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."

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.' "

•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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