In an election like the 11th CD Congressional race, where so little separates the candidates on most issues, perhaps it’s time to looks at the candidates’ characters. Unfortunately, there is no better topic to bring one back to a discussion of the issues.
Chris Owens must have the most unique campaign for Congress ever conducted in New York’s sorry, sleazy political history. In a certain sense he’s selling himself as the cross-racial unifier, the only candidate with appeal across both sides of the color-line, but it’s a peculiar appeal indeed. To white audiences he essentially says “this is an historically black seat which a white candidate has no moral right to hold, so vote for me, because I’m the one black candidate who shares your values” (this may only be a Brownstone phenomena, as white guilt does not play a big role in the politics of Midwood). To black audiences he essentially says “the whites are trying to steal our seat, which is part of our birthright, I’m the best guy to stop them, because I’m the only one who can get white votes.”
Essentially, Owens takes the “progressive agenda” and wraps it in a racial Ponzi scheme. When reporters are in the room, Chris generally soft pedals the racial aspect of his message, merely reminding folks that he’d be in the Congressional Black Caucus, which he calls “the conscience of the Congress”. He leaves to his father, Major, the use of red meat code words like “outsider”, “invader” and “colonizer”. Having just recently compared maps of the State Senate District Major Owens served before his election to Congress and the Congressional District he was first elected from in 1982, which barely overlap, I’m inclined to believe that David Yassky’s former residence just outside the 11th CD does not form the basis for Major’s use of these words. Does anyone need to guess what does?
Not that Yassky shouldn’t take some criticism for carpet-bagging. Yassky arrived in Brooklyn Heights in the late 90s, about 15 minutes after being defeated for the District of Columbia School Board. A perhaps apocryphal story is told of how Yassky came to run for the City Council. He and his wife Diana had just finished unpacking, when Diana said “David, I chilled a bottle of Pinot when we arrived, why don’t you go out and get a brie, and we’ll celebrate.” Yassky walked up the Joralemon Street hill toward Hicks Street and suddenly looked lost. A stranger approached him and asked him if he needed help. Yassky asked “Do you know a good gourmet shop around here?” The stranger replied “go left on Montague and check out Lassen and Hennings.” Yassky thanked him and then thought to himself “Gee, this neighborhood’s been good to me; it’s time I gave something back”. Nonetheless, even with his recent move to the 11th, Yassky is less of a carpetbagger running for a Congressional seat containing much of his current Council constituency than he was when he first ran for the Council; and given Congress’ national focus, it matters quite a bit less (it would matter even less if it were a US Senate seat; just ask Hillary).
David’s obsessive ambition is still a concern. Sometimes it appears that he really thinks he's going to be the first Jewish president. He's spent his life looking for the next office to run for (from DC School Board to Council to DA to Congress) and is always starting his campaign about five minutes after (if not five minutes before) he unloads his moving van. He can seem slippery and evasive, because sometimes he is (there is a classic web interview he gave when running for the Council where he continually ignores a Williamsburg based reporter’s question as to which neighborhood he lives in, until the reporter finally gives up); this sort of indirectness has also been displayed to other electeds, to the point where the only reason other officials in the Brownstone area don’t regard him as totally untrustworthy is because he’s had the luck to be compared to Bill DeBlasio. Of course, these are the sorts of criticisms made by contemporaries of Bill Clinton and FDR. Yassky’s ambition sometimes leads him to make stupid grandiose proposals or act irresponsibly (e.g., endorsing County‘s John Sampson for DA). While, such a level of ambition is pretty much a prerequisite to greatness, Yassky's actions in its service can sometimes give one pause.
Yassky's support of Sampson was repulsive and stupid. It didn't get Sampson one white vote, and it won't get Yassky one black vote (In practice, Yassky's endorsements sometimes don't last much longer than the press conference where he made them; asked at a 2001 candidates debate who he'd endorsed for Borough President, he could barely get Marty Markowitz's name out of his mouth; an opponent who was supporting Ken Fisher actually said far nicer things about Markowitz than Yassky managed). In fact, Yassky’s whole abortive race for DA is troubling in itself. Yassky has spent virtually his entire career as an attorney as either a congressional staffer, a law professor, or an elected official. Any random lawyer in 16 Court Street was probably as qualified to be DA. In fact, his total lack of qualification for the job almost explains the Sampson endorsement. Yassky, who’d never tried a criminal case, thought Yassky was qualified to be DA. Since Sampson had actually tried one criminal case, Yassky could honestly say he thought Sampson was qualified as well.
