For incumbents aligned with Brooklyn's Democratic machine, the borough has usually been a patch of paradise. But this year, a political fight threatens to litter the borough with torn alliances and fractious factions.
Term limits have most of Brooklyn's City Council members looking for a new job, and forced state and federal politicians to defend theirs. One councilmember, Una Clarke, now plans to challenge her onetime mentor: veteran congressman Major Owens, who helped Clarke become East Flatbush's councilmember in 1991.
Six months before the primary, the race is already intense. Born in Jamaica, Clarke serves a community with a large immigrant population and insists that the incumbent has not done enough to serve that constituency. Owens, an African-American with an enduring reputation as a champion of progressive causes, has accused Clarke of being divisive and compared her “ethnic demagoguery” to Hitler's. (The Owens campaign now says the comment was a mistake.)
So much do Brooklyn Democrats dread a costly and divisive primary that several of Owens' supporters, including Assembly members Roger Green, Frank Boyland, and Al Vann, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and party leader Clarence Norman, sent a letter to Clarke in January, urging her to abort her all-but-declared campaign in the name of party unity.
Clarke calls the letter insulting. “It was inappropriate,” Clarke says. “This effort stifles democracy, which does not serve the black community. No one questions my ability, intelligence, my ability to get things done.”
Many political insiders see this race as a serious test to determine whether the city's 400,000-strong Caribbean community has emerged as a viable voting bloc. “It usually takes a significant amount of time for new ethnics to organize and elect people to office,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist. “Can Clarke raise the money? Is Owens weak enough? That's what this race will boil down to.”
But not everyone considers ethnicity central to this contest. “I don't think this race is any kind of referendum on Caribbean politics,” says L. Nick Perry, a Brooklyn state assemblyman who is both Caribbean and an Owens supporter. “It will be just another race where a challenger thinks the incumbent can be beaten. That's all.”
To political activists in the 11th District, Major Owens has been a familiar figure for more than 30 years. Affection for him runs deep, particularly in Park Slope, Prospect Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “Major represents the spirit of the '60s–antiwar, civil rights, social justice,” says Charles Monaghan, a former district leader and longtime activist. “He has very long roots.”
But there is criticism as well. The rap on Owens is that he's a policy wonk more concerned with waste at the Pentagon than at the city Housing Authority. Many still grumble that Owens was nowhere to be found during the Crown Heights riots of 1991. And when it comes to dealing with constituents, many of whom rely on the congressman to handle immigration matters, even ardent admirers agree his two district offices are not up to snuff.
“You want Major representing you in Washington when the Republicans are marauding,” says Jack Carroll, an activist with the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a Park Slope-based political club that supports Owens. “Major fights to resist them. But in the nitty-gritty of constituent services, his staff has let people down. That's his one failing.”
Congressman Pothole he isn't. One former Owens staffer still respects him as a legislator but calls the district office on Utica Avenue “appalling.” If people came in with a problem that was not a federal matter, says the ex-staffer, they were told they couldn't be helped. Numerous requests for help went unacknowledged. There are still only four hours a week when constituents can come in without an appointment, during which they sit in an overcrowded waiting room. Indeed, a 1998 Daily News analysis ranked Owens' constituent service as the least responsive in the city's congressional delegation.
Not suprisingly, Clarke plays up these complaints. “He is absent from this community,” she says. “My constituents have gone to his office and have not been pleased with the way in which they have been served.”
Chris Owens, Major's son and campaign manager, concedes the congressman's district office has had its share of problems but says that the number of requests for help with immigration are daunting. “This is the one area where state and city can't do much,” he says. “We're talking thousands of caseloads that have been processed [at this office].” (Congressman Owens did not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview.)
Major Owens may be vulnerable, but the advantage of incumbency is enormous, and federal elections don't come cheap. Clarke's handlers believe she needs to raise some $300,000 to mount a successful challenge. According to campaign filings from the end of 1999, Clarke had raised $56,000–advisors say it's now up to $70,000–while Owens has secured more than $150,000. Clarke has raised all her money from small, individual contributions; Owens has amassed more than half his chest from political action committees, mostly unions, health care groups and trial lawyers.
Clarke's fledgling campaign has been further hobbled by a large fine recently imposed by the city's Campaign Finance Board. The agency slapped the councilwoman with a $100,000 penalty for violating spending limits in her 1997
re-election campaign–a race, incidentally, in which her Republican opponent got just 1 percent of the vote. Clarke plans to appeal the fine, the heaviest on a City Council candidate in the 12-year history of the Campaign Finance Board.
Owens' seniority also works in his favor. Should the Democrats retake Congress this November, he would rank high on the Education Committee and could even chair a subcommittee. Clarke would begin at the bottom, and she is slightly older than Owens. “A 64-year-old freshman is not an appealing prospect,” one political insider quips.
The history between Owens and Clarke runs deep, going back to the 1970s. Owens was a guiding force in her election to the City Council: the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a group of left-leaning politicos, union leaders and activists that Owens helped found, supported her against Carl Andrews, who was backed by the Brooklyn Democratic machine. “I put my career on the line when she ran,” Owens told the Daily News earlier this year. “This is a case of one of your children rising up to try to eat you.” Clarke, meanwhile, believes she has been equally helpful to Owens, introducing him to many West Indian community leaders.
It would be ironic if ethnicity played a decisive role in this race. From his work with a 1960s group called Christians and Jews United for Social Action (a Legal Aid precusor) to the Coalition for Community Empowerment, Owens has built his career on forging multiracial and multiethnic coalitions. He has repeatedly denounced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, often at a political price that has included a difficult primary in 1994.
But given the incumbent's poor track record serving the immigrant community, it is inevitable that ethnic issues will come to the forefront–and Clarke's supporters will most certainly exploit them. “You have to detail how you're going to be different from your opponent,” explains Democratic consultant George Arzt, who will be working with Clarke. The councilwoman herself says it's Caribbeans' time to show their strength: “It's a natural progression. The community has matured in many ways, [and] we're no different from other immigrant groups.”
What's more, the political landscape has changed dramatically. Many of Brooklyn's most famous black leaders have been of Caribbean ancestry–Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, district leader Leslie “Mac” Holder, even Clarence Norman–but that fact was not often highlighted, since the group was a minority within a minority. That has changed.
“It has become almost popular these days to define oneself as Caribbean,” says Hugh Hamilton, legislative aide to City Council member Lloyd Henry, who represents the district adjacent to Clarke's. “There was a time when it was considered divisive to assert a Caribbean ethnic identity within the context of the overall African-American community.”
Hamilton and others note that the 1996 federal welfare bill, which included many provisions hostile to immigrants, was a political catalyst in communities like East Flatbush. “It acted as a lightning rod to mobilize previously dormant segments of the neighborhood,” he explains, pointing to developments since then that include widespread interest in this year's census and the addition of tens of thousands of immigrant citizens to the voter rolls. “We're still not as organized as we could be. But we've certainly come a long way.”
To even have a shot of pulling off an upset, Clarke must line up an army of allies to match Owens'. Clarence Norman and the county machine are with Owens, even though their relationship has been shaky in the past, while Congressman Edolphus Towns, who has been feuding with Norman for years over judicial appointments, is backing Clarke. Owens can also count on Lambda Independent Democrats and the Working Families Party. Already endorsing Clarke are Ed Koch and Canarsie councilman Herb Berman, whose Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club will provide organizational help to her campaign.
“This will be a door-to-door race,” predicts Arzt. “You can't depend on TV in such a small district…. This race is gonna be won in the streets.”