James E. Davis, insurgent candidate for the New York State Assembly, makes it quite clear that he holds his opponent, incumbent Clarence Norman Jr., who’s also Brooklyn’s Democratic Party leader, accountable for many of the city’s ills. Very much accountable. Davis said that the 1991 Crown Heights riots, every police brutality case from Michael Stewart to Patrick Dorismond, and even Rudy Giuliani’s 1997 reelection would not have happened if Clarence Norman were a private citizen rather than the assemblyman for this Crown Heights-East Flatbush district. “Patrick Dorismond would still be alive today if I were in charge,” Davis boasts.
With his penchant for hyperbole, Davis could easily be dismissed as a mere gadfly. But Clarence Norman is taking his challenger seriously, and Brooklyn pols are keeping a close eye on the race. Two years ago Davis gave the county leader the scare of his political life when he came within 677 votes of upsetting Norman, in an election when Democrats cleaned up in Brooklyn. Now Norman can be found campaigning hard in his district, even to the point of skipping last month’s Democratic convention in Los Angeles. In 1998, Norman was busy working for Eliot Spitzer’s campaign for attorney general, he says now, and took his opponent too lightly.
“Patrick Dorismond would still be alive today if I were in charge.”
Davis is proud of forcing Norman (whom he calls a “sellout Negro politician”) to campaign so vigorously. “He’s been invisible for all these years, but I put flesh back on those bones!” he told the Voice. “It took James E. Davis to do that.” Davis, 38, a police officer and minister, calls himself “a community activist turned political activist.” He launches into a Muhammad Ali impersonation: “I’m gonna shock the world!” he says. “This election is gonna be like the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ when I defeat Norman, the gorilla.”
Davis’s antics can be amusing political theater, but this is Crown Heights, where tensions still exist between people of color and the Hasidim, and things have gotten ugly lately. “Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. Gives Jews Special Treatment Over Blacks in Crown Heights,” screams a headline in one of Davis’s mailings. Davis insists the issue he’s raising is one of fairness. “In Crown Heights, the Jewish community controls the wealth,” he maintains. “Now, I have no problem with the Jewish community controlling the wealth, but the black community needs its share.” Moments later, however, he blasts Norman for missing the Democratic convention, suggesting that Norman “boycotted” the event because of the selection of Joe Lieberman as vice presidential candidate. “[Norman] let all of us Democrats down,” Davis quips. “The Jewish community should be outraged.”
Davis is not exactly new to politics. He has run for office three times before, challenging Major Owens for Congress (he didn’t get on the ballot in ’96), Mary Pinkett for City Council in ’97 (he came in third), and Norman in ’98. In 1997, after losing to Pinkett in the primary, he ran on both the Liberal and Conservative lines in the general election, a highly unusual move. He also ran on the Liberal line in ’98, losing his job with the NYPD for violating its rules banning active-duty officers from being the nominee of a major party (he was reinstated this year).
Errol Louis, who competed with Davis for Pinkett’s seat in 1997, doesn’t have a fond recollection of his former opponent. “He’s a reckless person,” Louis says. “Even in the rough-and-tumble world of Brooklyn politics, there are limits, and Davis crossed them.” Louis says that Davis actually waved his gun before Louis’s campaign workers in 1997.
Davis’s chief claim to fame is his annual “Stop the Violence” rally, an event started during the Dinkins administration after the Crown Heights riots and now continuing under Davis’s sponsorship. Critics charge that the rally is nothing more than a fundraising vehicle for the insurgent. His organization, which he says is a nonprofit, has not filed with the state attorney general’s office. The march has been great publicity for Davis; his face has been plastered on buses and billboards throughout Brooklyn. But the marches have been sparsely attended, by somewhere between 60 and 70 people, according to one participant.
Still, Norman takes nothing for granted this time. He claims to have raised more than $40,000 for the race; Davis says he has amassed slightly less than $5000. But the challenger is undeterred: “I’m David going up against Goliath. And you know what happened there.”