But, he is qualified to serve in Congress; and, who among his opponents did any better in endorsing for DA? As far as I'm aware, the only one who didn't support Sampson was Owens. He supported Mark Peters, a former Spitzer deputy convinced into running by folks who wanted to draw white liberals away from Joe Hynes so Sampson could win. It nearly worked, too. The line from the Organization to Peters (Clarence Norman to Carl Andrews to Eliot Spitzer to Mark Peters) is too obvious to ignore; as was the fact that the County organization bound the petitions of District Leaders who supported Peters, but refused to extend the favor to those District Leaders who backed Joe Hynes. Do I believe Owens was part of this conspiracy? I don’t know; either (a) Owens understood this was the purpose of the Peters candidacy and nonetheless cynically embraced it to build a beach-head in Park Slope, or (b) Owens was too stupid to understand he was being Clarence Norman's useful idiot. Either way, his choice for DA does not elevate him over Yassky. Perhaps, I‘m being a bit hard on Chris; Yassky's support of Sampson was both repulsive and stupid, while Owens' support of Peters was either one or the other, but not both. On the other hand, maybe I’m being too easy on him; perhaps he supported Peters intentionally to give him more credibility, and thereby help to make him more useful to helping to elect Sampson; after all, Major Owens called the indictment of Clarence Norman a "lynching". I’d like to hear him tell this to the mother of Emmett Till, or the parents of Schwerner, Goodman, or Chaney. Perhaps Chris can discretely apologize on his behalf.
Turning to the other candidates does not offer much relief. I think it’s unfair to link Carl Andrews to the criminal convictions against his friend Clarence Norman, since the charges Clarence has been convicted of thus far are pretty personal, and are no reflection on Carl, even by association. However, whether criminal, or just unseemly, the activities of Clarence Norman as Democratic Leader are to be fairly imputed to Carl, who basically functioned as one of the organization's underbosses, and received more than his share of tribute from the Surrogate and Supreme Courts, to the point where some regulars, who had no problem with the concept of victors indulging in spoils, found unseemly the Norman clique’s seeming inability to let anyone else wet their beak. Perhaps Carl can articulate a case that his activities on behalf of the organization inured to the public good, but, for good or for evil, it is fair to hold him accountable for the actions of the County organization under the Norman regime.
The others are little, if at all, better; Yvette Clarke has yet to prove herself anything but an empty pants-suit of suspect lineage, and her legislative record is largely written in invisible ink (as Yassky is to gun control, she is to rest room parity). As to Nick Perry, the only places where he’s shown evidence of a clear vision are on social issues, where he’s promised to put his conservative heart and mind into receivership (which a friendly judge would probably award to Carl Andrews).
So, once again we are back to the earnest Nerd twins, Yassky and Owens. Both are capable of acts of nobility. Yassky bravely and properly stood up to Giff Miller on solid waste, and paid a high price for it. And, while the merits of the issue are a little more ambiguous, Yassky’s votes to back the Mayor on education issues, in the face of Randy Weingarten’s opposition, show bravery and fortitude. On issues he cares about, Yassky has the courage of his convictions, and his convictions stem from rational analysis and worthy values. Owens has also displayed some courage; once declining nomination on a school board petition, substituting a candidate he found worthy who hadn’t made the ballot and successfully running as a write-in. A visit to Owens’ website makes clear he has a specific and sincere vision of what he would like to accomplish in Washington.
Unfortunately, Owens’ vision is often unrealistic, and occasionally troubling. I see nothing that contradicts my suspicion that, as a Quaker, Owens may have a sincere aversion to ever using military force, under any circumstances, even to stop genocide. Chris, if this is not true, please correct me! Because, in the end, I’m inclined to regard genocide as the ultimate character issue. And please, don’t quote me Gandhi or A.J Muste; Slobodon Milosevic didn’t find non-violent civil disobedience a compelling persuader, and neither do the folks responsible for the deaths in Darfur. In the end, I want a member of Congress who’s wrestled with, and lost sleep over, the question of under which circumstances the deployment of American forces in battle is justified. “Just say no” is not an adequate answer, but it appears to be the only answer Chris Owens is capable of giving.