It’s usually very simple to spot a politician at a public event: the formal attire, the stiff demeanor, the inevitable entourage. Spotting Marty Markowitz, candidate for Brooklyn borough president, is even easier. All you need is a pair of reasonably functioning ears. Markowitz’s voice—loud, coarse, with an unmistakable brooklyn accent—can carry for quite a distance, outmuscling any noise it comes across. “Hello, Brooklyn!” he roars at the Grand Army Plaza green market one Saturday morning. “I’m Marty Markowitz. I’m running for Brooklyn borough president. Frankly I’d rather be on a beach with a martini, but I’m glad to see you all anyway.”
If Markowitz bucks the odds to become Brooklyn’s next borough president (or “Mr. Brooklyn,” as he frequently calls it), he’ll confound more than a few experts, most of whom wrote off his long-announced candidacy as quixotic. His two opponents, City Councilman Ken Fisher and former deputy borough president Jeannette Gadson, have the endorsements, the resources, and the organization. Markowitz, on the other hand, is just a state senator from Flatbush with a smattering of small-time pols and clubs in his corner. But thanks to the city’s campaign-finance system (and surprisingly lackluster campaigns from his opponents), many think Markowitz can pull off an upset on September 11.
Markowitz’s strong showing this primary season is testimony to the politics of ubiquity. His legislative achievements are, by his own admission, nil, but he’s remained popular by simply showing up—at block parties, street fairs, Little League games, anything. At a festival at Ebbets Field Housing in Crown Heights, Markowitz schmoozes, slaps backs, blows kisses, and tosses lame one-liners like Rupert Pupkin. “He knows everybody,” one woman working a table full of tchotchkes explains. “He comes out here all the time.”
Markowitz campaigns all by himself, without even a lowly aide or intern to hand out literature. “It’s just me and the voters, baby,” he says. On a muggy Saturday in August, armed with a complete listing of all the block parties in Brooklyn, Markowitz travels from neighborhood to neighborhood in his white Toyota. “I can’t go to every block party,” he says wistfully, thumping his hands on the steering wheel in frustration. “I wish I could, but I can’t. It’s just not possible! I wish I could break up into three parts and go to all of them, but I just can’t!”
Driving on Eastern Parkway, Markowitz sees a big crowd. It’s the annual Stop the Violence March in Crown Heights, an event that’s little more than a political vehicle for James E. Davis, perennial candidate for office (it’s the City Council this year). “Shit, I gotta make an appearance there,” he says, abruptly turning his car around and parking. Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel is delivering a fiery address, revving up the crowd. Now it’s Markowitz’s turn. Despite the somber tone of the event, he breaks into his legendary borscht-belt shtick. “You know, I was better looking than James [Davis] when I was his age,” he says. “Over the past 23 years women would just pass me by, but now that I’m married, women suddenly find me attractive!” Big yucks all around.
“If I win this race, it will be because of the African American vote,” Markowitz says. He will need it, because Jeannette Gadson, perhaps his most formidable opponent, is African American. She has the backing of Brooklyn’s Democratic county chairman, Clarence Norman, and the Reverend Al Sharpton. But Markowitz has had a long-standing relationship with African Americans, owing to the fact that he represents the largest black legislative district in the state. Indeed, he seems more relaxed and easygoing in Brownsville than in Bay Ridge. Certainly his politics are more in tune with the minority communities. At a block party in Bensonhurst, Markowitz was asked what his position was on gun control. When he said he was “very much for it,” the partygoer dismissively waved at Markowitz and said, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood.”
Markowitz has one glaring advantage over his opponents: his annual summer concerts in Coney Island and Wingate. Thousands attend these concerts every year, and even though Markowitz is prohibited by law from campaigning during them, the publicity is invaluable—enough for him to skip a recent debate so he could appear at one of his shows, this one headlined by Kenny Rogers. His concerts are mostly oldies and r&b: the O’Jays, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Pat Benatar, Todd Rundgren, Morris Day and the Time. Why the concerts? “I thought, What can I do to make my role meaningful?” he says. “I wasn’t going to pass great legislation. You can’t as a Senate Democrat. These concerts are my way to make people happy.”
On the campaign trail, Markowitz has continued his unorthodox ways. He has taken up a few unusual causes, such as obesity (“We’re too damn fat—myself included,” he says) and cigarette smoking. Nearly everyone he saw with a cigarette got remonstrated. “That’s no good for you!” he bellowed at one woman puffing away on her stoop on Union Street. Also, he wants to bring an NBA team to Brooklyn. “You can laugh at me, make fun of me, go ahead, but it can be done,” he says. “We have to dream.”
This is what a borough president’s race has become in the 21st century. Once a powerful member of the now defunct Board of Estimate, the borough president is today little more than a figurehead. But for Marty Markowitz, the job is the pinnacle of his dreams. “This is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life,” he says. “I would be the borough’s No. 1 salesman, defender, promoter, cheerleader.” In this regard, Markowitz seems perfectly suited to the task. And he has no ambition to run for mayor, he adds. “Then I’d have to deal with Staten Island. No way.”