Enter Carl W. Thomas

How Abner Louima's Former Attorney Can Make or Break A Black-Latino Coalition

Hopes of assembling a black-Latino coalition to back Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer's mayoral bid now hinge on a new demand by Reverend Al Sharpton that Ferrer not disrupt the candidacy of former Abner Louima attorney Carl W. Thomas, who is running for the City Council from Brooklyn.

The demand signals a new low in the city's ethnic political feud, which erupted last week after Sharpton decreed that Ferrer must endorse a slate of African American candidates or kiss his dream of a black-Latino coalition electing the city's first Puerto Rican mayor goodbye.

Ferrer quietly has pledged his support to Yvette Clarke, who is seeking the 40th Council District seat being vacated by her mother, Una, one of 35 local lawmakers forced out by term limits. Una Clarke broke with a cantankerous black coalition and endorsed Ferrer over Ruth Messinger, who is Jewish, in the 1997 Democratic mayoral primary.

Sharpton's choice: Thomas has activist’s  support in key Council race.
photo: Pete Kuhns
Sharpton's choice: Thomas has activist’s support in key Council race.

"I have had discussions with Fernando Ferrer's organization and yes, they are supporting me," says Yvette Clarke, 36, former director of business development for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. The South Bronx-based corporation, controlled by Ferrer, oversees government-subsidized economic development programs in the borough.

"I will hold out on endorsing a black-Latino coalition because of Carl Thomas," says Sharpton, the leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network, who met with Ferrer Monday morning. "Ferrer does not have to endorse Carl; he just has to agree to stay out of the district if he is not supporting him." (Ferrer did not return a Voice call for comment.)

Bullying Ferrer to resolve any potential conflict surrounding Thomas's candidacy comes on the heels of criticism that Sharpton was trying to force Ferrer to make endorsements based on race. Last week Sharpton demanded that as a condition of winning his support, Ferrer endorse William Thompson Jr., the former Board of Education president, who is black, for comptroller. In addition, Sharpton wanted Ferrer to back a black for borough president. That, according to Adam Nagourney, the white New York Times reporter who broke the story, "put Ferrer in the unusual position of having to declare that he was, all appearances to the contrary, running a race-blind campaign." Ferrer "rejected" Sharpton's demands, "but only after the other three Democratic candidates said they would not abide by the conditions" Sharpton "laid down."

Certainly, the Thomas factor adds discord to the cacophonous vibes some say have been orchestrated by the Uptown piper. But dredge up the police torture of Abner Louima and one might understand why Sharpton is so fiercely loyal to Thomas. Sharpton credits the 41-year-old former prosecutor with whipping up initial outrage after cops began casting doubt on Louima's story. In three federal trials, Louima testified about an ordeal stemming from his arrest in a street brawl outside a Brooklyn nightclub on August 9, 1997. The Haitian immigrant was handcuffed and taken to the precinct. Once there, Officer Justin Volpe—mistakenly believing Louima had punched him—sought revenge by sodomizing Louima with a broken broomstick and threatening to kill him if he reported it.

When Thomas saw Louima shackled to a bed he demanded that the handcuffs be removed and trumped-up charges against him be dropped. Insisting that what happened to Louima was not isolated, Thomas persuaded Leslie Cornfeld—then deputy chief in charge of the civil rights division for the Eastern District, which covers Brooklyn—to launch a "pattern and practice investigation" of the NYPD. Volpe, who pleaded guilty, is serving 30 years. A jury found Charles Schwarz guilty of pinning Louima down during the assault. Four other officers were convicted of lying to authorities about what happened.

"Carl's quick thinking saved Abner's life," declares Sharpton. "We heard his protests loud and clear, and they became a rallying cry for the anti-police-brutality movement. There is no way I'd tolerate my mayoral choice campaigning against Carl Thomas." Sharpton adds that he is trying to avoid embarrassment. "If Carl Thomas is going to use a picture of me and him standing together, he should not have to contend with another picture of me standing with Ferrer, who is rooting for his opponent. How can I say, 'I'm with you,' when I know I'm part of a scenario that's gonna hurt you?"

An acknowledged power broker, Sharpton foresees more "conflicting loyalties" in the contest between community activist Charles Barron and Donald Wooten, the son of Brooklyn councilwoman Priscilla Wooten. "One of the demands that Ferrer must meet before a black-Latino coalition could move forward is that if he cannot support the movement's choices for elected office, he cannot campaign against them," Sharpton decrees. "No one in the city wants a black-Latino coalition more than me, but it will not be forged at the expense of key black leaders who paved the way for our movement against brutal cops and racial profiling. Carl Thomas and Charles Barron stood with me when I ran for mayor. Freddie did not. I owe it to them."

Yvette Clarke speaks cautiously about Ferrer's backing of her and Sharpton's power play for Thomas. "I don't know that the councilwoman's own support of Ferrer has anything to do with it," says Clarke, dismissing the inference that there is a quid pro quo.

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