Brooklyn's Blood War

A soap-opera congressional race turns into a scandal of campaign-finance abuse

The hottest and most incestuous congressional race in the city is the three-way September 14 primary for the Brooklyn seat of 22-year incumbent Major Owens, who has already announced that this will be his last hurrah.

Both of Owens's opponents are thirtysomething city councilwomen in a rush, Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke. Ironically, neither would be in the council but for Owens—the political patriarch of their family dynasties. Yet they could not wait until he retires in 2006 to run for his seat. While Owens allies see this as a blood war of betrayal, the race against him has also focused attention on a swath of extraordinary Boyland campaign-finance violations and on Clarke's undercover Republican ties.

The 68-year-old Owens said in November that he was running one last time, and he recently told the Voice he did that to "level the playing field" for the passel of candidates angling to replace him in 2006. He hoped the announcement might end speculation he'd withdraw from this year's race at the last minute and substitute his son Chris, a 45-year-old HMO manager, on his nominating petitions. He also hoped his premature lame-duck declaration would lead candidates like Boyland, Clarke, Assemblyman Nick Perry, State Senator Carl Andrews, and State Senator John Sampson to bide their time, giving him a free, final ride. Bizarrely, the two who instead saw the announcement as an opportunity to get ahead of the field and go after Owens now were the ones with whom he'd had the closest ties.

Boyland is the 35-year-old daughter of William "Frank" Boyland, who quit the assembly right after his re-election in 2002 and engineered the installation of his son, known as "Junior," by the district's loyal Democratic county committee. As a maverick state senator in the '70s, challenging the then omnipotent Brooklyn Democratic machine, Owens was pivotal in the election first of Tom Boyland and, when he suddenly died, his brother Frank. One of Tracy Boyland's first jobs was as a congressional aide on Owens's payroll.

Clarke's mother, Una, who held the Flatbush council seat for a decade that Yvette now represents, started out in politics two decades ago as part of the same Owens-led organization. In 1991, Owens broke with his top allies in black politics to back Una Clarke for a newly created council seat drawn—at Owens's insistence—to elect the borough's first Caribbean American. Though recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, Owens was virtually the only Brooklyn elected official campaigning for Una Clarke. Despite their history, she wound up running against him in 2000, a year before she was term-limited out of the council, insisting in debates that she owed Owens nothing. Owens won, but Clarke succeeded in 2001 in electing Yvette to her old seat. Even though Yvette Clarke can run for re-election to the council in 2005—unlike the term-limited Boyland—she is running for Congress after a scant two and a half years of elective service.

While Owens and Una Clarke have not been on speaking terms since the bitter 2000 race, Owens says he was shocked by the Boyland challenge. "Tracy cancelled a meeting with me and then, when I bumped into her at an event, she told me she'd already filed and was running against me," says Owens. He insists he would've made the same offer to Boyland that he made to Carl Andrews, who wound up naming people to Owens's Committee on Vacancies to guarantee that he could not substitute his son. Owens says he agreed to this unusual step because his son Chris had fed the substitution rumors by talking about a potential candidacy at community meetings and creating a website to promote it without making it absolutely clear that he was just preparing for 2006.

Frank Boyland conceded in a Voice interview that he helped launch his daughter's candidacy without ever reaching out to Owens to discuss it—a conversation that could've resulted in mutual pledges about offspring ambitions and avoided the bloodletting that is going on now. Even without a Boyland negotiation, Owens is doing precisely the opposite of what Boyland did to stack the deck for his son's assembly ascension: He is setting up an open primary in 2006, when Chris will win or lose on the merits.

This plague of hereditary politics—starting in the White House and multiplying every day at the local level—is now consuming both of Brooklyn's black congressional districts, with longtime incumbent Ed Towns actively maneuvering toward the eventual installation of his son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns. With offspring in half the Bronx council seats, and even former speaker Peter Vallone electing his namesake son in Queens, politicians have taken to regarding their positions as their property, willed to lineal successors by any device. They can't see any difference between using connections to help a son get a job and turning a public trust into a family trust. This heirloom hysteria is producing poisonous primaries, infected by an internecine viciousness far more intense than ordinary politics.

A fraud of a campaign

Tracy Boyland's filings for her 2003 City Council and 2004 congressional committees reveal campaigns so outrageously financed that they are an open invitation to state and federal investigators. The congressional committee, called Citizens for Tracy Boyland, has already earned two stern letters of rebuke from the Federal Election Commission. This committee came into existence on October 1, 2003, when it filed a statement of organization with the FEC. That was two weeks before her council committee, the similarly named Citizens to Re-Elect Tracy Boyland, threw a grandiose fundraiser at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Brooklyn. It seemed strange at the time that Boyland—who faced a Republican opponent she beat 40 to 1—would be hosting a major event.

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