What’s Arabic for ‘Mayor’? Ray Kelly’s Surprising Under-the-Radar Campaign.


One Tuesday night in September, a specially trained imam from Turkey stayed up late, engraving letters in imported ink onto a parchment stained with tea leaves. The sloping, thick, black letters were written in Arabic calligraphy, and the imam who wrote them, Ahmet Yuceturk, had taken great pains to make sure they looked just right, even adding the seal of an Ottoman sultan to the parchment. The words he inscribed: “Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.”

On a Sunday evening that same week, Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights were also talking about Ray Kelly. Earlier that afternoon, the commissioner had made a surprise appearance at 770 Eastern Parkway, the synagogue that is the center of the Lubavitch universe. He was wearing plainclothes and, according to an observer, wandered around for 20 minutes before being recognized.

Sultan he is not, but Kelly does get a lot of love from some ethnic and minority groups in New York. Leaders say he pays mind to their communities like no commissioner before him, the kind of guy who returns phone calls and shows up in person to their events.

That may be one of the reasons why he has such a high approval rating—62 percent, well ahead of City Council speaker Christine Quinn and Comptroller William Thompson, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in March.

But Kelly’s numbers aren’t higher than Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s. Seventy-five percent of the public approves of the way Bloomberg is doing his job, according to another Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month. And those numbers, coupled with the Wall Street crisis, is apparently enough to motivate Bloomberg to seek an ouster of term limits and a third term as mayor. The council held public hearings on the issue last Thursday and Friday, and is set to vote on October 23.

While a lot of attention has been focused on Council speaker Quinn and what Bloomberg’s plans mean for her ambitions, little has been said about Kelly, who actually may have been in a stronger position to replace Bloomberg.

It’s Kelly, in other words, who may have the most to lose from a Bloomberg third term.

While Kelly has shied away from questions about his desire to be mayor, it’s clear that he’s been doing the kinds of things such a run would require, like courting the favor of many of the city’s constituent power bases, including ethnic and religious groups.

“Ray Kelly has been making spot checks himself. He’s not sending his underlings,” says Eli Slavin, a director of the Crown Heights Jewish Political Action Committee. “He’s made numerous surprise visits to the neighborhood—at 11 o’clock at night, at three o’clock in the morning. He comes unannounced. He doesn’t invite the press. And that says a lot about a person.”

Slavin says that once, after a local meeting with Kelly, he had tried to take a photograph to put up on a community website, but Kelly refused, saying he did not want the publicity. Since a violent incident in May, in which a young black man was assaulted, Kelly has stepped up the police presence. Police now regularly patrol the block where the main synagogue sits.

“He understands Crown Heights very well, and when he speaks to us, he’s not speaking to strangers,” says Rabbi Chanina Sperlin, the vice president of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, a large nonprofit that functions like a community center in the neighborhood. Sperlin adds that Kelly meets with both Jewish and Caribbean community leaders frequently. He noted that the commissioner was once a captain in the neighborhood precinct. “He knows the streets of Crown Heights. When you work somewhere, you never forget it.”

For Muslims, the commissioner isn’t promoting safety as much as he’s promoting a better understanding of Islam and the inclusion of Muslims in the NYPD’s ranks.

Yuceturk presented his gift to Kelly at his mosque, the United American Muslim Association in Sunset Park, where a hundred or so had gathered to commemorate the ending of the month-long Ramadan holiday. He says the commissioner stayed around and gave a long speech. Kelly said that the numbers of Muslims currently training in the Police Academy had increased, adding that he considered the presence of Muslims to be central to the mission of the police force, and praised the work of a Muslim chaplain that he had appointed. He also promised to hang Yuceturk’s artwork in his office.

“We’re very happy with him,” the imam says. “He’s really a nice guy. He always returns my calls. And when he can’t come to something, he sends someone.”

Others also appreciate the personal touch. Pastor Calvin Butts, of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a prominent Harlem church where Hillary Clinton makes frequent appearances, says that the commissioner called him personally to invite him to speak at the police academy’s graduating class last year. The ceremony was held in the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and musician Wyclef Jean and Al Sharpton also spoke about policing in minority communities.

But Butts added that inviting a pastor to make a speech to new recruits is a good thing, but it can only do so much. He says the NYPD hasn’t made extra efforts toward blacks since the Sean Bell shooting and that, in the past, the department had done a better job recruiting black officers.

As part of his outreach efforts to Muslims, Kelly has chosen two locals to serve as community coordinators, and the department has produced a video called “Islam 101” that is mandatory viewing in police precincts.

The NYPD’s office of community affairs has risen in importance under Kelly—who hired a three-star chief, Douglas Ziegler—to head it up. Ziegler has in turn employed around 70 civilians to act as community liaisons.

But if Kelly is popular, his supporters tend to be people who like Bloomberg, and some are satisfied to see Kelly wait out another term before becoming mayor.

“You have a captain sailing a ship, and then he wants to get a cup of coffee,” says Sperlin. “So he goes to his second in command and asks him to steer. But a hurricane is coming towards the ship. Would you give it to someone else to steer?”

Kelly himself isn’t giving away any disappointment about having to wait. “I’m not addressing that issue right now,” he recently told the Daily News, “but I think it’s a great thing for the city that the mayor is running.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 22, 2008

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