Lessons Learned from Al Vann’s Example

New York City Council Member Al Vann talks of meeting with Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10, 2013.

New York City Council Member Al Vann talks of meeting with Nelson Mandela on Dec. 10, 2013. William Alatriste/New York City Council

Editor's note: The following opinion piece originally was published on Jan. 28, 2014, following the retirement of then-New York City Council Member Al Vann, who died on July 14, 2022. Vann, a Democrat and giant in Brooklyn politics, represented District 36 in the council from 2002 through 2013, which included Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. He also was a member of the Assembly from 1975 through 2001.

There was a retirement party for Councilman Al Vann of Brooklyn last month. The party was well deserved, honoring Vann’s lifetime of public service as a soldier, teacher and legislator.

Vann dedicated his public service to the agenda of empowerment. He tried to knit progressive coalitions in furtherance of that agenda. He sought alliances with progressive whites, but he would never tolerate minority voters being taken for granted.

The 2013 elections must have filled Vann with pride. Brooklyn cast 34 percent of the mayoral vote in the Democratic primary, powering the election of a progressive from Brooklyn with strong minority support into the mayoralty: Bill de Blasio. Over the past two years, four key Brooklyn offices were in play: the congressional seat once held by Ed Towns, the borough presidency, Vann’s own Council seat and the district attorney’s office. Not to mention that one of Vann’s protégés and his former legislative counsel from Albany, Letitia James, was running for public advocate.

Where once disunity within Brooklyn’s diverse minority communities denied black candidates the borough presidency (Vann himself in 1985) and the district attorney’s office in 2009, recent elections were quite different. Instead of internecine rivalries holding back black candidates from Brooklyn, unity prevailed. Vann’s candidate for Congress, Hakeem Jeffries, won a landslide victory, weaving a diverse quilt of support in 2012.

Then in 2013, Eric Adams was elected borough president virtually uncontested, Ken Thompson defeated the incumbent district attorney by a wide margin, and Vann’s candidate, Robert Cornegy, succeeded him in the Council. At the same time, James streaked to victory as public advocate. In sum, black Democrats from Brooklyn did exceedingly well in 2013.

A brief retrospective of Al Vann’s career helps spotlight the long political road he has traveled. In 1982, Vann threw his active support behind Mario Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign, helping to consolidate the outer borough minority vote behind Cuomo, a crucial element in his victory over Koch.

In 1984, Vann was the first major black leader to glimpse the potential of Jesse Jackson’s presidential run. Vann and the late Bill Lynch built the early infrastructure for Jackson’s registration and turnout gains that year, as well as in 1988. That effort established black voters as the largest pillar in New York politics, and led directly to David Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989.

As an aside, when the 2010 U.S. Census showed the black share of the population declining to 23 percent of the city’s overall total, some saw a diminution of black political influence looming. However, in 2013, a different picture emerged as the number of black voters in both the Democratic primary and the general election came in at a very solid 28 percent share of the electorate. That turnout was a significant factor in pushing the minority-majority to reach a record 55 percent of the city’s electorate, according to exit polls from the 2013 general election.

In Albany, Vann, in conjunction with his Assembly colleagues Art Eve from Buffalo and Denny Farrell and Angelo Del Toro from Manhattan, infused the Black and Hispanic Caucus with purposeful influence in the 1970s and 1980s. Today Karim Camara, the current chair of Albany’s Black, Hispanic and (now) Asian Caucus, is trying to rekindle a broad coalition of minority legislators to expand the Caucus’ influence on behalf of a robust programmatic agenda.

Vann would no doubt admonish this new generation of black political leaders to avoid the borough rivalries that have often been exploited by those who opposed the empowerment agenda’s substantive thrust. He would also likely advise that time and attention be paid to expanding coalitions, so that Hispanic, Asian and progressive white legislators find greater common ground with black elected officials.

At root Al Vann never stopped being a teacher, so I suspect he greatly enjoyed the celebration of his public life, masquerading as a retirement party. Recent elections, after all, have shown that the lessons Vann taught by example have been learned.

Bruce Gyory is a senior advisor in the government and regulatory practice at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, in the firm's Albany office. 

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