Brooklyn’s aging black leadership faces new challengers
Annette Robinson rose slowly. The Brooklyn assemblywoman walked to the center of her political clubhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant, home of the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association (VIDA), its walls covered with posters from her past successful campaigns dating back to 1991.
As she neared the center aisle, standing among 50 people gathered for a Saturday morning meeting, the grandmother of 10 held the fate of several political futures on the tip of her tongue.
The central Brooklyn political world had been abuzz with reports that Robinson was set to retire, ending the career of a well-regarded lawmaker who helped turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into the center of the black political scene.
City Councilman Al Vann, 77, sat nearby with his arms crossed. In the 1960s and ’70s he, Robinson and other like-minded activists spearheaded a seminal civil rights movement in the neighborhood. The fruits of their labor are still visible today—and so are the people who brought them.
The local Assembly seat has not seen a true opening since 1974, thanks to a 2001 seat-swapping maneuver between Robinson and Vann, who has been in office nearly four decades.
And though there have been primary challengers at times, in central Brooklyn—like most places in New York—incumbents are usually only removed through retirement, indictment or death.
So the rumors of Robinson’s departure had also brought excitement: It would inject new blood into a neighborhood where, over the years, black revolutionaries morphed into the black establishment.
As Robinson stepped forward, Robert Cornegy stood behind her. The towering former basketball player, who played professionally for a decade in Europe, stood with his hands clasped behind him.
The club had recently elected him as its new president, replacing Vann in a nod to the need for new blood. He very much wanted to run for Robinson’s seat—and he was not the only one.
Robinson began to speak.
“The mission of this organization has not changed, and my mission has not changed,” Robinson told the crowd. “And we’re continuing to work on it diligently.”
She was not retiring. She would run for a sixth Assembly term.
Cornegy showed no emotion. A few minutes later, he rose to introduce a historian friend of Vann’s to speak about Black History Month—only to defer to Vann, saying he was not worthy of the honor.
The councilman began to chuckle.
“This guy’s smart!” Vann said.
Congresswoman Yvette Clarke gave her own bombastic pitch for reelection to a third term at the meeting. Most of the other speakers had praised Vann profusely, but the 47-year-old Clarke said black political activism in central Brooklyn had actually withered.
“What happened to the village that raised us? What happened?” Clarke said. “They had the buoyance of the activist movement behind them. Today, in this room, we have to admit that we’re a little bit flat-footed.”
Later Clarke explained that central Brooklyn’s political leadership had failed to develop a strong bench.
“There was a miscalculation,” she said. “In the attempt to translate political empowerment into day-to-day policy, it becomes more difficult to change the status quo. Now, acting as legislators, it can be more difficult to find constituents to support the policy agenda.”
Yet to step outside the club onto Bedford Avenue is to see the results of that calculation: a sea of institutions built on Vann’s shoulders that brought a black middle class into being, from affordable-housing agencies to Medgar Evers College. Vann even got the street name directly outside the club changed to Harriet Tubman Avenue.
In central Brooklyn, Vann is one of several longtime incumbents nearing the ends of their long careers because of age, term limits or primary challengers.
None of their situations is quite analogous. Their reputations vary. Some of the same people who decry one incumbent for sticking around too long praise the legacy of another longtime pol. There are accusations of machine politics, and questions about whether some in the younger generation would represent any real break from the past.
Still, there is a persistent criticism from many in the younger guard that the senior politicians have hung onto their power too long, corroding the political empires they have helped build. And there is a persistent criticism from many in the older guard that the younger generation has failed to pay due deference to their accomplishments.
Could another revolution be brewing?
While Robinson and longtime State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery are unlikely to face a serious challenge, the generational dynamics will certainly play into two high-profile races coming up in the area—the race to replace the term-limited Vann and the reelection campaign of Congressman Ed Towns. Both are now 77 years old.
During nearly 30 years in office, Towns has always faced some sort of a primary challenger— and has always emerged victorious. Yet this year he faces perhaps his toughest test, from both Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a rising star in the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and bomb-throwing City Councilman Charles Barron.
Vann, who nearly lost a multicandidate primary race in 2009, is term-limited out in 2013 and eyeing successors to groom. His legacy, and the degree to which candidates are willing to break with it, will likely be a big part of the race to succeed him.
As a student at Brown University, Mark Winston Griffith, who was heavily involved in black student organizing, heard of Vann’s legendary activism. After graduating, he moved back to Brooklyn and tried to get involved.
“I heard about this thing catching on with Al Vann,” Griffith said. “It’s one of the main reasons I went to live in Brooklyn.”
There was much for Griffith to admire in Vann, who had risen from being a public school teacher who clashed with his union to a rebel assemblyman to a power broker. Perhaps most notably, during the early 1980s, as minorities grew to almost half of New York City’s population, the City Council passed a redistricting plan that actually reduced minority representation on the Council— and Vann launched a successful federal lawsuit that defeated the plan and helped waken what was seen as a dormant black electorate.
