If Councilmember Una Clarke had the chutzpah of a Bush Republican, the message in her next campaign ad about BrooklynRATS—politicians who eat anything to stay alive—would read: Your last meal smelled of poison. Of course Clarke has been chewed up before, but the ‘RATS always seem to spit her back out. This time she hopes she sticks in their craw.
Shortly after Clarke’s crushing loss to representative
Major Owens in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary, advisers began urging the feisty 64-year-old to “redeem the dream” of being elected to Congress by running on the Liberal Party line in November. Clarke—who because of term limits cannot seek reelection in next year’s council race—confirms she has been exploring a rematch for the 11th Congressional District seat following an election marked by allegations of violence, intimidation, and voting irregularities.
“I think my victory was stolen by last-minute dirty tricks,” Clarke charges. Owens, a nine-term incumbent, defeated Clarke 54 to 46 percent. Owens did not return Voice calls for comment, but a secretary in his Washington, D.C., office, who seemed annoyed by Clarke’s allegation, asked: “What does she expect the congressman to do about this?” Throughout the raucous campaign, Clarke, once an Owens ally, stressed her Jamaican roots in a district that has seen a surge in West Indian immigration. Owens compared Clarke to Hitler, claiming Clarke tried to exploit prejudices within the black community. Clarke accused Owens of being anti-immigrant.
Third-party backing can be critical in New York elections. The Liberals, who bill themselves as the nation’s oldest existing third party, have backed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other candidates of various political affiliations. In June, party boss Ray Harding, who is a close friend and adviser of Giuliani, threw his support behind Democratic Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton after the mayor withdrew from the race to battle prostate cancer. Harding told the Voice that Clarke is the Liberal nominee for Congress in the 11th District and that “the party is fully prepared to stand with her.” He and Clarke were scheduled to meet this week.
Meanwhile, Una Clarke 2000 campaign workers have begun inspecting voting machines and reviewing electoral districts where margins were slim. “We have 46 percent of the vote right now, and were it not for what some felt were voting irregularities I would be a clear winner,” Clarke says. Clarke’s candidacy will hinge partly on a massive voter-information drive because Democrats can’t vote for her by a simple flip of the lever. “We want these Democrats to understand that I am still a Democrat and they would have to vote for me first on the Liberal Party line then go back to the Democratic Party line to vote for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton,” she explains. “It takes a lot of voter education and a lot of persuasion that if I win I’ll be going to Washington as a Democrat and not as a member of the Liberal Party.”
Dismissing criticism that she is a sore loser, Clarke alleges there were numerous incidents of intimidation and fraud. Around 5:30 a.m. on election day, Dexter McGregor, a Clarke campaign worker, was attacked on his way to monitor a polling site in Flatbush. He was struck in the face and knocked down. McGregor was taken to Kings County Hospital, where he was treated for bruises and a fractured ankle. Police are investigating.
In addition to the attack on McGregor, Clarke has turned over to the Voice a stack of complaints from voters and polling-place inspectors and observers alleging irregularities. Some of Tuesday’s disruptions were attributed to broken voting machines, a “missing” lever next to Clarke’s name, “questionable paper ballots and affidavits,” voter intimidation (some voters arrived to find that their names were not on the list), and disputes between supporters of Clarke and Owens. “Some people told me they were threatened,” Clarke adds. “There was a whole lot of person-to-person confrontations. People described those who tried to intimidate them as thugs.”
Some of Clarke’s Jamaican American supporters say that the clashes are reminiscent of the often fatal political battles between backers of the People’s National Party and the rival Jamaica Labor Party in their homeland. “Thank God no one died,” says a self-described “JAmerican” who voted for Clarke. Among those accused of voter intimidation is Assemblyman Nick Perry, the Jamaican-born politician who is one of Owens’s most aggressive boosters in West Indian neighborhoods in the district. (Perry, who represents the 58th Assembly District, is a member of the Coalition for Community Empowerment that warned Clarke not to challenge Owens.) According to a complaint filed with Board of Elections inspector Marilyn Kelleher, Perry entered P.S. 198 in East Flatbush at about 11:30 a.m. and “began to speak to various voters.” Perry, the complaint continued, told a man named Ralph Jerimiah “that he was speaking to the voters to make sure that they voted for the right person and that Major Owens needed help in that area.” Campaigning at a polling site is a violation of election law. Perry then left. After consulting with Ingrid Dacon and Tracey Grant, two attorneys who were volunteer poll watchers, a city elections inspector “was told that if Nick Perry returned he should be escorted off the premises by the police.”
In a separate complaint, Kelleher claims that Perry returned to the polling site at 2 p.m., flashed credentials indicating he was a poll watcher, and had a dispute with Grant. “Nick Perry stated that as a resident he had a right to be a poll watcher,” Kelleher wrote. Grant, Kelleher reported, cited a section of election law that forbids elected officials from acting as poll watchers. Again, she claims, Perry brandished his credentials “and stated that he wrote the laws.”
An irate Perry uses words like “fabricated” and “unfounded” in responding to the charges. He says that Clarke’s camp picked on him because “they’re looking for avenues to get out of the grief” of losing to Owens. “It is a race Una Clarke should not have run,” he emphasizes. Perry denies he violated any laws while campaigning for Owens at P.S. 198. “I was 100 feet from the entrance to the polling site,” he insists. “I was reminding voters that I was supporting Major Owens, and that was a legitimate operation. I was not inside the building.”
