Una Clarke—the Brooklyn City Councilwoman who’s challenging Major Owens in the city’s hottest congressional race—has a problem with the truth.
She’s running against a mentor who broke with his own prime political allies and got up from a sickbed after quintuple bypass surgery to help put her in the council in 1991, yet she claimed she owes him nothing during a recent televised debate. She called him “liar, liar, liar” at the debate and equated her support of his initial congressional run in 1982—when she was the director of a small day care center and he was a state senator—with everything he did for her a decade later, which included convincing the council redistricting commission to draw a district favorable to her.
Term limits will end Clarke’s council career next year, but she insists that’s not the motive for her ill-timed challenge to Owens, who is finally positioned for a committee chairmanship if the Democrats retake the House. She also contends that it’s he who’s dividing Caribbean and African Americans when virtually every black elected official in Brooklyn—including three Caribbeans elected with Owens’s support and without Clarke’s—appealed to her not to run because they all understood that her challenge is based on exploiting her Caribbean ancestry in a district where most blacks share her background. At the same time that she says he’s the divisive one, she talks again and again about how abusive Owens’s office has supposedly been in dealing with “noncitizens” on “immigration matters.”
Earlier this year, she earned the largest fine—$48,066—ever levied against a council member in the history of the city’s landmark campaign finance system. She managed to spend $296,000, including $73,000 in public funds, on her 1997 reelection effort, even though her only opponent was an unknown on the Independence Party line who got 4 percent of the vote.
She spent most of the money before the election year even began, claiming over $19,000 in personal reimbursement of unspecified expenses and advances, an extraordinary tally for any campaign committee. She also paid $7700 to Coral Barnett, who she said was a cousin, and then put her on the council payroll when a budget line opened up. She told the Campaign Finance Board that she overspent the legal limits because she “anticipated” a Democratic primary opponent, but the board ruled that she “provided no convincing contemporaneous documents to support the argument that a primary was reasonably anticipated.”
Now she tells reporters that she’s appealing the CFB ruling, but she’s not. In fact, on August 31 she got a letter from the campaign board threatening to sue her if she does not pay by October 2. She’s raised $188,000 for the congressional race and has $90,000 in the bank. Yet she’s refused to apply a cent of what she’s raising to pay a fine imposed in May for gross violations of the law. Nor has she repaid any of the additional $9877 that the CFB demands she return in excess public matching funds that she received for the fantasy 1997 contest.
In the same spirit of legal defiance and deception, her congressional campaign committee filed its latest disclosure report a month and a half ago with the Federal Election Commission. It itemized exactly three donations, noting that another $119,127 in contributions was received but not listed. Ray Trotman, the same treasurer who handled her city filings, told the Voice that the omission was “a computer error” that he’s still working on correcting. He promised to fax a complete filing but never did. An FEC spokeswoman was confounded by the filing. Clarke has claimed in campaign appearances that the unitemized donations were all raised at a concert in small amounts that don’t have to be reported. In any event, with just days to go before the September 12 election, she has managed to conceal most of her campaign financing.
She poses as “a prickly maverick who is fiercely independent,” but she aligned herself with Rudy Giuliani in 1997, and was even said to have campaigned with him in a pre-election motorcade across her district while maintaining a nominal neutrality in the race. Giuliani’s Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, says now that Clarke’s “refusal to deal with me honestly was one of the saddest things that happened to me in the campaign.” Messinger says she “went out of my way” to help Clarke win her council seat, but that Clarke reciprocated by repeatedly promising to endorse her for mayor and then “never giving me the courtesy of saying no.”
Instead, Clarke was playing such footsy with Giuliani that Priscilla Wooten, the leading pro-Giuliani black on the council, says, “I certainly thought she was supposed to endorse the mayor.” Annette Robinson, another colleague in the council, observes: “Giuliani’s people courted her and she courted them. I’ve seen the interaction. I’ve seen the mayor’s people at her fundraisers—including Scott Cantone, the government affairs representative. I call it constructive engagement.”
Though Owens has run 12 times for state senate and congress with the endorsement of the Liberal Party—ever since he was a commissioner under John Lindsay, the last Liberal to run City Hall—Ray Harding unceremoniously backed Clarke this year. Other Giuliani extensions like lobbyist Suri Kasirer, the wife of the mayor’s campaign manager, Bruce Teitelbaum; Heath and Hospitals Corporation executive director Luis Marcos; Republican council candidate Reba White Williams; and HHC president Rosa Gil have given to Clarke’s campaign kitty.
She spearheaded the effort to license the illegal vans that service subway stops in minority communities, formed an alliance with Giuliani on the issue, collected $3520 in contributions from the industry, and, according to the head of Brooklyn Van Lines, participated in a van motorcade with Rudy shortly before their joint 1997 reelections. She championed $3 million dollars in discretionary Capital Funding for Giuliani’s largest donor, developer Bruce Ratner, who had a megastore project in her district, and collected $18,000 in contributions from Ratner companies, subcontractors, and construction managers.
