Bed-Stuy Council Race Tests Incumbent's Sway

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Candidates for the 36th Council District at a recent forum. From left to right, they are Reginald Swiney, Robert Waterman, Kirsten John Foy, Robert E. Cornegy Jr., Conrad Tillard and Akiel Taylor.

Photo by: Sara Sugar

Candidates for the 36th Council District at a recent forum. From left to right, they are Reginald Swiney, Robert Waterman, Kirsten John Foy, Robert E. Cornegy Jr., Conrad Tillard and Akiel Taylor.

Robert E. Cornegy Jr. high-fives a man crossing the street near City Hall: “How ya doing brother?” A few minutes later, he pauses mid-sentence on a nearby park bench to exchange a few words with City Councilman Charles Barron.

Cornegy, the current Democratic male district leader for Brooklyn's 56th Assembly District is one of six candidates vying to replace term-limited Councilman Al Vann for the 36th District in Central Brooklyn. He is by no means the only serious candidate. Amid a growing field, Cornegy is going to have to convince the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Crown Heights that it's more than his 6-feet-10 inch stature that puts him above the rest.

His opponents include Bedford-Stuyvesant pastors Robert Waterman and Conrad Tillard; Kirsten John Foy, a former aide to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Bedford-Stuyvesant business owner Reginald Swiney and Access-a-Ride driver Akiel Taylor.

Clubhouse connections are pros and cons

Cornegy, who ran against Vann in the 2009 primary, is now backed by the outgoing councilmember. But Vann's support is both a blessing and a curse for Cornegy, a product of Vann's Vanguard Independent Democratic Association (VIDA) who is attempting to portray himself as a fresh voice, despite what some of his competitors may be saying.

“People will make a big to do with the fact that Al is leaving and endorsing me,” says Cornegy. “Other candidates would certainly covet the endorsement of Al Vann, and if they say anything else they're lying.”

Cornegy, who is in his second term as district leader, works as a legislative policy analyst for the City Council's Aging and Veterans committees, and serves on Brooklyn's Community Board 3. He's also president of VIDA, which Vann founded.

“I come to this situation from a lot of advocacy and street work,” Cornegy says. “Now I am the president of one of longest standing democratic clubs. Plus the district leader, plus I work for City Council. So you could look at that picture in and of itself and say, ‘Wow, this is someone who is entrenched in politics,' but that's not true. I am still not a machine politician because I still have my own ideas, my own values.”

VIDA has historically played a central role in local races, often handpicking members as nominees. In addition to Vann, Cornegy is backed by two VIDA members: Assemblywoman Annette Robinson (D-Brooklyn) and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn).

Meanwhile, Foy, now senior advisor to the Amalgamated Transit Union, has scored some major labor endorsements, including Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and 1199SEIU. Cornegy lost out on the 1199 endorsement even though he's been active in the fight to save Interfaith Medical Center, a struggling Bedford-Stuyvesant hospital slated to merge with the Brooklyn Hospital Center.

Foy, one of Cornegy's biggest critics – and quite possibly his strongest rival in the race to represent District 36 – paints him as a machine candidate.

“It'll be interesting to see the dance, the waltz that is done to explain how you were handpicked for a party position but you are not a party player,” Foy says. “[T]he candidate that is a member of the local political machinery is going to have a difficult time explaining how they are not a part of the local political machinery.”

A range of backgrounds

Arrested alongside Councilmember Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) at the West Indian Day Parade in 2011, Foy has been a staunch advocate against police brutality was active in getting the Community Safety Act brought to a City Council vote. The first two of four bills of the legislation were passed last week.

Foy says that he is excited to be part of a conversation that will move the city forward and make the city a bit more livable for those who make it workable. “This is a critical time in our community's history as we transition to a new phase of leadership. It's important that we have leadership that is balanced, that is capable, qualified and experienced to pick up the reigns and move this community forward,” says Foy.

