A Rift Grows in Brooklyn


A political chasm as wide as Eastern Parkway threatens to divide Brooklyn Democrats. The borough’s Democratic machine recently sent a letter to City Council member Una Clarke (D-40th District) urging her not to challenge the seat of nine-term incumbent congressman Major Owens (D-11th District) by announcing her run. The letter, drafted by assemblyman Albert Vann, and signed by congress members, state senators, assembly members, City Council members, and district leaders, argued that Jamaican-born Clarke would inevitably cause a rift between the Caribbean and African American communities.

In an interview with the Voice, Clarke insists officials are using her Caribbean ethnicity as a scare tactic to dissuade prospective supporters. In addition, she claims the machinery’s accusations are nothing more than a smoke screen and that the notion of a division between the two groups is a mythical one.

The party has also accused Clarke of catering to immigrant constituents, while ignoring the needs of other citizens. Clarke argues that this is not the case.

“Nothing I have fought for has been exclusive to Caribbean Americans,” she says, while acknowledging the exception of the voting issue for which she argued that “anyone holding a green card should be able to vote in local elections—school board and city elections—so that they are empowered to participate physically, socially, and politically once they are legal citizens.” Clarke insists this would not only empower Caribbean immigrants, but all immigrants in the district.

While Clarke admits her core constituency is immigrants, she maintains that she does not run solely on an immigrants’ rights platform. She points to issues that reflect the needs of the community, such as child care and health care reform, and explains that she’s defended these issues for all of her constituents. “I have not shied away from the fact that I am an immigrant,” states Clarke, “but I have never been divisive.”

However, Brooklyn’s Democratic power brokers are annoyed at Clarke’s contemplation of a challenge to Owens, who reportedly stuck his neck out to support her council bid in 1991. “First of all, they’ve jumped the gun,” Clarke responds, stating that the whole idea of her running originated four years ago with Congressman Owens’s statement that he did not want to run for another term. “That was how my name was floated in the first place. So I said I would not pull my name back, but that I would leave it out there and see what the public was saying.”

While it is widely known that Owens supported Clarke during her 1991 run for council, Clarke gripes that no one seems to recall 1984, when Owens often referred to her as his “secret weapon.” Clarke alleges it was she who introduced Owens to prominent figures in the West Indian community, including Grenada ambassador Dr. Lemuel Stanislaus and Dr. Chester Redhead, former counsel general of Grenada.

In fact, Clarke takes credit for introducing Owens to his immigrant constituency (which Owens does not deny). Clarke also maintains that when district lines were drawn, Owens and the Brooklyn Democratic Party as a whole decided to stop at the neighborhoods with immigrant populations, operating on the misconception that only nonvoters inhabited those communities. “I pushed for the district to begin at the entire [Empire] boulevard and go south,” Clarke explains.

Clarke also suggests that gender politics may be a factor in the conflict. “I am a woman and I didn’t ask anybody [for permission] to run.” She adds that congressional seniority played a part as well. Chris Owens, the congressman’s son and campaign manager, says that seniority was indeed an argument in their claim that Owens is a better candidate. He says, “The congressman has an excellent record and has always been supportive of empowerment throughout the community of all groups.”

Echoing Clarke’s claim, he says that the main reason for their opposition is a sense of betrayal. Chris Owens denies that Clarke’s immigrant status has anything to do with campaign opposition. “If she wants to push the ethnic card [the campaign] is going to respond to it.”

Clarke, who, according to the Daily News, plans to appeal a recent fine imposed by the Campaign Finance Board for exceeding spending limits in her 1997 reelection bid, replies, “It is not about brothers and sisters against brothers and sisters. It is about sharing and participation.”

When asked for the record whether she has made an official decision to run, Clarke says, “I am leaning towards running because [the Brooklyn Democratic Party] has pushed me to the point of no return. I can’t turn back now.”