Her alliance with Giuliani gave her such sway at Kings County Hospital—the largest municipal employer in her district—that a dozen hospital administrators, including one relative with a top job there, regularly donated to her campaign committees at $50 to $150 clips, totaling almost $4000.
Clarke targeted nearly $300,000 in city money to Flatbush Gateway Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit creation of hers that for years has not filed the required disclosures with the state attorney general and is chaired by an old friend who employed her daughter. While her campaign motto is she “gets things done,” the organization closest to her has failed to get any of its most celebrated projects off the ground—a garment center, Flatbush Avenue business improvements, and an elaborate new arcade for street vendors. Gateway has, however, been a slush fund for friends—with Horace Harris, an architect and campaign donor whose restaurant has catered her fundraising events, getting contracts to design two of the projects that have gone nowhere.
She’s also helped win, by her own account, over $1 million dollars in funding for the Caribbean Women’s Health Association, a respected community group whose leaders have funneled $3320 to her campaign, including an illegal $680 contribution from the tax exempt organization’s own funds. Clarke’s council office shares space with CWHA, which has also awarded its only two construction projects to architect Harris. Yvonne Graham, CWHA’s director, insists that the office arrangement was the decision of the landlord—who’s also an old Clarke backer—and that Harris was picked after a careful bid-and-review process. Graham denies that the organization made the illegal contribution reported on Clarke’s filing.
To maintain the ties to Giuliani that have delivered this kind of funding to friends, she not only voted for the early Giuliani budgets so damaging to poor communities that they were opposed by real mavericks like Ronnie Eldridge, Sal Albanese, Guillermo Linares and others, she actually debated Albanese on the radio in support of the budgets.
A counterfeit militant who changes from African to American garb in midday depending upon her audience, Clarke was named by Giuliani to the police brutality task force he put together in August 1997, shortly after the sodomizing of Abner Louima at a precinct in her district. When a reelected Giuliani in 1998 trashed the task force, dismissing its omnibus report on improving police/community relations, she refused to criticize him. Norman Siegel, the New York Civil Liberties Union president who sat on the panel with Clarke and had represented her on an unrelated matter years earlier, says now that he was “disappointed” in her task force performance and that he “expected much more from her.”
When 11 members of the task force, including Giuliani allies like Councilman Victor Robles and the Urban League’s Dennis Walcott, signed a letter to Giuliani expressing frustration over the administration’s lack of support for the panel’s probe of police issues, Clarke declined to sign it, says Siegel. When several members went ahead with a Town Hall meeting on brutality in Brooklyn that Giuliani did not approve, Clarke failed to show up. “She was not part of any of it,” Siegel recalls. “She was nowhere to be found.”
While Owens was arrested at the 1999 protest that followed the killing of Amadou Diallo, Clarke showed up but declined to get arrested, instead making sure she was photographed with protest leader Al Sharpton. She put the picture her own photographer had taken on the front page of her council newsletter, which is mailed to her constituents. Inside the same newsletter, she was pictured with Magic Johnson at the City Hall press conference where Johnson and Giuliani announced a $30 million restoration of the old Loew’s Kings movie theater in her district. Clarke cropped Giuliani out of the picture. The Johnson announcement was widely seen at the time by black leaders as an attempt to deflect attention from the ongoing protests, and to give Giuliani some black cover at a high point of anti-Giuliani feeling. Nothing has happened with the Johnson project in the nearly 18 months since the ballyhoo.
This record of feints and falsehoods has brought Clarke now to the race against Owens, whom she latched onto more than 20 years ago because he was the leading advocate in Albany for her beleaguered day care community. Owens was a librarian before he entered politics; he’s so cerebral and decent he could not see the betrayal festering behind his back. She denounces him as a do-nothing congressman now, though he is a sponsor of 15 significant bills that became law, more than most city congressmembers and more than she can claim for herself in the council.
Velmanette Montgomery, the ex-day care activist who worked with Owens and Clarke two decades ago and is now in the state senate, was the only elected official other than Owens to back Clarke’s 1991 council race. She is supporting Owens now against her other old friend. “I don’t think if Major were in her position, he would ever do what she is doing,” Montgomery says. “I remember Major waiting as long as he possibly could before announcing for congress in 1982 because he wanted to give Al Vann every opportunity to decide to run. He feels strongly about friends.”
Una Clarke, 65 years old and ready to launch a congressional career, only “feels strongly” about herself.
Wayne Barrett worked for Major Owens from 1976 to 1978.
Research assistance: Kim Brown