Dorothy Goosby knows what it's like to start at the bottom and stay there.
Now a Democratic candidate for the Hempstead Town Board, Goosby grew up black, poor, iron-willed and sharp-witted in the late-1930s South. She attended an African-American university in Florida, studying from tattered books cast off by white students and paying part of her tuition with a scholarship from Sears & Roebuck. She became a self-confident woman, unafraid to speak out. After graduation, her mother sent her north to New York for her own protection.
Three decades ago, Goosby settled with her husband and young daughter in Hempstead, where no person of color had ever been elected to the town council. Goosby, a registered dietitian, became active in local schools and won a term on the Hempstead Village school board in the late 1970s.
But as Goosby's political aspirations grew, she realized that minority candidatesparticularly ones like her who weren't registered Republicanshad almost no chance of gaining seats in town government. Because all council members are elected at-large, most black politicians had neither the money nor the concentration of votes needed to win in a township that has more people than six states and is larger than any other in America. "There was no way a minority [area] such as ours could have a representative," Goosby says. "We don't have anyone who answers to us."
It's almost as difficult for white candidates who aren't part of the GOP to win township-wide races. Party bosses like the current one, Joe Mondello, give the machine an edge by creating vacancies and appointing party workers to the board to give the newly anointed a veneer of incumbency. These appointees automatically receive the full financial support of the Nassau GOP, as well.
In 1988, people of color in Hempstead turned to the courts for relief. Goosby signed on as a lead plaintiff in a suit seeking to overturn the at-large election system and replace it with councilmanic districts.
Mondello quickly tried to counter any notion that the system was racist by appointing obedient black residents to elected posts and town administrative jobs. He even picked his African-American tennis partner, Curtis Fisher, for a council seat.
Getting a verdict took nine years, but eventually the machine met its match in federal judge John Gleeson. As a prosecutor, Gleeson doggedly pursued John Gotti and put the mobster away. On the bench for just two years, Gleeson took aim at Hempstead, ordering the town to create council districts. The judge based his historic decision on racial grounds, but the ruling could help open the process to all opponents of the machine, whatever their color.
Rather than comply, Hempstead has continued to appeal, burning through $1 million of public moneyno small portion of which comes from black people like Goosby herself. "They're buying time," she says. "More importantly, they're buying time spending our money."
In addition to the financial and emotional toll exacted by the seemingly endless court battle, Goosby has suffered countless small indignities. She has lost two jobs, been passed over for teaching positions in Hempstead schools and been attacked by Councilor Fisher in a town press release as an opportunistic politician out to steal through litigation the status she couldn't win through the ballot box. "I brought this suit against the Town of Hempstead," she says, "so I am being punished."
When Goosby went looking for campaign headquarters in the Village of Hempstead, where she lives, no one would her rent space on Franklin Avenue, the central strip dotted with empty storefronts. In September, she finally got a rundown office on Main Street, upstairs from a collection of struggling shops and across from a beauty supply store, only to discover that the phone lines had been cut. For three weeks, the campaign labored without an easy means of reaching volunteers, scheduling appointments or leaving messages.
But Goosby marched on, knocking on doors, handing out pamphlets at supermarkets, speaking on radio shows and shaking hands at train stations. She says she loves Hempstead, even now that its downtown looks like a place that has been looted and its people have been trapped by dim job prospects, ruthless slumlords and anemic public transportation.
"We don't have a decent supermarket in our village," she says. "You can't even get a key made if you go around here. There's no place in Hempstead where you can buy a decent suit or a decent pair of shoes. Unless we make some changes, we are lost."
Goosby figures she'll need 90,000 votes to capture one the three available seats on the Town Board. She shares the Democratic slate with challengers Norman Scott Banks and Rita Kestenbaum, but her main competition comes from Republicans Bob Barra, Gary Hudes and Linda Reed, who were recently appointed to the Board by the machine, which then printed stickers urging voters to "return" them to office. The three machine candidates, all rabid party workers before getting the nod from Mondello, have the advantage of a taxpayer-sponsored public-relations office that spews out press releases, photos and carefully controlled public appearances on behalf of them and Town Supervisor Rich Guardino.
So far, Goosby has raised only a few thousand dollars, but she's trying to make up for her small budget with grassroots support and a wealth of endorsements. In October, she made a joint appearance in Hempstead with Sen. Chuck Schumer, who ousted the machine's most visible politician, Alfonse D'Amato of Island Park, last year. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy and state assemblyman and Nassau Democratic boss Tom DiNapoli have loaned a hand. On the ballot, Goosby also has the Liberal Party row and, more importantly, the line of the Working Families Party.
Founded in New York last year by a coalition of labor unions and community-activist groups, Working Families has already become a player in Hempstead politics. In March, the young party helped elect the first Democratic members of the village board in 21 years. Hezekiah Brown attributed his and Wayne Hall's victories not to the generally feeble Dems, but to the pavement-pounding Working Families troops.
Goosby's own priorities of getting fair property taxes for minority homeowners, cutting patronage positions and improving housing make her a natural choice for Working Families. She is committed to throwing off the yoke of one-party ruleor in the case of Mondello, one-man rule. "Can you imagine, this man controls all our lives?" she says. "Isn't that worse than a czar? It has to stop."
Those are messages Hempstead activists are ready to support. Atlanta Cockrell, a Working Families member and chair of the board of ACORN, a housing-rights group, took Goosby around the village tenements this fall. Cockrell explains that despite Goosby's long efforts to win minority voting rights, many African-Americans in Hempstead know little about her.
Cockrell's neighbors opened their doors to find, at last, a candidate who looked like them, who spoke with the trace of a Southern accent so common in the village, who cared about what they thought and who had ideas for making their lives better. Goosby's air of dignity and intelligence make her a powerful presence on the campaign trail, Cockrell says.
"People told me, 'She made me feel like I'm somebody,'" says Cockrell. "People said, 'Where's she been? We should have been helping her.'"
Goosby is not fooling herself about her chances in this race. But even if she has to wait until the GOP machine exhausts its appeals and is finally forced to create council districts, Goosby says she knows her time will come. "For black people, it has not been easy," she says. "But ever since slavery, we've had people stand up."
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