By Albert Samaha
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I worked for him as a personal assistant while I was still in college, and after first laying me off and bringing me back, he axed me because I was taking too long to transcribe an interview with Chris Rock.
I bore him no ill will. He hadn't treated me badly, and I certainly hadn't seen the kind of behavior he had exhibited earlier in his life—which promises to make his current gig of trying to unseat longtime Brooklyn congressman Ed Towns an uphill slog.
Powell, you see, is almost as well-known for his past violence against women as he is for his MTV stint. And although he's been apologizing for pulling a knife on a woman and other hostile behavior during his college years almost continually since then—in both magazine articles and books—it's all being dredged up again as he works the apathetic Brooklyn neighborhood where Towns has been repeatedly returned to Congress since 1983 by a miserably small number of voters.
Walking down Myrtle Avenue recently, Powell was doing his best to introduce himself to his constituents as the September 9 Democratic Primary neared. But it was 6 p.m., and folks exiting the G train station were headed home wearing earphones. They didn't respond when Powell and his crew asked if they were registered voters—they either didn't know or care who their current congressman was, or they didn't speak English.
"This is why Towns has been in office for this long," says Powell. "Old-school elected officials don't want the people to know when the primaries are . . . who the opposition is. They just want to hold office unchallenged for years."
Powell isn't surprised, however, that his opponent is bringing up his past. "I was very angry," he says of that past behavior, "and I've been honest about that." The product of a single-mother household and the victim of both mental and physical abuse as a child, Powell admits to taking out his frustrations on both men and women, fighting, yelling, and even getting kicked out of Rutgers University. He acknowledges that he assaulted or threatened four different women. Ask those who knew him back then and they will confirm that he was a difficult person.
Powell first wrote about his issues with women in a 1992 essay, "The Sexist in Me," for Essence magazine, and in his book Who's Gonna Take the Weight? He says therapy helped him, and he recently wrote a piece titled "Ending Violence Against Girls and Women" at Huffington Post: "Between the years 1987 and 1991 I was a very different kind of person, a very different kind of male. During that time frame I assaulted and or threatened four different young women. I was one of those typical American males: hyper-masculine, overly competitive, and drenched in the belief system that I could talk to women any way I felt, treat women any way I felt, with no repercussions whatsoever." He insists that he's a changed man and points to the fact that Gloria Steinem is hosting a fundraiser for him in her home this week.
Powell and Towns are both black, and their district is overwhelmingly so. The 10th Congressional District (a dog-leg of Brooklyn from the East River to Jamaica Bay) has an estimated population of 600,000: 63 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, and with a median income of $30,000. About 250,000 are registered to vote, but in the last election, only 78,000 bothered to cast ballots for Congress. Powell says he hopes two things will rouse the voters: Barack Obama's candidacy and Powell's own ability to drum up attention. He's still a media darling 16 years after his Real World experience—his campaign has been covered by CNN, the AP, Newsweek, and The New York Times.
The veteran congressman Towns may find it difficult to ride on Obama's coattails, despite a new poster campaign. A Hillary Clinton supporter, Towns said in a speech about Obama: "We don't need change."
Powell ran against Towns in 2006, but after campaigning for three months, he withdrew. "I wasn't ready," he says, using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse: "I had just spent eight months in New Orleans after Katrina dealing with community outreach and organizing 700 college students to come and help rebuild. I was spent." Against a cluster of opponents, Towns won the primary with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Towns is clearly vulnerable, and Powell has run an energetic campaign, complete with a 72-page platform called "The Plan." But can he overcome his past? Last week, he tested the waters by hosting a "Women for Kevin Powell" party at the Canal Room. It was pretty much a flop.
A handful of women were at the bar, chatting. Their reasons for coming out varied. Connie Burton had come from Plainfield, New Jersey, and although she can't vote in the election, the 35-year-old Jerseyite was star-struck enough to cross the Hudson. "I've known who he was since The Real World," said Burton. "He's so positive, I had to come support."
On down the bar were Ghana Wilson and Lucy Castillo, who were on the event's hosting committee. They're personal friends of Powell's; Wilson worked with him at Vibe in the mid-'90s, and Castillo grew up with Powell in New Jersey. As expected, they were positive. Wilson said: "Kevin is so much more focused now and interested in serving the public. Everyone changes and grows."
By the time the party started, only about 25 people had shown up. After some musical acts, Powell hit the stage to recite an original poem ("Son2Mother") before giving a brief speech about why he's running. There was no dwelling on his past. The night ended with an informal Q&A; Powell wrote down every question asked.
The women lined up to shake hands and, in many cases, flirt shamelessly with him. It was 10:30 when the lights came up, and Powell, who had been going since five in the morning, left the venue with a couple of bodyguards.