Who’s Afraid of Carl Thomas?

A Black-Jewish Alliance Stirs Up Racial Fears in Battle for Crown Heights Seat

 Al Sharpton is opening an office on Lefferts across from Headstart. Purpose is to float candidate against Y. Clarke. Probably also to celebrate the "uprising." Let's hear some reaction from CARE, at least internally, if this is the case. —Crown Heights Jewish activist Daniel Botnick


A black-Jewish alliance whose aim is to smother ethnic tension in Crown Heights may have stirred up fears in the racial hotbed over Reverend Al Sharpton's backing of former Abner Louima attorney Carl W. Thomas. The alliance is supporting Yvette Clarke, who is seeking the 40th Council District seat being vacated by her mother, Una Clarke, the Voice has learned.

Carl Thomas: the fearmongering must stop.
photo: Pete Kuhns
Carl Thomas: the fearmongering must stop.

Some leaders of the Crown Heights Mediation Center (CHMC) have called for a joint meeting of its executive and planning committees. They were scheduled to meet this week. "We should empower those who do attend to set the course for the rest of us," a member of the group said in remarks accompanying an e-mail alert, raising concerns about Sharpton's involvement in the race. "We need to move quickly on this."

Such haste is necessary since blacks and Jews are planning to show that their neighborhood is no longer a symbol of racial and religious strife. A joint commemoration is set for August 19—10 years to the day after a seven-year-old black boy, Gavin Cato, was killed by a car that was part of an entourage transporting the late Menachem Schneerson, grand rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Jewish sect. The accident set off three days of rioting in which a Hasidic man, 29-year-old Australian student Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death. While Jews maintain that a car accident cannot be equated with murder, some blacks remain angry that the driver who hit Cato was not charged, and that a private Jewish ambulance at the scene did not treat the boy. An investigation concluded that police had ordered the Jewish ambulance to leave the scene.

In a May 18 e-mail to Bent-Zion Meltzer, who heads Project CARE—a local group coordinating the commemoration— Daniel Botnick, a member of the CHMC, argued that Sharpton posed a threat to Clarke and race relations in the enclave. Lubavitchers wrongfully accused Sharpton of inciting the Crown Heights upheaval. On April 28, Sharpton opened the Brooklyn office of his National Action Network at 411 Lefferts Avenue. The building is located across the street from Headstart, a day care center run by the Hasidic Jews. "Al Sharpton is opening an office on Lefferts across from Headstart," Botnick wrote. "Purpose is to float candidate against Y. Clarke. Probably also to celebrate the 'uprising.' Let's hear some reaction from CARE, at least internally, if this is the case."

Jillian Shagan, a Jewish activist who received the e-mail from Meltzer on May 18, said it was "too early to tell what the various subtexts are." She suggested that the commemoration's event and executive committees meet "to discuss how Project CARE wants to approach this as a group, because at some point we are certainly going to need to be in conversation" with Sharpton.

"I think this will be an important test of how our coalition can stand when truly controversial subjects or people come up," Shagan added. "In a way, this could be an important opportunity for healing, although it certainly doesn't have to be."

Although Meltzer agreed that "Jillian's thoughts . . . are right on the money" and that they "should act now to head off any possible confrontation," there were lingering suspicions about the new tenant on the block. "Does anyone know what Rev. Sharpton has in mind?" asked Meltzer in a statement attached to the e-mail. "Do we need to find out? How does this affect Project CARE? So let's be proactive, he could easily preempt us."

Sharpton denounces the e-mail as "outright race-baiting," adding that there is a tendency on the part of some activists in Crown Heights to exacerbate tensions and blame it on me." While Sharpton reiterates his support for Carl Thomas, the minister insists that the Brooklyn chapter of his civil rights group was not set up to engage in partisan politics. "My support of Carl Thomas has nothing to do with the opening of my office on Lefferts Avenue," he emphasizes. "I also want to make it clear that we will not be 'celebrating the uprising.' Why would we celebrate people getting killed? What we should be dealing with is the underlying issue that led to the riots."

On Sunday, Time magazine columnist Jack White reported that Sharpton is exploring a run for the presidency in 2004. Sharpton told the Associated Press in a telephone interview that he will help organize a national effort to find a progressive candidate to run in the Democratic presidential primary, "and I'm available to be that candidate." Noting Jesse Jackson's runs for president in 1984 and 1988, Sharpton added: "Twenty years later, we need to do the same thing, and maybe we need another black activist preacher from New York to run, to galvanize people." He said his purpose would be to promote issues that concern blacks and progressive whites and to win as many primaries as possible.

