The press conference is crammed with politicians, but it is taking on the cadence and flavor of a revival meeting. “We will not be denied,” says City Councilman Al Vann.
“Yes, sir! That’s right!” comes the shout from the crowd.
“This is a new day for us!” Vann continues.
“As Fannie Lou Hamer said,” intones state assemblywoman Annette Robinson, “ ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ ”
In some respects, the call-and-response style fits perfectly. Vann, Robinson, and a dozen other elected officials are standing at the front of a small, crowded chapel adjacent to the grand main sanctuary of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Concord Baptist Church. The press conference comes midway through the Black Brooklyn Empowerment Convention, a daylong buffet of speeches, public-policy roundtables, and self-help exhortations. Everything from small-business-loan applications to anti-profanity initiatives gets an extensive airing. What keeps rising to the surface, however, even in the middle of seemingly unrelated subjects, is the tense contest for New York’s Eleventh Congressional District, which includes parts of Flatbush, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Brooklyn Heights, and much of Bed-Stuy. The district’s population is 58 percent black, and since 1983 it has been represented by Major Owens. A combination of age (70) and crumbling popularity is forcing him to take the high road and retire before he loses, setting off a fascinating and already nasty battle. Three of the candidates to succeed Owens are black. The fourth, city councilman David Yassky, couldn’t be whiter.
“We are the largest black community in the country!” Owens thunders. “Empowerment means you’re there at the table, wherever decisions are being made about the lives of our people. That’s our goal. To guarantee that we get the empowerment that we deserve.” “Forward ever—”
Last summer, Owens set the prevailing tone by denouncing Yassky, who last year moved three blocks to live in the district, as a “colonizer.” Vann continued the attack last month by organizing a meeting dedicated to plotting strategy against the “white individual.” But even though the contest has been cast as black versus white, when Owens, Vann, and the others stand tightly bunched onstage and invoke icons of the sixties civil-rights movement, another color is blatantly apparent: gray, the dominant hair color of the assembled pols. What power this group of black leaders had is quickly ebbing, even internally. The easiest way to defeat the 42-year-old Yassky would be to unite behind a single black candidate. But Owens & Co. don’t even have the muscle to push two of the black candidates out of the way.
The central Brooklyn congressional race tests the theory that New York is in a period of post-racial politics. But the weakness of the neighborhood’s Old Guard has a larger significance—it’s symptomatic of the plight of the city’s congressional delegation. Part of the problem is institutional: With the exception of Staten Island’s Vito Fossella, the city’s delegation is filled with left-of-center Democrats in a Congress controlled by conservative Republicans. But there’s a qualitative issue, too: At a time when the city desperately needs clever, energetic types, we’re mostly stuck with timeservers waiting for a long-shot Democratic-majority restoration, or for a promotion to the Senate if Hillary quits to run for president. There is no Floyd Flake in this delegation, making deals across the aisle and raking in federal money and jobs for his Queens district.
Unfortunately, even if the Dems make gains this fall, the larger trends will only worsen the city’s congressional predicament. Two straight Censuses have shrunk New York’s delegation, and projections for the 2010 head count show the state losing another pair of seats. Meanwhile, the Republicans have become ever more deft at redistricting, and not just in Texas. In Brooklyn, one argument against Yassky is that the Eleventh Congressional District was created in the late sixties as a “voting-rights district,” an area designed to ensure the electoral power of minority voters. While that’s not literally true—what is now the Eleventh was created in 1968 to settle a lawsuit about the inequitable size of districts—the practical and emotional effect has been the same. Shirley Chisholm was the new district’s first rep, followed by Major Owens. And the Eleventh, though it is significantly less black than it was in the mid-nineties, has become tangled in the debate over whether Congress should reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which expires next year.
Republicans are more than willing to cede inner-city districts in exchange for a lock on the far more numerous white suburban ones.
Once again, the joke is on the Democrats: The Republicans are more than happy to cede 40 or so majority-minority Democratic big-city districts, carved to the specifications of the Voting Rights Act, in exchange for a lock on the far more numerous suburban districts. A handful of forward-thinking Democrats—including Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois congressman who heads the Dems’ 2006 House campaign committee—have started questioning whether a once-necessary corrective is being perverted. “It seems clear that the VRA doesn’t serve us well,” says a Democratic congressman who’s tried to push the issue with colleagues. “But a weird, self-interested math comes into play. Black Democrats don’t want to appear retrograde; whites don’t have the courage to stand up and try to fix it without blacks standing alongside them; and Republicans like the outcome that they’re getting, which enables them to have perpetually lily-white suburban southern districts. And then there’s so much animus—not between the parties, but between white Democrats and black Democrats, in lots of parts of the South. So any effort to ‘fix’ the thing is a nonstarter. But I’d be a better congressman if my district were more diverse, and Democrats would have better chances of winning if there were more ‘swing’ districts.”
There’s no danger of the Democrats losing in central Brooklyn, this fall or maybe ever, and that’s part of the problem. Yassky would make a good congressman, for one of the reasons that’s drawn the scorn of his three rivals, his ambition. The other candidates are unlikely to shake things up. Yvette Clarke, a city councilwoman, leads in the polls, and is part of the growing Caribbean-American segment of the neighborhood, but she’s been underwhelming on the campaign trail. Carl Andrews, a state senator, is a decent guy and enjoys the potent electoral backing of Eliot Spitzer and labor unions, but he’s a product of the old Brooklyn clubhouse. Chris Owens is Major’s son.
For all the anger and money spent on this race, though, it won’t matter who wins unless the city and the Democrats find a way to break out of the political ghetto Washington has consigned us to. Now, that would be empowering.