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.

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.

"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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