Yvette Clarke, who has not formally announced her candidacy, told the Voice she is "not familiar" with the group that is supporting her. "I don't think there is any need for concern where Reverend Sharpton locates his civil rights organization as long as we are working toward the goal of establishing racial and ethnic harmony," says Clarke, the 36-year-old former director of business development for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. "I don't feel there is a need for alarm. I don't have that same trepidation."


While Carl Thomas remains confident about the strong support he has received from Jewish groups in Crown Heights, some of his advisers are studying Yvette Clarke's behind-the-scenes efforts to attract the Jewish vote. In the heated battle for the Brooklyn borough presidency, Clarke reportedly is supporting Councilman Ken Fisher, who is Jewish, against Jeanette Gadson, the current deputy borough president, who is black.

"In turn, Fisher has pledged Hasidic Jewish support for Yvette Clarke in her campaign for the City Council," says one political watchdog, who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Clarke denies that she is backing Fisher. "I haven't given serious consideration to endorsing any candidate in the borough president race," says Clarke. "I am simply trying to get my campaign off the ground.")

Some pundits speculate that a deal has been worked out for Fisher to tap Una Clarke for deputy borough president. When incumbent representative Major Owens tried to get Clarke thrown off the ballot in the 11th Congressional District race last year, on the ground that the Jamaican-born politician was not a naturalized citizen, Fisher rushed to her defense. "He supported me under most trying circumstances," elaborates Clarke, who is being forced out of the City Council by term limits. "After nine years in the City Council, I had to prove that I am a U.S. citizen. It would be most ungrateful of me now not to support him." Clarke scoffs at the rumor that she cut a deal with Fisher. "He didn't offer me a job."

Thomas, the first black to be appointed to the board of the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, has thrown his support behind Gadson "on the principle" of electing Brooklyn's first black borough president. "I understand the seminal importance of this watershed in the annals of Brooklyn politics," he says. But there are more twists and turns as Yvette Clarke's mounting political influence holds sway over the Brooklyn Democratic County Organization. Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the county boss, allegedly has promised to back Clarke in an attempt to thwart a Jewish backlash. "I think that Clarence needs Jewish support in Crown Heights if he wants to hold on to power," Thomas asserts. "So it's his loyal Jewish backers who are calling the shots with regard to Yvette and Una Clarke."

Norman, however, is supporting Gadson. "And if I'm supporting Gadson—and none of the other serious candidates are supporting her—why isn't Clarence backing me?" asks Thomas. One politician with close ties to Norman blames the confusion on Fisher.

"Ken Fisher was originally scheduled to run for mayor," he explains. "But when Fisher realized that polls showed that the majority of Brooklynites were unaware of who he was, he pulled back and decided to seek the borough presidency." The insider adds that current borough president Howard Golden was upset with Fisher's decision to drop out of the mayoral race because he'd already thrown his support behind Gadson. Golden's alleged hatred for State Senator Marty Markowitz, a front-runner in the race for borough president, "led him to search for a candidate to run against Markowitz," according to the source. "The race was set between Gadson and Markowitz. By the time Fisher entered the fray, politicians like Norman, who under normal conditions would have supported Fisher, had already locked onto Gadson."

Still, insiders claim that Norman and his cohorts initially tried to derail Gadson's candidacy. "The county was forced to go with Gadson when efforts to have her drop out of the race and defer to Fisher failed," says one Gadson supporter. "An offer was even made to have her keep her old job as deputy borough president if Fisher prevailed in the election. While Norman seems comfortable with Fisher, he is obligated to run a credible race on Gadson's behalf."


Carl Thomas resents the "fearmongering" by some Jewish groups on the anniversary of the Crown Heights riots. "Reverend Sharpton was not responsible for the riots," Thomas declares. "Jews should not be fearful of him. There are those who want to make him the bogeyman of race relations by clouding up our eyes with smoke. But after the smoke clears, we will see that Reverend Sharpton has been responsible for bringing a lot of blacks and Jews together."

Thomas describes as "absurd" the allegation that Sharpton was planning to "celebrate the 'uprising' " in Crown Heights. "The wounds of 1991 run deep on both sides," he says. "It will take an effort by all of us to make sure this never happens again. The fearmongers who try to prolong this tragedy, adding more agony for everybody, will not persevere."


Additional reporting by Brandis Nwegbo and Beth J. Harpaz of the Associated Press


Related article:

"Enter Carl W. Thomas" by Peter Noel

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