the city politic

The Brooklyn Progressive Who Reshaped New York

Al Vann. Photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council

Upon arriving in Brooklyn after college in the early 1980s, my first real journalism job, at the now-defunct City Sun, was to chronicle the politics of Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods, where a generation of fiery, colorful local officials — the product of grassroots movements — were locked in a pitched battle against a string of unimpressive hacks tied to the Kings County Democratic organization.

The unquestioned leader of the new guard was Assemblyman Al Vann, a tall ex-Marine with a regal bearing whose political exploits — already the talk of the town — were about to shift into high gear as he and other progressive, self-styled empowerment candidates clashed with party regulars in one bitter, dramatic primary after another.

The battles were wild. In 1982, a crooked state senator named Vander Beatty made a brazen attempt to steal the congressional seat first held by Shirley Chisholm, who was retiring. Beatty sent cronies into the offices of the Board of Elections, where they forged signatures on hundreds of voter-registration cards. (Beatty ended up in prison for that caper, and years later was shot to death in his campaign office while trying to make a comeback run.) The winner, Major Owens, an ally of Vann’s, went on to serve a long and honorable career in Congress.

Vann himself had managed a remarkable feat of political strength in 1980 when, after being knocked off the ballot by the Democratic organization, he won re-election running solely on the line of the Liberal Party.

Allies of Vann, who passed away last week, reminisced fondly about the old days.

“Al was unique in that he always talked about how it wasn’t enough to have the quantity of leadership, but qualitative leadership was key,” ex-Assemblyman Roger Green, a protégé and longtime ally of Vann’s, told me. “There was a sense that if we expanded electoral representation for people of color, that we could also have enlightened control of our institutions — not only schools, but health-care institutions, you name it.”

Vann created or led multiple institutions that survive to this day. He served on the founding board of Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., the community development organization launched by Robert F. Kennedy, and helped launch Medgar Evers College, part of the CUNY system, as well as the school’s Center for Law and Social Justice.

Vann’s political club, the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association, remains a required stop for candidates seeking office in Central Brooklyn, and the Vanguard Urban Improvement Association has run recreational, youth employment, and job training programs for decades.

None of this happened by accident, says Green.

“I think it was 1979 where we met at the U.N. hotel and mapped out a ten-year agenda that was called the agenda for community empowerment. That actually happened,” he told me. “My election to the Assembly, Velmantte Montgomery’s election to the State Senate, and Major Owens’s election to the Congress, was key to that whole plan. We literally had a two-day session in which we sat down and created the community empowerment proactive agenda. And that’s how we began to launch this movement.”

A key part of the project was a series of lawsuits, initiated by Vann, to undo entrenched electoral practices — including racial gerrymandering and at-large city council districts — that had long prevented candidates of color from winning elections.

“I think I was 27 years old when I was able to present the case to the United States Supreme Court before Thurgood Marshall in 1981 that changed the political landscape of the system,” recalls Paul Wooten, a former aide to Vann who now serves on the Appellate Division, the state’s second-highest court. “It was actually sponsored by the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus; Vann was the chair. It was his vision that allowed two young lawyers, myself and Dr. Esmeralda Simmons, to go to federal court and ultimately go down to the Supreme Court to present that case.”

The lawsuit , Herron v. Koch, resulted in a court-ordered delay in that year’s races for mayor and City Council, with new district lines ordered. (A companion case that same year, Andrews v. Koch, led to the end of at-large City Council districts and the next year, Flateau v. Anderson resulted in a court-appointed special master redrawing state legislative lines.)

“The significance of it, which many people lose, is that it was the case that really said that section five of the Voting Rights Act applied to New York City,” Wooten told me. “It means that all future voting practices, procedures, legislative plans, districts — even judicial districts — now had to pass muster with the Voting Rights Act, which means there was a presumption that they had to be non-discriminatory. From then on, there was a proliferation of racial minority-majority districts, which led to this overwhelming number of Black and Latino and racial minorities elected to public office.”

A big part of Vann’s legacy is this opening of the political system to allow more seats at the table for people from diverse communities, along with an example of the rewards that come from patiently building power over the course of decades. It’s why so much of New York’s current political leadership comes from Central Brooklyn, including Mayor Adams; Public Advocate Jumaane Williams; Representatives Hakeem Jeffries and Yvette Clarke; and Kings County Democratic leader Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn.

Most famously, Letitia James, a young lawyer who succeeded Wooten as counsel to Vann, is now state attorney general. She was the one who contacted many of us with news that the old man had passed.

Not all of Vann’s plans worked out. In 1985, he launched a disastrous, failed run for borough president and simultaneously tried to build a citywide Black/Latino political coalition that would make Herman Badillo New York’s first Latino mayor. The plan failed when Harlem’s famous Gang of Four — David Dinkins, Charlie Rangel, Basil Paterson, and Percy Sutton — put forward a Black candidate, Denny Farrell, who ended up splitting the coalition and enabling then-Mayor Ed Koch to coast into a third term.

And it must be noted that, toward the end of his active career, some longtime allies, including Charles Barron and Reverend Al Sharpton, criticized Vann for staying in office too long and even endorsed an opponent against him (I wrote a blistering column about it at the time).

But Vann’s contributions — the institutions he built, the leaders he mentored, and the opening of the system he engineered — will stand the test of time.

“Al had the ability to attract the best and sometimes the brightest possible people available at the time. He was not afraid of people who would challenge him. He was not afraid of people who would sit down and discuss things with him, equal to equal,” says Wooten. “We have elected officials and community leaders that are afraid to bring people into the room because they would be challenged, or they’re afraid to mentor people because that person may end up running against them in two or three years.”

By contrast, Vann employed star staffers like John Flateau, a plaintiff in the 1982 gerrymandering case who later served as chief of staff to Mayor Dinkins and is still in the thick of things, currently serving as chief of staff on the redistricting commission that is drawing up new City Council lines. Annette Robinson, who started as a volunteer at Flateau’s urging, went on to become a powerhouse in her own right, serving in the City Council and Assembly for decades and becoming vice-chair of the county Democratic organization.

“My political husband, they called him. Al and I were involved with each other for over 40 plus years,” Robinson told me. She has a word of advice to today’s Black politicians that comes directly out of the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s that brought Vann to power.

“They need to carry the spirit of unity and understanding that it’s about the business of the people in the community that they represent. That’s the bottom line,” she says.  “When we hold those truths together, it makes a difference. We can’t forget our mission. Our mission is to sustain and upgrade our people.”

Al Vann, the Brooklyn Progressive Who Reshaped New York