent's campaign manager, vamped. "Congressman Major Owens has always been unbought and unbossed, something Ed Koch could not handle."

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