Mother’s Milk

Yvette Clarke’s Struggle for Her Mother’s 40th CD Seat

As the afternoon sun beats down on the glass roof of the Palm House at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, Councilwoman Una Clarke lingers at the close of the 'Women in Power' luncheon hosted by the YWCA, to talk to a reporter.

The 65-year-old Flatbush city councilwoman says she is still hurt by the array of black politicians who lined up against her last year to thwart her jump from the City Council to Congress.

Clarke, who is out of her Flatbush City Council seat this year because of term limits, says her supporters asked her to run for Congress because Major Owens, the longtime congressman, was not responding to their concerns.

"In the end, it all comes down to race," says Clarke, shaking her head. Black politicians worked against her because she is Jamaican, says Clarke, and that's the end of the story.

But not completely.

While Clarke ran a narrow race, winning 46 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 54 percent, one longtime political consultant suggested the mother had done no favors for her daughter, who is hoping to replace her mother in the City Council.

"People don't forget when you do things like that," says the consultant, who is working for another candidate in Brooklyn. If Clarke's daughter Yvette has a close race, "what Una did" will be remembered, and to the detriment of her daughter, he suggests.

Jeff Feldman, executive director of the Kings County Democratic Committee, rejects the notion that the county might punish the daughter for the sins of the mother. The county committee, says Feldman, "was more concerned about the reconstitution of the City Council as a whole" than individualized races in Brooklyn. "Yvette Clarke is a good person," agrees Clarence Norman, the chair of the county party. "She's helped me. I don't think it matters that her mother ran against Major Owens."

But it does to Owens, who this week endorsed a Haitian American candidate, Jean Vernet.

"I don't think that's the kind of political system we want, where people get in because your mother gets in," says Vernet, who says that he is a "progressive" candidate who wants to change the way business is done in the City Council. The head of legal education and assistance at the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, Vernet says he has "been there" for the district's new immigrants, dealing with tenant disputes, holding voter-education drives, and encouraging people to get their citizenship. "Yvette may have name recognition through her mother. I think I have a stronger track record in the community," says Vernet.

Frances Purcell, a businesswoman who runs an accounting and real estate firm, says that the neighborhood west of Ocean Avenue "has been totally forgotten. I got out there and the tenant associations don't even want to hear the name Una Clarke."

"Yvette Clarke is the worst kind of candidate," says Owens, who allows that he can't be objective. "She is trying to ride on her mother's coattails, which are not good at all."

Clarke calls the criticism of her and her mother "divisive." Of Owens's remarks, "I think it's unfortunate that the congressman feels that way," says Clarke, who insists her campaign is focused on the grassroots and the sense of what could be done best to address the problems in the district. "I don't call them problems, I call them challenges, because that's what they are," says Clarke, who points out that she has been endorsed by the mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer, United Federation of Teachers, DC 37, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement, the Association of Caribbean American Elected Officials and Leaders, and the Caribbean American Clergy Coalition, among others.

"I would hope that the venom generated by a simple democratic challenge in a federal election would not be perpetuated," says Clarke, a former legislative aide to a Brooklyn state senator and current official at a Bronx local development corporation. "I think we need to move forward and build as opposed to being destructive."

Edward A. Roberts, an attorney who practices personal-injury law and handles some police-brutality cases, says the district "has not fared particularly well under Miss Clarke's mother. We have the highest unemployment rate, particularly among the youth. We have the epidemic of AIDS, totally inadequate affordable housing, [and] high crime," says Roberts.

"This is going to be a street battle," he adds, of the race for the 40th council seat, "not name endorsement. It will be who the people have confidence in."

 
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