Steal This Election

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

•At the same time, Owens's once angry style grew more subdued, leading some critics to say he had lost interest in his work. He allegedly told friends that he was tired and that he wasn't going to run again. "Several constituent groups said to me, 'The congressman is getting ready to step down and he is getting ready to position his son for it; are you interested?' I would laugh it off by saying, 'No, I don't think so. I think if he was going to do that he would bring it to the Coalition, and I would know about it.' " But when Clarke let it be known to some political operatives that she was eyeing Owens's seat, her relationship with him worsened. Suddenly, Owens told Clarke she had to get out of a district office they shared. "He found a way to say to me that I had to leave because the Government Services Administration did not want it to be shared in that way." Owens claims that Clarke "never sent anybody to staff" the office. "Nobody was there for two years."

•In 1997, their relationship worsened during the fiasco over the Democratic mayoral nominee. "I think it really got bad at the point when he couldn't forgive me for not initially supporting Ruth Messinger for mayor," Clarke asserts. Clarke had endorsed Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer. She says during meetings of the Coalition for Community Empowerment she told Owens she was leaning toward Ferrer. "I made it clear to him that with David Dinkins no longer mayor, my entire goal was to see that a minority succeed Dinkins. I reminded him that Fernando Ferrer is Latino, and since I am a member of the City Council's Black and Latino Caucus I did not want to make an endorsement until I knew what the caucus wanted to do." While the Caucus intensely debated the pros and cons of an endorsement, Owens and the Coalition allegedly stepped up the pressure on Clarke. "I felt that because of Major's long relationship with Ruth he wanted me to come out immediately for her," she recalls. Then Ferrer dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Messinger. "When he dropped out of the race, I was just too pissed to begin with, too angry to even regroup," says Clarke. Clarke sent a check to the Messinger campaign. But that was all. "I didn't do the legwork for her and in their minds I was supporting Rudy Giuliani."

The vociferous sniping has obscured the candidates' positions on significant issues. Owens presides over one of the poorest districts in the country. In addition to chronic unemployment and substandard housing, many of his constituents suffer from AIDS and asthma. "I think all he wants to deal with is the personal attacks to hide his record," Clarke charges.

If elected, Una Clarke would become one of a handful of women with West Indian roots to serve in Congress. She is preceded by Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who is a second-generation Jamaican, and the mother of all trailblazers, former congressmember Shirley Chisholm, the daughter of Bajan immigrants, who represented the then 12th congressional district in Brooklyn. Chisholm was the first black woman ever to win a seat in the House of Representatives. She became known nationally for her fiery speeches and her 1972 campaign for the presidency. In 1982, saying it had "become increasingly difficult to carry the tragic messages back from Washington to the jobless, homeless, and hopeless Brooklynites," Chisholm decided not to run for an eighth term. "I'd be like Shirley Chisholm," says Clarke. "I am reclaiming her seat to do as well as she did and even better. She tells me I have the right to run."

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