He had started a movement he coined “community empowerment” or “nationalism,” the idea of self-determination— that culturally, economically and politically Bed-Stuy would assert its political power, gain access and take care of itself.
The headline of a 1983 New York magazine cover story labeled Vann the “city’s hottest black politician.” He was a controversial figure at the time, thought to be suspicious of white people, and often sparred with then Mayor Ed Koch. Vann himself was even thought of as a hot property for mayor.
Today Vann’s allies believe he has not gotten his due among the city’s great modern civil rights leaders. And yet his critics say that by sticking around so long, voting for the 2008 term-limits extension and running again, Vann let an insurgency become the machine—with the decay and patronage that comes with it.
After college, Griffith wrote and called Vann’s office, but couldn’t get a job there.
Unable to get into Vann’s inner circle, he took a different career path. He started a credit union with NY1 host Errol Louis, then eventually became the executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a prominent liberal think tank.
In 2009, spurred by the term-limits extension, Griffith challenged Vann. He narrowly lost the primary, but gained the support of some surprising allies, such as Rev. Al Sharpton and the Working Families Party, who felt Vann’s time had passed.
Vann repeatedly called Griffith, who is 49, a “young man” on the campaign trail. During the campaign, supporters like Barron made the case that Vann was coasting.
By not passing the reins to the younger generation and embracing its new ideas, critics said, Vann’s movement was never allowed to fully mature. During the campaign, Griffith said that “people feel like he’s retired on the job.”
Vann’s campaign staff took Griffith’s primary challenge personally—seeing a possible Griffith victory as the real threat to Vann’s legacy. With the possibility becoming more real, Vann brought aboard a number of younger political operatives in the neighborhood, who have since become active members of his political club.
And since Vann’s narrow reelection, his allies say he has brought new energy to a third term, introducing a number of substantive bills, addressing everything from police accountability to the foreclosure crisis.
Vann’s camp seems to believe that Griffith represents a generation of young politicos simply too lazy to build their own political organizations—or to understand the true nature of their predecessors’ accomplishments.
To this day, Vann gets a bit rankled by Griffith’s critiques.
“He’s a smart guy, but he didn’t seem to do any research at all,” Vann said. “I don’t think it’s a positive simply because someone is young. I think it should be what they bring to the table.”
Questions about establishment behavior from Vann’s revolution are not new. For instance, New York back in 1983 suggested Vann helped dole out a top job at the Urban Development Corporation to an aide, John Flateau.
Recently a young corporate attorney involved in VIDA wanted to create a new “senior advisor” leadership position for herself and redraft its constitution. Sources in the club say Flateau, who joked at the club’s recent meeting about getting his AARP card, thought it was such a good idea that he grabbed the position for himself.
Flateau, who was criticized in 2009 for landing a $100-an-hour senior advisory position with then Senate Majority Leader John Sampson while also holding a $102,000 job at Medgar Evers, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Some within Vann’s club say the perceived need to cede power is a real one.
“The community benefits where there is an abundance of leadership connected to both the past and the future, and not when you skip generations,” said Kirsten John Foy, a young VIDA member and rising political star who may run for Vann’s seat. “What we’ve seen is that instead of going from generation X to Y, you went from B to Z.
But among the many people in Vann’s world who are extremely loyal to him—even those affected by the decisions of longtime officials to stay in office—there is almost a cultlike reverence and deference.
L. Joy Williams, a Brooklyn political consultant who also wanted to run for Robinson’s seat, said the lack of opportunity for people like her had everything to do with the limited number of districts in which Brooklyn’s African-Americans can run—not the old guard’s reluctance ever to retire.
“It’s not about the old guard,” she said. “It’s about the limited leadership opportunities for people of color.”
The dynamics developing—that of loyalty to Vann and independence from him—could well play into the City Council race to replace him.
Griffith, who has opened a campaign committee, will likely again have the backing of the Working Families Party. Foy would have among the highest name recognition, and his extensive work within the community is very well-known. Cornegy, who is likely to set his sights on Vann’s seat now that Robinson is seeking reelection, seems to be developing the closest political relationship to the longtime incumbent.
That seems strange to some observers, since Cornegy was one of the candidates who challenged Vann in 2009, placing a distant seventh in an eight-person field. But soon afterward, Cornegy wrote an op-ed praising Vann and saying voters should choose him over Griffith in the general election. (Griffith continued to run against Vann in the general election on the Working Families Party line.)
Vann ended up supporting Cornegy for district leader in 2010 and eventually to be the next president of his club. To critics, it was another example of the tightening inner circle.