Una Clarke says that fanning rumors she is a closet supporter of Rudy Giuliani was the “dirtiest trick” of the Owens campaign, and that it fooled immigrants she believes otherwise would have voted for her. Clarke and some of her campaign workers say that a widely circulated flyer had a photo of Giuliani, who is reviled in black communities, spliced in next to her.
The councilmember charges that Owens supporters distorted a group photo that included the mayor, singer Harry Belafonte, and diplomats who had been invited to City Hall to mark the 35th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence. “They cropped that picture and moved us closer together, leaving myself and the mayor standing, smiling,” Clarke fumes. “They then took that to the Haitian community in those electoral districts where they know that the mayor is truly hated and said, ‘We told you how close she is with him. Here is a picture to prove it.’ They waited until the last minute when I could not respond to that kind of stuff.”
Clarke watched her Haitian support erode in areas like Park Slope. “They did a lot more to support Major than I thought they would,” she laments. “I was out there for Abner Louima and he was not,” Clarke claims. “I was out there for Patrick Dorismond. He was not. I have educated more of their children than he has.”
The Haitian backlash might have a lot to do with a misunderstanding between Clarke and Lola Poisson, an associate of Ray Joseph, co-publisher and editor of the influential Haiti Observateur newspaper. Clarke claims that Poisson and Joseph blamed her for the loss of a $400,000 grant the city had awarded to Lakou Lakay, an agency formerly headed by Poisson. The grant stemmed from a program Clarke had created to help immigrant communities that lacked “culturally appropriate” referrals to mental health services. Four grants were awarded: They went to the Latino community in Washington Heights, an Asian American community in Queens, a Russian community in South Brooklyn, and to Poisson’s agency in Flatbush. Clarke insists that the grant was designed specifically to provide information and referral services for people with mental health problems. Instead of referring patients to accredited psychiatric institutions, Clarke claims that Poisson “went into full practice in a clinical setting without any license at all.”
City officials tried to bring the Haitian agency into compliance with grant rules, providing more than one year of technical assistance. The agency tried group counseling of clients, but that didn’t work, according to Clarke. “The city called me in to let me know that they had decided to close the program,” Clarke says. “There was nothing I could do about it.” Poisson, who is running for Clarke’s council seat, says that the department of health repeatedly had certified her agency from 1996 to ’99. “If we were not in compliance, why didn’t they tell us that?” asks Poisson, who resigned earlier this summer. She contends that the rescinding of the grant “is political” because Clarke “went along with the decision.”
Suddenly, Clarke found herself being lambasted in the Haiti Observateur. “Rather than writing the true story—that [Poisson] tried to practice psychiatry with money that was intended for an information and referral center—they attacked me. The money was not my money. They thought I could have gotten the money back.” Joseph says that he is “flattered” to know that “the Haiti Observateur helped to defeat Una Clarke.” The respected journalist recalls accompanying Clarke to Lakou Lakay to “announce the bad news” that the agency had lost its funding. “She kissed me on the cheek,” Joseph scowls. “We wrote a story and told Haitians exactly what happened.” Haitians, he adds, “depend on their leadership, especially their press, to tell them what to do.”
In a Clarke-Owens rematch, Clarke vows not to make the same mistake again. “I will be more organized now that I understand the kind of work that the labor unions and special-interest groups did on Major’s behalf,” she says. “We were outnumbered 10 to 1 and sometimes 10 to 0.”
Despite what Clarke sees as an Owens orchestrated disinformation campaign against her in black immigrant communities in Brooklyn, her involvement in the crusade against police brutality and racial profiling that engulfed the city following the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo caught the attention of the slain man’s family. Five days before the Democratic primary, Kadiatou Diallo, the victim’s mother, sent this emotional letter to Clarke, which the Voice publishes in its entirety:
Dear Councilwoman Clarke:
When my son, Amadou Diallo, was brutally murdered in the Bronx by the New York City police department, you were the only elected official from Brooklyn to intervene. It was comforting to know that you took the time out of your very busy schedule to visit the vestibule of Amadou’s killing, gathering crucial information to hold the Police Department accountable.
Una, your actions went beyond the duties of an elected official. Your expeditious response underscores the fact that you shared my family’s pain not only as a public servant, but as a mother and a friend. Although I will never recover from the grief and agony in losing a dear son, we believe justice will prevail. However, it saddens me to hear a colleague of yours tout his “One Police Plaza civil disobedience arrest” against you as a political springboard or trophy for higher office.
To your credit, you have been a source of encouragement and consolation, whether you accompanied us to the house of Justice, public forums, or Police Brutality demonstrations. Una, you were there. No one in their right mind can mar your superb public record against Police Brutality and Racial Profiling in the New York City Council, or on the street. And I will not stand by and allow it to happen now.
Your Leadership has given me strength, especially since we both share a commonality—sisters of other world nations. As a friend in government, my entire family feels confident that you will not allow this city to rest until we receive total justice for Amadou. In solidarity, I wish you continued success and urge you not to stop because victory is near.
Clarke says that the letter was a motivating factor in her decision to explore a run on the Liberal Party line, and should put to rest questions about her commitment to grassroots causes. And for the ‘RAT who shouted at a Clarke supporter that Clarke is an “old bitch” who should “run to the nearest nursing home,” Clarke points to 71-year-old Regina Seltzer, a former librarian who is locked in a dead heat with Long Island representative Michael Forbes, a three-term incumbent who abandoned the Republican Party and became a Democrat last year. “So they can forget it, honey,” Clarke chuckles. “My mother is 101. I still have a lot of kick in me. I am fully awake. No one takes pictures of me sleeping.”
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward