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Killer Competition

Activist and councilman James Davis played his own brand of Brooklyn-style political hardball. But Othniel Askew threw out the rule book.

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It started with Stop the Violence. In 1992, a year after the riots in Crown Heights, a young cop in the 73rd Precinct decided to hold a peace rally in a church. The next year, that rally became a march at Medgar Evers College, promoted with fancy, expensive-looking four-color posters playing up a picture of the cop grinning knowingly, like a rap star. Billboards, too, and signs on bus shelters and the sides of the city buses that rolled down Eastern Parkway. For four or five weeks, you couldn’t walk the streets of Crown Heights without seeing the mile-wide smile of James Davis.

Marching against violence in Crown Heights in the nineties wasn’t his idea, of course. “Sometimes, quite frankly, there was some tension, because people were already doing what he wanted to do,” remembers the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, of the House of the Lord Church on Atlantic Avenue. (Daughtry knows: He is mentor to activist councilman Charles Barron, who met Davis’s murderer minutes before shots rang out at City Hall.) But Davis brought some urgency to it, and he created what people in politics call a franchise issue. Since then, the Stop the Violence march has brought blacks and Jews together peacefully (a minor miracle in Crown Heights), always under the benevolent image of Davis, and always scheduled in August—as it happens, a few weeks before the September Democratic primaries.

James Davis, gunned down in the balcony of the council chamber by a would-be rival last week, was everything admirers say he was—a maverick, a crusader. But he also was an audacious, talented operator who brought amped-up political marketing (new signs with that smiling face reemerged during every campaign season, including this one) to a part of Brooklyn that, before he showed up, was a chummy old-school clubhouse. He in other ways emulated the godfather he dared to take on, Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr.—Brooklyn’s archetypal politico, who still rules the roost as Democratic Party chieftain despite recent scandals. Norman’s father, Clarence Sr., runs a church, a popular one. They do things together. It works well for them. So if you’re James Davis and you want to be in politics, it can’t hurt to start a church. Which Davis did, in his basement.

Davis liked to say the marches were a “subsidiary” of his Jesus Christ House of Prayer. Because it’s been designated a church by the attorney general’s office, its fund-raising records are sealed. Last year, the Campaign Finance Board and District Attorney Robert Morgenthau were looking into the relationship between the church and Davis’s City Council campaigns (“There was no church,” one old rival snipes), and Davis, in response, said what he always said—that he was the underdog, the party insurgent, a target of Clarence Norman’s mighty organization. Which he was (the D.A. never uncovered anything). But also, by the time he died, he had, with his congenital combativeness and robust ego and common touch, become a local powerhouse in his own right.

Every time he lost, he learned something. In his first campaign, an Assembly race against Norman, he intimated that his opponent was anti-Semitic. Two years later, Davis turned around and accused Norman of favoring Jews in the district over blacks. Knocked off the police force after being inadvertently placed on a ballot by the Liberal Party (cops must resign if they’re nominated, but Davis never formally accepted the nomination), he sued and was reinstated, calling it “a victory for all the Davids out there fighting against Goliaths.”

“James Davis aimed to please, and delivered big, and was deservedly loved for it.”

Yet it’s hard to stay a David when you keep rising up, and with such grandiosity. When City Council Speaker Gifford Miller booted him from a cultural-affairs committee for opposing last year’s property-tax hike, Davis continued to play the insurgent—all the while crowing that he wanted Miller’s job, and, one day, Mike Bloomberg’s. In 2000, he baited Jewish leaders in his district (“If you decide to fight me, as Clarence Norman did, I will win because I always win,” he barked into an answering machine at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “If my phone call is not returned, I will say you slighted my office”), but as a councilman, he catered to them with the zeal of a convert. “He was a sweetheart of a person,” Chanina Sperlin, chairman of the council, says mournfully. Sperlin had spoken out against candidate Davis—but Councilman Davis had managed to locate $500,000 for Sperlin’s group to open the Abe Beame Center for social-service programs. Which is how things work in Brooklyn.

Davis aimed to please, and delivered big, and was deservedly loved for it. He’d cruise in his car, dropping into coffee bars, chatting people up, taking notes for his newsletter. The Thursday before City Hall erupted in chaos, a Fort Greene real-estate broker named Lisa Christmas was having breakfast at a diner when Davis walked in. Noticing she was alone, he asked what she thought of the neighborhood. “I told him about a really dangerous intersection, Fulton and Greene Avenue, and he said, ‘Okay, drive me there.’ ” Off they went, and Davis vowed to do something about it. (Wouldn’t you want that councilman?)

“I told him, ‘If you can get this intersection together, you can call it James E. Davis Way,’ ” Christmas says. “And we both laughed. He really wanted to be mayor. When I asked him what his goals were for the future, that’s what he said. And that goal seemed tangible because he was so proud of himself.”

Davis had his paradoxes. He campaigned against violence, but he carried a gun. His friends all knew he was strapped. And he made sure everybody knew about it, flashing it at meetings and one press conference. “He was casual about it, and I told him I thought it was outrageous and reckless,” remembers Errol Louis, the Sun columnist and friend of Davis’s, who once ran against him. But Davis’s blind faith was as crucial to his character as his cockiness was. “You have to understand that he was a cop,” explains Bob Liff, a political consultant who covered Davis for years as a reporter. “Cops have to instantly assess potentially dangerous situations and act like they’re totally in charge.”

So along comes a dangerous situation: Othniel Askew materializes at the start of campaign season, ten years younger and every bit as ambitious. The pursuer is now the pursued. Davis knew the drill: You run once and lose, you run again and maybe you win. Unless, that is, Davis could do what he always did—walk into the room blind and take charge, charm the pants off Askew, clap him on the back, make him an ally.

Last Wednesday was the day it was all going to work out. Askew put on a light-colored suit that fit perfectly, a royal-blue shirt, a gold tie with a pin. And a few extra rounds of ammunition in his sock, just in case.

Did Davis threaten Askew—or renege on a deal? Let’s say they really took that walk in Fort Greene Park a few days before the murder, as Askew is said to have told the FBI. Maybe Davis started to work him, pol to pol, cop to street kid: When I was your age, I was a cop who led some marches. It took me four elections to get where I am. Listen to what I have to say.

Maybe then, in a brotherly way (but imposing, remember; always combative, always fighting), Davis says a gay man would face an uphill battle in a council race—not in Fort Greene, but what about those Crown Heights Orthodox Jews?

Maybe he dangles promises of money and a job—it wouldn’t be unusual in this neighborhood. Even Errol Louis, whom Davis had introduced to Askew, doesn’t think it’s outside the box. “It seemed to me he was stroking the guy hard to buy his loyalty with compliments,” he says.

If he did, then the metamorphosis would have been complete. James Davis becomes Clarence Norman. The power seeker becomes the power broker.

But Othniel Askew isn’t nearly as shrewd or talented an underdog as James Davis. Instead, he starts the violence.


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