The image of befuddled African Americans, standing in front of polling booths, handicapping the rat race to Gracie mansion, is deceiving. While the race illustrates a growing divide in the black community about how to best maintain influence, this electorate, some might argue, is not confused—it is rebellious. It has thrown out politics as usual and come of age.
What’s going on?
There is no simple answer.
But a major concern for some African Americans is that none of the candidates in the September 11 Democratic primary—Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone—is black. All of the candidates are scrambling for the black vote. None may find it in this crucial bloc, because none have dominated black public opinion. And if African American New Yorkers truly take their cue from black leaders, as some contend, overwhelming support for any one mayoral hopeful seems out of the question because of a split.
High-profile leaders like David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, and NYPD Lieutenant Eric Adams, co-founder of the influential 100 Blacks in Law-Enforcement Who Care, have endorsed Green. Reverend Floyd Flake, the powerful pastor of the 10,000-member Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in southeast Queens—backed by a coalition of 10 elected officials, including city councilmembers, assembly members, and a state senator from the area—has declared his support for Hevesi. Brooklyn City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten, who is term-limited, is the only prominent black leader to endorse Vallone. The split became more evident after Congressman Charles Rangel and several black community leaders—anticipating an endorsement of Ferrer by Reverend Al Sharpton—threw their support behind the Latino politician.
Will their constituents follow suit? “I can tell you that none of us put any pressures on anybody to follow our lead,” Rangel says. “It [the Harlem group’s endorsement of Ferrer] wasn’t something that was done with such emotional fervor that we are compelled to say to everyone, ‘This is the right thing to do.’ It just happened. Nothwithstanding the fact that some black leaders have personal relationships with the candidates, they were not under any pressure to break away from a coalition to endorse.”
Rangel insists that there was no pressure. “There was no big concern about what anyone had done in terms of their endorsements. Dave Dinkins could say, ‘Well, I know Mark Green, he was my commissioner and when I took a look at all the candidates I know him best.’ Floyd Flake can say, ‘Well, someone helped the Allen AME Church.’ (That’s normally the criteria that he’s used to endorse a candidate.) As for Vallone, he would normally have received a lot of black support in the City Council because the black elected officials there know him.”
Reverend Flake asserts that the black electorate is not confused over their leaders’ disparate choices for mayor. “I think it reflects a state of maturation and that maturation was brought about by the reality that the paradigm of politics, as we’ve known it for the past 40 years, has shifted tremendously,” asserts the former congressman. Flake cites the Los Angeles mayoral race between Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney James Hahn as an example. While Villaraigosa tried to build a coalition of Hispanics and liberal whites, Hahn won with the support of blacks and conservative whites—two groups that had been on opposite sides for years.
“Suddenly, blacks are saying, ‘We’ve tried supporting blacks, and we don’t get any results,’ ” Flake claims. “A dynamic shift has occurred,” he emphasizes. “And when you look at the younger generation of African Americans, for whom we did those freedom bus rides and protests in the ’60s—who are now able to go into institutions and come out with degrees—you’ll see that they are no longer dependent on the old social and political models for success. There will be some races in which blacks will be effective as a bloc. In others, they can’t be as effective because of the nature of relationships and coalitions. As a bloc, however, their ultimate survival will be built around building numerous coalitions with other groups.”
The only coalition radical black activist Sonny Carson wants to build is a black and Latino movement to elect Fernando Ferrer the city’s first Latino mayor. Carson praised Ferrer for helping transform the Bronx from a national symbol of urban decay to a thriving economic community.
“Believe it or not, since Sharpton has joined forces with Ferrer, a lot of the black vote is going that way,” says Carson, leader of the Committee to Honor Black Heroes. “I’m backing Ferrer! Every black leader should back Ferrer!” he argues. Carson adds that he will call on black leaders who are not supporting Ferrer to renounce their support for the white candidates. “I think people like Floyd Flake, Calvin Butts, and David Dinkins should jump off the white bandwagons and join what is happening. I call on them to renounce their support of their white friends, not in a racist way, but to coalesce around Ferrer.”
The activist accused some black leaders of engaging in a plot to confound African American voters. “White folks always gain when the vote in the black community is in a state of confusion,” he scoffs. “What’s important is that we form a black and Latino coalition that can take back Gracie Mansion. Because we finally have the chance to elect a Latino mayor, we need to back off whatever positions we’ve already publicly taken on Green, Vallone, and Hevesi.”
Carson predicts that grassroots African Americans, such as those living in the Sumner Houses in Brooklyn, will ignore the white candidates and follow Al Sharpton’s lead. Tenants in the projects, he notes, helped Sharpton nearly force a runoff in the 1997 mayoral primary. “When Sharpton ran for mayor he turned out the biggest black vote in the Bed-Stuy area. We who were supporting Sharpton went to every apartment, pushed a picture of him under every door, and told tenants to vote to elect a black mayor. When it came to election time the people in the Sumner Houses all came out. We still have those numbers, right now.”
Sending a Latino to Gracie Mansion is “a worthy, laudable goal,” Flake agrees. “It’s going to happen because the paradigm has already shifted,” the minister reiterates. “The only thing that mitigates against that goal at the moment is the fact that voter registration among Latinos is down.”
