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.

Yvette Clarke, who took a leave of absence to focus on her campaign, says she does not begrudge Thomas's early lock on support from Sharpton as long as campaign observers understand that like Thomas, she too has a unique relationship with one of the city's most powerful politicians. "Instead of holding a forum to select the best candidate, Reverend Sharpton has chosen to throw his support behind someone he is familiar with," Clarke points out. "The way that Reverend Sharpton believes in Carl Thomas is the same way that Fernando Ferrer, based on my performance in overseeing economic development in the Bronx for the past five years, believes in my candidacy."

Clarke says that Ferrer's disapproval of race-based endorsements by Sharpton does not contradict his support for her, since the 10 candidates vying for her mother's seat are all African Americans. "What Reverend Sharpton is saying in this case is that he has a preference—Carl Thomas—and that is totally different from the allegation that Reverend Sharpton wants Fernando Ferrer to support only black candidates of his choice," Clarke explains. "Reverend Sharpton is saying, 'I have a preferred candidate who happens to be black.' "

Thomas argues that Sharpton has "risen above race," reminding the reverend's critics that when he demanded that Ferrer endorse black candidates for comptroller and borough president, he also backed Norman Siegel, the former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who is Jewish, for public advocate. "The fact that he is supporting Norman Siegel demonstrates how progressive he is," says Thomas. "Many of Reverend Sharpton's critics are themselves stuck in a race-baiting analysis of his widening impact on ethnic politics in the city."

One of those critics is Jack Newfield, the New York Post columnist who, because he can no longer trust Sharpton to do his bidding, is behaving like a brat. For years, wannabe white political bosses like Newfield have tried to ram their handpicked leaders down the throats of the African American collective. In his column on Monday, headlined "Rev. Al Trickster, the 'Source' of Lies," Newfield whines about letting down his guard and allowing a sucker like Sharpton to manipulate him. In retaliation, Newfield did what no self-respecting journalist would do: He burned his source. "In 35 years in the newspaper business, I have never disclosed a source," Newfield writes. "But today—and never again—I have to break that rule. Al Sharpton was my source for my column that disclosed he had promised to endorse Fernando Ferrer for mayor. I am reporting this only because I've been listening to Sharpton say all week that Ferrer was my source."

So Sharpton threw a wrench into Newfield's plan to tell the city's blacks who their next mayor should be. And for this he is vilified as "the trickster responsible for the Tawana Brawley hoax, for calling a Jewish shopkeeper in Harlem a 'white interloper,' and for other cons and confusions."

How dare Don King's errand boy step out of line? "After several years working to improve his reputation and leading the integrated, nonviolent Diallo protests, Sharpton has reverted back to type," Newfield rants. "He's just a con man who keeps changing reality as he goes along—refusing ever to give up center stage. Sharpton was on his way to improving his credibility. Now he has thrown it all away trying to become a deal-making political boss."

The reality, counters Carl Thomas, is that Sharpton "has evolved into a formidable, independent-thinking leader" who might not always follow a script. "Today, he represents the plight of the underprivileged, who come in all colors," Thomas asserts. "Some people resent that."

Thomas, who was the first black to be appointed to the board of the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, says Sharpton backed his decision to fight to keep the word Jewish as part of the old hospital's name. The facility, located at Schenectady Avenue and Rutland Road, was founded more than 70 years ago as the Jewish Sanitarium for Incurables. Today, nearly 80 percent of its patients are black. "Reverend Sharpton recognized its historical significance," says Thomas. "Like me, he felt it should be preserved."

Sharpton says the fact that he lives in the 40th Council District, only a few blocks from Thomas's home, stiffens his resolve to stick with his neighbor. "It's personal," he reiterates. "The 70th Precinct is a half-mile from my home, and if another Justin Volpe should come knocking on my door, Carl Thomas will know what to do. What's wrong with placing my trust in someone who I believe will represent me, my wife, and my two daughters?"

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