A major battle over economic and political direction was fought in last month’s Democratic primaries in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nearly 2 million people live in central and downtown Brooklyn. Seventy percent are African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Latinos, Asians and Arabs, overwhelmingly working-class and many poverty-stricken. Looming large in the primaries were these questions: Will Wall Street, the big developers, Gov. Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and city planners push the poorest, including both nationally oppressed and whites, out of this area to the city’s outskirts and beyond, through huge multi-use developments, like the Atlantic Yards project, that drive up rents and property taxes? Will they replace small manufacturing, retail and commercial uses with luxury-oriented development and big box retailers? Will such “urban removal” cause a political shift rightward, replacing progressive African Americans and their allies with representatives of the growing upper middle income and wealthy, predominantly white, population? Or will an economic development policy be put in place that fosters demographics and politics that strengthen democratic and progressive trends?
A number of electoral contests in the area reflected this struggle over direction.
Rep. Major Owens retired after 24 years as one of the most progressive House members on all issues. Seeking that seat were four candidates in a 62 percent African American district established under the Voting Rights Act.
Councilman David Yassky, the only white candidate and the preferred choice of Wall Street and the developers, received $1.5 million in contributions. Two other candidates supported Atlantic Yards and received some developer support. “Anyone but Chris Owens” was their motto. Chris Owens, son of the retiring congressman, had proven himself a consistent progressive from his high school activism on through struggles on many issues to his current strong stand against Atlantic Yards and for getting out of Iraq now. It was clear that Chris Owens in Congress would be a strong fighter against Bush and the ultra-right whereas the others would more than likely sometimes vote with the Republicans and would support New York’s billionaire developers. There were also questions of integrity with the other three candidates.
Until late in the campaign the outcome was considered too close to call and dependent on the Election Day get-out-the-vote effort. For Owens, that depended on volunteers from reform and progressive Democratic clubs, peace and anti-Atlantic Yards activists and the left. The other candidates were expected to have only paid workers. Just before the elections, however, SEIU 1199 endorsed Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, who had been considered unlikely to win, and on Election Day turned out many members for campaign work. In a close field, Clarke came in first and Owens last, with a 5,000 vote difference.
Only small union locals endorsed Owens. The big unions acknowledged that his father, Rep. Major Owens, had the highest AFL-CIO rating in Congress and that Chris would be the best on labor issues, but they did not even interview him. The public worker unions endorsed state Sen. Carl Andrews because he was endorsed by the expected new governor, Elliot Spitzer, currently state attorney general, though Andrews’ close connections to a former county Democratic chair convicted of corruption were well known.
It is assumed that 1199, which represents hospital workers, wanted to defeat Andrews as a warning to Spitzer, who announced he would close hospitals once he is elected governor. 1199 apparently picked Clarke rather than Owens because of the union’s significant female and Afro-Caribbean membership (Clarke is second-generation Jamaican) and because the union considered that she would be more beholden to it.
Owens’ strong showing among white voters on Atlantic Yards and peace was generally credited with preventing Yassky from winning. The areas closest to Atlantic Yards voted most heavily for Owens.
In other races, progressive African American state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery won handily over her Atlantic Yards developer-supported challenger. Rep. Edolphus Towns, who votes with the Republicans on taxes and trade policy, would have lost to progressive African American Councilman Charles Barron if there had not been another opponent who drew 15 percent of the vote. Progressive African American Bill Batson, a late entry in his first race, lost a three-way battle for an open state Assembly seat. The winner, Hakeem Jeffries, moved from support of Atlantic Yards to opposition, and replaces a strong Atlantic Yards supporter. Eric Adams won another state Senate seat with a position mildly critical of the Yards project.
The Owens campaign forced all candidates to run to the left of their original positions, especially on peace and Atlantic Yards. Yassky was originally a strong Atlantic Yards supporter, but some publications called him an opponent by the end of the race.
Thus, the overall results showed some signs of gain by progressive forces along with the loss by Chris Owens, who continues as a strong progressive voice in the community. It remains to be seen whether Yvette Clarke can be influenced to pursue better policies in Congress, or will go the way of Una Clarke, her mother who, after serving as a progressive Democratic city councilwoman, switched party registration and was appointed by Republican Gov. Pataki to a regulatory agency for development in Brooklyn.
Daniel Rubin is a Brooklyn activist and a member of the Communist Party USA National Board.