A white politician, who applauds Flake for endorsing Hevesi, says history can wait; that black and Latino voters should think more about exacting pledges for economic development from white candidates—a tactic Flake has perfected. “It may look foolish on the surface,” says the politician, who asked to remain anonymous, “but trust me, at the end of the day, when you compare what Reverend Flake has been able to get built out here in Queens to what the leadership in Harlem and Brooklyn is doing, he’s accomplished more. You have to work with people some blacks don’t want you to work with. It’s not about loyalty; it’s about business.”
Such is the dilemma that would-be politicians like Wellington Sharpe are saddled with: whether to vote their conscience or cut sweetheart deals, like Flake, for the good of the people. Sharpe, a prominent Jamaican-born businessman, who is running for the City Council from Crown Heights, became the reputed front-runner after the sudden death on August 5 of former Abner Louima attorney Carl W. Thomas. People in Sharpe’s camp are divided. (Thomas had backed Ferrer.) Some in the mostly West Indian American enclave are urging the 55-year-old day-care and home- and health-care specialist to back Hevesi while others are rooting for Ferrer.
“I’m being pulled in different directions,” laments Sharpe, an immigrant success story who turned his Flatbush-based Nelrak Child Development Center into a thriving enterprise. Some of the people pulling on him are Jamaican immigrants who harbor anti-Latino sentiments. “Over the years, I have heard Jamaicans say that many Latinos think that they are white,” Sharpe says. “This does not sit right with Jamaicans. It is a sore point with my own people.”
So which way is Sharpe leaning? “My choice would be Freddie Ferrer for the long-term empowerment of our people. What would we say to Latino voters if we do not support Freddie? How could we go to them and say, ‘We want you to support Carl McCall?’ ” It is unlikely that Sharpe, who has been endorsed by Al Sharpton and Thomas’s widow, Elizabeth—and who is relying mostly on pro-Hevesi, Jamaican immigrants to sweep him into office—would backpedal.
Would African Americans have unified around one candidate if Rudy Giuliani—who is barred from seeking reelection by term limits—were running again?
Reverend Floyd Flake contends that younger African American voters are not interested in racial politics. “That has always been a part of our problem,” he maintains. “We’ve always structured our politics around racism and gone after the bogeyman. The day for that is coming to an end simply because this younger class of African Americans are working in environments that were heretofore unaccessible to them. Because they are in these environments they are making different decisions. I’ve talked to African American Democrats who just as easily could have been Republican because their issues were the same—education and economics.”
Some African Americans, who admire bogeyman gadflies like Mark Green, would like to follow David Dinkins’s and Calvin Butts’s lead. During Green’s eight years as the city’s public advocate, he has been one of Giuliani’s most persistent critics. He has used the advocate office’s government watchdog duties to blast Giuliani on issue after issue, ranging from the mayor’s reluctance to run a more open government to police abuses in black and Latino neighborhoods. Observers say Green’s activist approach to government has given him a head start in winning the support of minorities—particularly African Americans who feel they have been ignored by Giuliani.
“I mean, I’m no damn fool,” says Congressman Rangel. “If blacks are following Green, I’m following blacks to Green. His name is out there for speaking out against police and poor education. We have someone who is obviously more popular than the rest, but I’m telling you now that that support is soft. I don’t want to sound as though I’m being negative toward Green, but I’ve been talking with labor’s rank and file. And they’ve told me what their leaders have done don’t mean a damn thing: They ain’t gonna be out there hustling because the executive committee by a vote of 50 to one has authorized that they go for Vallone or Hevesi or Green.”
Like Sonny Carson, Rangel hopes black leaders forsake all other candidates and get behind Fernando Ferrer. “I’m suggesting that you’re going to see a groundswell of support from black ministers, civic leaders, and businesspeople, coming together, raising money, and getting their people out for Ferrer,” Rangel says. “In the vacuum of political activity, our churches are going to explode with enthusiasm for Ferrer: It is going to be contagious because there is nothing else out there.”
Rangel, who had earlier said he might refrain from any endorsement in the primary because he was not excited by the race, says he got involved after constituents began demanding that he take a stand. “My community refused to allow me to say that this is an uninteresting race,” he explains. “They said, ‘Hey, uninteresting or not, we cannot get into the habit of not voting. We have to be involved and you’re gonna have to get together with your political leaders.’ And so I had to ask myself, ‘Even though I am not as excited as I want to be, in the long run what would be good for the city of New York?’ ”
Rangel feared that the goal of a black and Latino coalition would be imperiled. “I really think my involvement has a lot to do with the fact that Freddie Ferrer did not build his campaign on bringing together a coalition of black leaders,” he explains. “In other words, the coalition followed Freddie Ferrer. I have reached the inescapable conclusion that the African Americans’ political involvement in the future of our city must include ties with Latinos. I thought about what had happened in Los Angeles. I thought about what’s going to happen when these reapportionment lines are drawn for the City Council, Assembly, and Senate.”
He says the black coalition that is supporting Ferrer has a tough job convincing blacks and Latinos that they would be better off working together. “I’m not saying that this group of blacks coming together for Freddie is going to eliminate that type of tension,” he adds.
Rangel praises the coalition of Harlem leaders for helping black voters make up their minds. “Our district leaders, who were all over the lot, are excited now that we are together,” he says. “They are more excited about where they are now than with where they were heading.”