Brooklyn's Nasty Race Race

Color and power collide in a historically black district

It's a year ago this month that Clarence Norman Jr. stepped down as Brooklyn's Democratic Party boss following the first of his two felony convictions for abusing his office. But the shadow of the dapper former assemblyman still looms over all things political in his borough, especially—and most ominously—over the county's most contentious primary battle, the four-way race to represent the 11th Congressional District, which ranges from Park Slope's affluent brownstoners to Brownsville's struggling public housing residents.

Not that Norman's name has been brought up a whole lot—and for good reason. The candidates who opposed him don't want to offend his powerful allies; those who supported him would rather voters weren't reminded of the fact. But at a televised debate in late August, NY1 News host Dominic Carter did a good job of smoking out their views on the issue.

The question itself was pretty clear: Was Clarence Norman, on balance, a good county leader?

Councilman David Yassky trolls for votes last week.
photo: Jacob Pritchard
Councilman David Yassky trolls for votes last week.

The query was put first to Carl Andrews, a state senator with a hearty grin and a fistful of major endorsements, ranging from Eliot Spitzer to the teachers' union. Andrews is viewed as the man to beat even though he was long one of Norman's closest associates, receiving the lion's share of court patronage appointments during much of the ex-boss's party rule.

"I'm glad you asked that question," Andrews said, although he clearly was not. "That's a question that only people in the media are really concerned about." None of his potential constituents are even interested in the topic, the senator added. "They talk about health care, housing, education."

The debate host pushed him again. "The question was specifically about Clarence Norman."

"OK, Clarence Norman," said Andrews, taking another tack. "What about Clarence Norman? My name is Carl Andrews and I have a record that I defend. A record of 27 years of service." He then began ticking off his endorsements: Spitzer, David Dinkins, Alan Hevesi. Carter pressed once more, emphasizing his words, "But on balance , was Norman a good county leader?"

Andrews grimaced. "He did some good things and he did some bad things," he said with a shrug, letting the matter rest there.

Yvette Clarke, an attractive and well-spoken councilwoman who represents a district based in Crown Heights and Flatbush, immediately echoed Andrews's disdain for the question. "This is guilt by association," she blurted. "I don't believe we need to be addressing that here. We need to be dealing with issues. And I think the community is prepared to hear those issues."

Host Carter then turned to the other councilmember in the race, David Yassky. "Do all of you, beginning with you, Mr. Yassky, think that Mr. Norman was a good county leader?"

Yassky offered a simple, declarative sentence: "No, I think he was a poor county leader." He went on to spell out why. "I don't think that the Democratic Party under his leadership in Brooklyn was about ideas, or an agenda and a set of policies. And that's what a party should be." Norman's criminal convictions, the councilman said, "obviously speak to a tremendous ethical lapse when we are trying to go down to Washington to clean up this terribly unethical Republican Congress. No," he concluded, "he was not a good county leader."

Chris Owens, a community activist and former school board member who is seeking to capture the seat long held by his father, Major Owens, said his own long association with reform groups in the borough's politics "speaks to the answer to that question." But Norman had been helpful to his father on several important past occasions, a fact that may have tempered the son's response as he offered only the mildest critique, saying that Norman "left a lot to be desired and his political end was a tragic one."

Those are some pretty sharp differences in response to a crucial issue in Brooklyn's politics, and they help underscore the quandary many voters feel as they ponder who to vote for in next week's primary.

If the key yardsticks for candidates were pushing good-government goals, fighting corrupt machine politics, and showing a knack for successful legislative action, Yassky would undoubtedly be doing a lot better than he is, despite several legitimate gripes with his record. But even the most liberal voters in the district aren't about to vote for him for one main reason: He's white.

The 11th C.D. is a federal voting rights district, designed to empower its minority residents. Its most famous officeholder was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman member of Congress. She was succeeded by Major Owens, who emerged as a leading progressive on the floor of Congress (if somewhat less successful in responding to constituent pleas at home).

As a result, Yassky's presence in the contest has made race the thorniest issue in this campaign, and it has been talked about the same way it's always discussed in American politics—with code words. "Colonizer" and "interloper" have been the politest terms used.

Part of the charge against Yassky is well-founded: As the lone white candidate up against four blacks, he has clearly banked on a strategy of trying to win the roughly 30 percent share of likely voters who are white, many of whom he currently represents in the City Council. A protégé and former aide to U.S. senator Chuck Schumer, Yassky was elected to the council in 2001, representing a district that includes Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg. To do so, he beat one of the machine's most stalwart members, Steve Cohen, a white lawyer who had a 2-1 advantage in funding and the support of Norman's troops. On the council, Yassky immediately showed much of the energy of his mentor, Schumer, and promptly developed a string of initiatives, including pushing for corruption prevention mechanisms, winning affordable housing in the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and fighting to save blue-collar waterfront jobs in Red Hook.

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