Pulpit Friction

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In Janet Wilson’s 30 years on the north shore of Staten Island, she has watched vibrant neighborhood storefronts deteriorate and shut down. Too many people are struggling to meet rent and food costs because they can’t find jobs, says the president of the Staten Island African-American Political Association, and public schools are overcrowded.

Since the decline of the area’s industrial job base–which once included the U.S Navy’s 36-acre home port in Stapleton, a Procter & Gamble soap factory at Mariner’s Harbor, and U.S. Gypsum, a building materials plant in New Brighton–local jobs have become scarce for working-class residents.

For Wilson and other members of the African-American community there, one response to their problems is Deborah Rose. A school board member and executive director of Liberty Partnerships Program, a drop-out prevention effort based at the College of Staten Island, Rose is campaigning to become the first African American elected to City Council from this district in which about 30 percent of registered Democrats are black. They blame City Hall’s inattentiveness for the area’s economic problems, and hope one of their community members will have the vested interest to turn things around. “Women’s issues are not being heard. Progressive issues are not being heard. I bring a whole new voice,” says Rose.

A split in the African-American community could deter those hopes, however. Some of the borough’s most influential black leaders, church ministers, have not followed through on statements made early in the campaign to come out strong for Rose. “Not one reverend has come out to campaign for Debi so far,” said Togba Porte, past president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association, which works to represent the 6,500 Liberians living in the north shore, and a Rose campaign volunteer. “If the black community and our reverends are so serious about empowering our community, then they must publicly endorse Debi,” he said. Frustrated with African Americans’ inability to grab power on Staten Island, he says, “That’s the reason why we’ve always failed, because we’re so passive.”

Porte speaks specifically of Rev. Calvin Rice and the Staten Island Black Ministers Alliance, an ad hoc group headed by the borough’s black church leaders. As head of the First Central Baptist Church, Staten Island’s largest black congregation, and until recently an executive board member of the island’s Democratic organization, Rice plays a key role in black politics. He helped mobilize voters to give David Dinkins 29 percent of the island’s vote in his 1993 race for mayor. Rev. Victor Brown, one of Rice’s colleagues on the alliance, helped Rev. Al Sharpton win 27 percent of the vote in his 1997 mayoral run.

This year, though, the efforts seem to be much different. While Rose tries to keep up with her well-funded and -connected opponents, the reverends are nowhere to be found on the campaign trail, despite efforts by her camp to get an appointment. With tough competition for the Democratic primary, she could use their help: Candidate Michael McMahon is counsel to outgoing Councilman Jerome O’Donovan and he has the support of Assemblymembers Elizabeth Connelly and Eric Vitaliano. John Del Giorno, an administrator for the Board of Elections, is backed by Assemblymember John Lavelle. Benefiting from the support of the Democratic party leadership, as of late April McMahon and DelGiorno each had close to three times Rose’s $28,000 in campaign funds.

“The black church is a seminal organizing point,” says Todd Turner, Rose’s campaign manager, who thinks Rice could easily produce 1,000 votes for his candidate. With African Americans comprising a third of the district’s registered voters, and given the Democratic Party split between McMahon and DelGiorno, a united black community could put Rose in office if she takes just 35 percent of the vote.

Rice’s silence is a dramatic switch from a few months ago, when he talked up the need for an all-out effort from the borough’s black ministers. It was to be the African-American community’s biggest political movement since Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, he said. “African-Americans feel disenfranchised,” he told City Limits in early March, rattling off a list of needs, from jobs to housing. Both McMahon and DelGiorno would do more for blacks than outgoing Councilman O’Donovan did, he said, but as an African-American woman living in the heart of the North Shore, “Debi would have more at stake.”

Since early March, Rice has not returned phone calls for this story, nor have other members of the ministers alliance. Porte and others smell the influence of money in their silence. The ministers alliance and Rice’s Family Life Center have benefited from funding from local elected officials. A few months ago, Assemblymember Lavelle brokered a meeting between Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and members of the alliance, at which they discussed the possibility of a $2.5 million grant for the alliance to create community programs, according to a report in the Black Reign News, an African-American newspaper. While the funding is not final, Lavelle told City Limits he hopes to negotiate it into this year’s budget.

This is not the first overture the assemblymember has made to give his candidate DelGiorno an easier ride into office. In December, Rose told the Staten Island Advance that two of Lavelle’s operatives tried to bribe her into dropping out of the race by offering her a job with the Board of Elections. Getting Rose out of the race would most likely benefit DelGiorno, who is more progressive than McMahon. “If Lavelle is providing the golden goose, and his nominee is Del Giorno, how hard are the black ministers going to campaign for Debi, with $2.5 million at stake?” asks Rance Huff, Black Reign‘s publisher. Janet Wilson, for one, understands the preachers’ caution. “A lot of them are attached to grants…. Anyone would have to be very cautious. I would be too.”

This, however, does not sit well with Porte, who is emphatic about breaking the political machinations that have kept Staten Island’s African Americans out of the election game. “Until we discover in our community that political gain is power,” says Porte, “we will continue to sell out our community for petty change, and our black reverends will continue to take handouts from people who have no interest in our community.”

Martin Espinoza is a Jersey City-based freelance writer.