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While candidates for citywide offices get all the attention before the primary, City Limits looks at last minute developments in lesser-known local races.

DIS-ENDORSEMENT: Congressman Major Owens made an unusual endorsement switcheroo last week in the race for Mary Pinkett’s City Council seat in Fort Greene and Crown Heights. Panicked by a poll showing James Davis leading the pack of candidates, Owens shifted his support from Bill Saunders, a longtime loyalist to the congressman, to Letitia “Tish” James, the Brooklyn Democratic organization’s candidate, in order to make a stronger push against Davis, whom he called a “reckless individual.”

“Tish is the best candidate,” said Owens, comparing James to Saunders, a Democratic district leader. “She has the most endorsements, the largest number of signatures, and the most money at this time.” Saunders did not return calls seeking comment.

Though it’s unusual, Owens has made this kind of last-minute switch before: In 1998, he dis-endorsed U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Green in favor of Charles Schumer after Schumer entered the race–a move which later cost him Green’s support in his own re-election campaign for Congress.

This year, Owens is focusing on the immediate danger. Davis, a Democratic district leader and police officer in Brooklyn, is getting his name out: He has sent out five campaign mailings so far, compared to James’ two, and has ads posted on billboards and bus shelters around the district. Expressing sympathy for Saunders, Davis said, “That move was disgusting. They obviously think I’m going to win.”

CALL FROM ON HIGH: While everyone watches Reverend Al Sharpton campaign for mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer, there’s only one campaign he’s actaully cared about enough to give money to: Charles Barron’s race for City Council in East New York and Brownsville.

Barron, a former member of the Black Panthers, and Sharpton have been stumping together since the blow-dried reverend got out of the hoosegow a couple of weeks ago. Sharpton and wife Cathy each put $250 into Barron’s coffers, and starting this Friday, the campaign will begin making automated calls in the voice of Al to 17,000 voters in the district.

Barron’s people hope the call will help boost Barron’s sagging campaign against the Democratic organization’s favorite, Greg Jackson, director of the Brownsville Recreation Center and a former New York Knick. Donald Wooten, son of outgoing City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten, is said to be languishing in third place, with Joseph Jeffries-El, a community board member, nipping at his heels.

Still, Barron may be doing better than he thinks. When asked to name the frontrunner, Jackson’s campaign manager, Karen Johnson, sighed, “I would say Mr. Barron … but maybe we’re tied.”

Regardless, Jackson does have something Barron does not: the nod from Congressman Ed Towns, a leader in the Brooklyn Democratic machine, an endorsement Barron concedes could be critical for Jackson. “I’m running against Ed Towns,” Barron said. “The machine could run Donald Duck and beat you.”

ISLAND POLITICS: New York City unions have been known to quietly back Republicans in statewide races, leaning more to the left in their natural habitat, the city. On Staten Island, however, one union is so desperate to keep Borough President Guy Molinari’s man out of borough hall that it’s actively campaigning for a Republican in the primary-despite its strong support for a Democrat in November.

On Sept. 11, State Assemblyman Robert Straniere will face deputy borough president James Molinaro, Molinari’s anointed successor who has the support of GOP bigwigs like Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani. Bus drivers’ Amalgamated Transit Union, still smarting from Giuliani’s insults-he called them “jerks and morons” after they challenged a no-bid bus contract earlier this summer-plans to send out mailings and phone bank for Straniere this week. This despite the fact that the Republican is certain to face the union’s true candidate, outgoing Democratic City Councilmember Jerome X. O’Donovan, in the general election: Straniere is guaranteed a spot on the ballot in November as the Independence Party’s candidate.

“We’re endorsing Straniere in the primary, and O’Donovan in the general,” said ATU President Larry Hanley.

The union is thinking beyond November, though: Democrats and some union leaders hope an O’Donovan borough hall could provide a staging ground for ousting arch-conservative Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella next year. “The bottom line is if folks are going to challenge Fossella,” said Hanley, “they’re going to have to think strategically.”

FREDDY WHO? City Council candidates are usually thrilled when mayoral hopefuls come a-courtin’ in their own backyards. But while mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer campaigns out of the offices of Hiram Monserrate, a City Council candidate in Corona and East Elmhurst, Queens, Monserrate’s still waiting for Freddy’s endorsement. According to one political observer, he better not hold his breath: “Freddy doesn’t want to endorse in that district because there’s three Latinos running,” said the observer.

But a nod for Monserrate, head of the Latino Officers Association, might be a smart move for the Bronx borough president. When Ferrer’s folks recently coattailed with him in Corona, they found out the beep’s name recognition is not so high in the borough of Hevesi and Vallone. “They finally went out knocking on doors, and they heard, ‘Ferrer? I’m voting for Monserrate,'” said one volunteer. “They came back and they were like, ‘Everyone thinks they’re voting for Hiram this year–what about the mayor’s race?'”

PENTHOUSE CALLS: Once the Working Families Party gave Helen Marshall the nod for Queens Borough President, most unions fell in line behind the East Elmhurst City Council member. The increasingly active janitors and porters’ union 32BJ, however, stepped away from the pack last week to endorse former Board of Education head Carol Gresser.

Some WFP members criticized the union, whose members are two-thirds immigrants and 60 percent people of color, for supporting Gresser: Back in 1993, she cast the decisive vote to ditch Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez over the pro-diversity, pro-gay Rainbow Curriculum.

But 32BJ says their decision came down to one thing: union jobs. Gresser agreed, in writing, to sponsor “displaced worker” legislation that would prevent building owners from firing janitors and porters when a building changes hands in the City Council next year. Marshall, said the union, did not. (Marshall’s campaign said their candidate couldn’t remember answering the union’s questions on this issue, but added she would support the legislation if it went to the Council.)

While union leaders say their decision was not an easy one, now that it is made, they plan to put their mouths where the money is: the luxurious Soho penthouse of former 32BJ boss Gus Bevona, the very pad that helped get him ousted in 1999, will be headquarters for the get-out-the-vote phone banking for the next two weeks.

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