Steal This Election

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

Chris Owens was alluding to the bitter political squabbles his father and Koch engaged in over the years. "Congressman Owens was a leader in the fight against police brutality in both the Koch and Giuliani years," he noted. "Owens did not support Koch for Mayor or Governor and was a leader for David Dinkins against Koch in 1989. Ed Koch's endorsement of Una Clarke is clearly petty revenge."

The outspoken Koch returned fire. "Major Owens must really be hurting, otherwise he wouldn't be whining so much," he said in a statement. "My comments must have really injured his support—as I hoped they would. Owens continually demeans himself. In addition to this latest release, I understand that earlier this year he invoked the name Hitler when referring to Councilmember Clarke, rhetoric that is offensive to everyone, and particularly to every survivor and their family." Koch acknowledged their historic beef: "My opposition to Owens is longstanding. His local office is legendary for its failure to help constituents. I made my endorsement because I am certain that everyone in the 11th District would benefit greatly by electing Una Clarke to Congress."

Not everyone agrees with Koch that Clarke's candidacy fosters harmony. "INGRATE is the only word to describe Councilwoman Una Clarke," declared Jack Newfield in his July 20 New York Post column. "Clarke is running against the man who mentored her because term limits will force her to leave the council next year. The only rationale for her candidacy is ambition."

In its now infamous January 12 edict forbidding Clarke to challenge Owens, the Coalition for Community Empowerment raised fears about ethnic scapegoating—warning that their opposition "reflects our deep concern with the inevitable division which will occur in our community, pitting Caribbean Americans against African Americans and vice-versa." But Clarke argues that it is Owens and the Coalition who exploit the black ethnic paradigm, which Owens uses to fuel his campaign.

"I think they sat down and decided on what their strategy should be to get me out of the race," she declares. "When they said I would divide the community if I ran, they capitalized on the issue of Caribbean Americans versus African Americans. I have a lot of African American support in the community."

Part of that support came in the form of ringing criticism of the Coalition by former members of the now defunct Brooklyn CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "You cannot allow this group of local politicians to attack or undermine the very voting rights victories that have made their careers possible," the activists, led by renowned talk show host Bob Law, urged in an open letter to Clarke. "It is important to understand that no one has the right to shut down the political arena under the pretense that they are acting in the best interests of the community. What may, in fact, be necessary is for others to consider running to replace these 'career' politicians with people who are truly committed to the political and economic empowerment of the Black community." Highlighting the dangers the Coalition poses to the future of progressive political and social change in Brooklyn, Law and his cohorts reminded Clarke to be aware of "cliché phrases like 'operational unity,' a term that they use often to control the political aspirations of the community."

How did two once formidable allies become such bitter foes? "For 20 years, Owens and Clarke were inseparable in Brooklyn politics and community struggles," writes Jack Newfield. "Owens was a guest at the wedding of Clarke's son, and he attended her daughter's talent shows. Owens sponsored her for a series of jobs and invited Clarke into his home." Clarke, a prickly maverick who is fiercely independent, denies Owens was her meal ticket. "I never asked him for a job because I was able to get good jobs on my own," the former day care activist bristles. She says her relationship with Owens soured nine years ago when Owens began to perceive her as a threat. "Although he praised my independence, at times when I acted independently he was not happy about it," Clarke claims. "I'm always independent. I've maintained that right."

Here are some milestones in their now frayed alliance:

•In 1992, Clarke broke ranks with the Coalition for Community Empowerment over her endorsement of then presidential hopeful Bill Clinton. Owens supported Iowa Democratic senator Tom Harkin. "I made my decision before the entire Coalition for Community Empowerment made their decision," Clarke emphasizes. "I don't think Major was pleased when I went off on my own and supported Clinton. I ran as a delegate for Bill Clinton. I won. I went to the Democratic convention." According to Clarke, Owens snubbed her after the convention. "He would not listen to anything I had to say."

•Then Clarke says her main district office began to be flooded by hordes of Owens's constituents, complaining that he was neglecting them. "I've told him from time to time, 'Look, your service to your constituents is lousy. Your staff is sending people to my office even on immigration matters and when I say to them you need to go to the congressman's office they say, 'I'm not going back there because they did nothing.' " She claims that Owens's staff frequently referred "non-citizens" to her and she had to rely on representatives Chuck Schumer and Ed Towns for help. She recalls that after Congress passed the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, she became overwhelmed assisting people from the 11th congressional district who could not afford to purchase expensive forms. "I got forms from Chuck Schumer and Ed Towns for free," she says. "Major would send to tell me that I had to order them from some federal agency." Turning away constituents led to charges that Owens was "anti-immigrant," a label the congressman said was unfair. "It is reckless and irresponsible to . . . make the charge that Congressman Owens is 'anti-immigrant,' " his campaign responded. "An examination of the congressman's record, along with interviews of hundreds of constituents who have been helped will dispel any notion that the nine-term incumbent is 'anti-immigrant.' "

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