Brooklyn's Nasty Race Race

Color and power collide in a historically black district

But despite those accomplishments, his challengers have accused him of being tone-deaf to minority issues, and opportunistically seeking a way to get another job since, under term limits, he has to yield his council seat at the end of 2009.

"He chose this district where at the time there were four black candidates running, and he had to have looked at that," said Yvette Clarke—who faces the same council term limits as Yassky—during the NY1 debate.

Yassky has another advantage: money. He has raised more than $1.2 million— much of it from big developers and lawyers—more than double that of his next-highest opponent.

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

"I think this is a function of money, and that's what Washington is about. And we're trying to get away from that," said Chris Owens at the debate. "We're trying to get away from 'might makes right' when it comes to dollars."

Yassky, in turn, has sought to present himself as a reformer who worked on gun control legislation as a congressional aide under Schumer and who helped win new jobs as a councilman. He has also won the support of a handful of black Democratic district leaders, including the head of a public housing tenants association who praised his gun control activism. Yassky has also mentioned, although fairly quietly, the battles he waged against Norman's control of the Brooklyn Democratic organization.

Andrews may well be right that the ethical failings of a past political boss don't top the list of voter concerns. The district suffers from poor schools and some of the city's worst rates of poverty and infant mortality. But it's also true that those urban ailments didn't improve much in the two decades that Norman, a former state assemblyman and the borough's first black Democratic Party leader, ran things. Instead, corruption investigations of Norman's regime, ranging from probes of his handpicked judges to his political benefactors, indicated that there was more focus on patronage than on rebuilding Brookyn's battered neighborhoods.

Considered the campaign front-runner, given his longtime organizational ties and his backing, Andrews has been an industrious and collegial legislator, say his colleagues. But as two recent Voice articles by Wayne Barrett show ("Fees and Thank You," July 19; "Andrews Amnesia," August 2), he enjoyed the fruits of his ties to Norman. In the late 1990s, Andrews managed to land an astonishing one-third of the receivership fees paid out in Brooklyn's courts while he was serving as a Norman lieutenant—even though he is not an attorney.

Clarke's relationship to Norman is more complicated. As county leader, Norman supported and aided Major Owens when he was challenged in 2000 by Clarke's mother, Una (who later managed to steer her daughter into her council seat when term limits forced her out in 2001), and again in 2004, when Yvette Clarke made her own initial bid for the office. But Norman quickly made peace with Yvette Clarke after she was elected to the council, and last year his candidates carried her name on their petitions and Election Day palm cards, election records show.

Shortly after she joined the council in 2002, Clarke also allied herself with Norman in a bizarre decision to reject an $11 million plan to renovate a large Crown Heights apartment building as permanently affordable housing for its residents. The building at 320 Sterling Street was infamous as the site where a housing court judge ordered a notorious slumlord named Morris Gross to live for several weeks as punishment for ignoring its poor living conditions, a move that later became the basis for the Joe Pesci movie The Super.

After the city took it over for back taxes, however, the building fell under the control of a tenant leader named Joyce Stewart, who set herself up as a one-person ruler over the 113 apartments, according to other residents. Stewart was later charged by the city's housing department with abusing rent monies, but she had important political allies, including Norman, whom she had campaigned for among the area's Caribbean community. Since the city's rehabilitation plan would have meant the end of her control over the building, Stewart adamantly opposed it. Norman agreed with her, and dispatched a representative to the City Council to speak against it.

Even though the local community board and a majority of the building's residents wrote in favor of the rehab, Clarke went along with Stewart and Norman, insisting that the rest of the council support her in killing the grant. As the Daily News reported, Clarke made her opposition explicit. "I'm seeking your 'no' vote today," she told her council colleagues who responded with a unanimous vote against it.

Stewart was later sued by the city for failure to pay her own rent and was evicted from one of the several apartments she controls. According to tenants, Stewart has been living in Trinidad for the past year. In her absence a new renovation plan has been developed by the city, and this time they are hopeful of Clarke's support.

Last week, Marjorie McCarthy, a tenant leader who opposed Stewart, sighed when asked about Clarke's role there. "This building was in shambles," said McCarthy. "People who opposed [Stewart] were even beaten up by her goons. And the one person who turned against us on the rehab plan was Yvette Clarke. Now she says she is all in favor of it. I told her I was glad she was finally with us, but I wish we would have had her support back then."

Clarke still has no regrets over her past opposition. "The new deal is far superior," said her spokesman, Rance Huff.

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