But Mandela Jones, a high-ranking Vann staffer who brought Cornegy into the fold after their primary battle in 2009, said there was never any discussion at the time of Cornegy landing a district leader spot, or the club presidency.
For his part, Vann said he had not picked a favored successor, and would simply base his support on who has the best feel for the community. “I am looking for someone who really feels a real connection to the community,” Vann said, “and is not concerned about doing this as a career choice.”
After nearly three decades in Congress, Ed Towns says younger people don’t really understand the old-school way he operates—or all his accomplishments.
“People don’t know that I’m an ordained Baptist minister,” Towns said. “Do you know that I don’t curse, smoke or drink?”
He added, “I do what I’m supposed to do. That’s it. Then I go home to my family. When something comes up, I make my staff available. You could make the case that I have the most effective staff any legislator has had.”
Towns was never really part of Vann’s activist Bed-Stuy movement. While Vann was an insurgent, Towns came into his job as a party pick, from a position as deputy Brooklyn borough president. He has never had the same outsize reputation.
But Towns argues that his staff’s experience, his seniority in Congress and his ability to bring in pork make his role indispensable—even though his vitality after all these years has certainly come into question.
Others long ensconced in central Brooklyn politics agree the problem is not with the old generation but the new one.
Chris Owens, a district leader and the son of longtime Rep. Major Owens, said the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a group founded by Vann, used to hold regular monthly meetings in either Vann’s campaign office or his father’s.
That group withered away with age and retirements a decade ago. Back then, Chris Owens said, borough leadership would have gotten together and convinced Jeffries to hold off for a few more years and wait for Towns to retire.
Now, he said, up-and-coming legislators in Brooklyn like Jeffries, Clarke and Assemblyman Karim Camara often simply pursue their own agendas.
“It’s not clear if there’s any strategic planning going on,” Owens said. “People just veer from one crisis to the next. And while it’s clear the younger generation is talented, they’re also skilled in the art of self-promotion. They looked at what Al Sharpton does and said, ‘Okay, here’s what I need to do to keep getting reelected.’ ”
Jeffries says that’s entirely untrue, citing a substantial record he built in Albany—prison gerrymandering reform, landmark stop-and-frisk legislation— in the two-year window that Democrats held power in the Senate. Similarly, Jeffries says another such rare window will exist for four years if President Barack Obama is reelected in Washington.
“If this was just about me personally, I could hang out in the Legislature for several more years and wait for Congressman Towns to retire,” Jeffries said. “There’s significant risk involved in this for me personally, but politics are about more than personal achievement.”
There are also problems with Towns’ argument that his seniority best allows him to provide for the district and that he’s best able to work across the aisle. Congressional Republicans have done away with earmarks, and took away Towns’ coveted chairmanship of the House Government and Oversight Committee when they won power in 2010; then Democrats took away his position as ranking member.
Jeffries also notes that much of the foreclosure crisis happened under Towns’ watch as head of Congress’ investigative oversight committee— a major problem in Bed-Stuy and the rest of the district. And it was later reported that Towns got a special sweetheart mortgage loan from Countrywide, one of the worst offenders in the mortgage crisis. And as chairman, Towns resisted efforts to investigate Countrywide.
“Seniority without action is like a race car with no engine,” Jeffries said. “It looks nice on the outside, but then you get inside and realize that it’s got no ability to get you anywhere. And at this point, after 30 years, the track record of my opponent needs to be evaluated.”
Jeffries knows better than anyone the risks of running an insurgent campaign. In 2000 and again in 2002, while working as a litigator in a prominent Manhattan law firm, Jeffries ran primaries against longtime Assemblyman Roger Green. Jeffries only won his Assembly seat after Green ran and lost against Ed Towns in 2006.
The two ran into each other recently at Medgar Evers, where Green is a professor and Jeffries was addressing a town hall forum on stop-and-frisk. They embraced and shook hands.
The moment revealed a truth about incumbency that has surely crossed Jeffries’ mind, or the mind of anyone looking to challenge the old guard.
“Hakeem used to run against me every year,” Green said, putting his hand on Jeffries’ shoulder. “But it made me stronger. It did. He would probe me in debates and keep me on top of my game.”
The crowd applauded.
“Assemblyman Green used to beat me every time,” Jeffries responded, to laughter. “So I’m just thankful he decided to vacate the seat. He gave me the opportunity to succeed him.”
Jeffries added, “Or I might be in the audience. And not standing up here, right now.”
Read more of our coverage about Brooklyn politics:
Tags: Al Vann, Annette Robinson, assembly, brooklyn, central Brooklyn, Charles Barron, Chris Bragg, Congress, Ed Towns, Hakeem Jeffries, John Flatau, John Sampson, Karim Camara, L. Joy Williams, Mandela Jones, mark winston griffith, New York, politics, primary, Robert Cornegy, Senate, Yvette Clarke
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