Waterman, who is pastor at Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant and, like Cornegy, a member of Community Board 3, dismisses the importance of endorsements, whether from the incumbent councilman or labor unions.

“The bottom line is not who backs you, but who votes for you,” says Waterman, who says he got into the race because he noticed a disconnect in the community and believes that with the departure of Vann, there's a need for strong leadership.

“We have come to a point where Bed-Stuy/North Crown Heights is good but I know we can get better,” says Waterman. “He's [Vann] done what he's done thus far, but Bed-Stuy can be further than it is right now.”

The incumbent's departure, he says, means not just a vacant Council set but also a looming vacancy “in the resources that Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Crown Heights is going to receive,” he says. “Everybody's doing their own thing in their own little entity. I believe that if a city councilperson is going to serve a community, they serve the entire community.”

Tillard, the senior minister at Nazarene Congregational Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant and former Nation of Islam minister at the historic Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, agrees with Waterman. “The absence of Al Vann leaves a tremendous vacuum that needs to be filled,” he says.

Swiney, who owns R.S. Painting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, says that in the past, Bedford-Stuyvesant has been run like a mob, with certain groups and certain people controlling the vote and other voters being disenfranchised.

“I'm in the race for one simple reason. I could beat them [the other candidates] and I could change some things,” says Swiney. “Politics for African-Americans and minorities in general has been almost like an embarrassment.”

Taylor, 27, the youngest of the candidates, entered the race because he decided that it was time for younger people his age to get involved and not just sit on the sidelines. Despite his youth, Taylor says that he didn't think about starting off small and becoming a member of Community Board 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant because he feels that City Council is really where the work gets done.

Taylor acknowledges that filling Vann's shoes would be no small feat but says that, “what I can give to the community is my youth.”

Agree on the issues

The diversity, age, and range of experience among the candidates for District 36 are vast, though most agree that employment, healthcare and affordable housing are the most important issues facing Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Crown Heights.

Housing was one of the main issues addressed at a recent candidate forum at Restoration Plaza and is a primary concern of all candidates. Though there was a general consensus that the conditions in New York City's public housing are being neglected, solutions for how to create and maintain affordable housing for long-term Bedford-Stuyvesant residents varied.

Tillard—who stated that Bedford-Stuyvesant has historically had a high percentage of home ownership—believes that it is important for the area to remain a predominantly black community. “We have to upgrade the quality of public housing,” he said. Like Foy, Tillard voiced his opposition to the colocation of luxury housing on NYCHA property.

Foy, who also believes that public housing in the area has been ignored, said that there needs to be “a revamping and a restructuring of NYHCA so money flows where it's needed.”

“Something is wrong on how we view the NYHCA building,” added Waterman. “You need to empower people. When you empower people, people take pride in where they live.”

Taylor, who feels the biggest concerns of the district are livable-wage jobs, affordable housing and healthcare, believes that a cooperative enterprise model would improve the area. If residents together purchase and rehabilitate old dilapidated buildings, he said, they'll be able to take pride in their community and have the opportunity to share in its ownership.

“In every community change really has to come from within,” said Taylor. “You can't wait for someone from the outside to come in and change it. Because if that happens you may not like the change that comes.”

People from all over the country want to move to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Taylor added. “I mean it's good to have people come here and want to invest here,” he said. But he doesn't want people to move to the area and stay for just a few years; he wants people to moved to the area and want to put down roots.

Foy would like to see some form of compensation given to homeowners who have stayed in the community over the years, and mentioned a progressive residential property tax at the candidate forum. “We can talk about the problems,” said Foy. “But I'd most like to talk about the solutions.”

It's unclear whether any one candidate will take control of the race to replace Vann, who in the low-turnout 2009 primary prevailed against a field of seven challengers with less than a third of the vote. Cornegy placed sixth in that race. But he's the only one of the group that ran in 2009 to join the sequel.