Race and Ethnicity in the 54th AD [UPATED]

To understand the importance of ethnicity in the race for Brooklyn’s 54th AD Assembly seat, it is perhaps instructive to understand a bit about the history of Latino empowerment in East Brooklyn.

Despite the growing Latino population in East Brooklyn, most local offices were held by Italian American hacks rather than Latino ones for far longer than often occurred in other communities.  

We are not talking here of diligent, culturally simpatico, bend over backwards, “I’ll do anything to make you happy,” white pols like Marty Markowitz and Rhoda Jacobs—we are talking about shameless cyphers like Councilman Dominick Corso, who once screamed out during a debate: “You think it takes guts to stand up for what is right? That doesn’t take guts. What takes guts is to stand up for what you know is wrong, day after day, year after year. That takes guts!” (Corso later got to implement his philosophy on the bench).   

We are talking about reactionaries so culturally backwards that their knuckles bled when they walked; people like Assemblyman Peter Mirto, who once sponsored a bill making it a crime to read the name of an America soldier killed in Vietnam as part of any demonstration against US policy, and then said that failure to pass the bill would have them drinking sake in Hanoi.

But with one exception, gerrymandering and a lack of political organizing kept Latinos from electing one of their own (I won’t blame lack of citizenship, as Brooklyn Latinos were then overwhelmingly Puerto Rican) for far too long.

In 1965, the confused reapportionment politics spurred by numerous court decisions of the mid-60s allowed the election of a blind Puerto Rican Assemblyman (Gilbert Ramirez) in Williamsburg/Bed-Stuy in 1965 before another reapportionment in 1966 split his district five ways (apprently, he didn't see it coming).

There was not another Latino elected to public office in Brooklyn until the 1970s. 

In 1973, Luis Olmedo finally won the seat which had been held by Corso and his successor, Rudy DiBlasi. Though at first thought a radical firebrand, Olmedo proved quick to be supportive of the organization if the price was right.

1976 was another key year.

Latino areas in East Brooklyn were then divided among three Assembly seats held by whites, and two held by blacks, but changing demographics seemed to offer some opportunity for change.

In the 59th,  Mirto was challenged by Victor Robles (an aide to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm), and Tito Velez (later knick-named “Batman,” after his choice of weapons). With Tito splitting the Latino vote, Robles lost to Mirto by 3%.  

The same year, Thomas Fortune was challenged in his Brownsville/Bushwick District by Martin Dilan.   

It was not the last we’d hear of either challenger.

In 1978, Robles came back and beat Mirto, becoming Brooklyn’s first Latino State Legislator since Ramirez.

In 1982, far more opportunities opened up.

A second Latino Assembly seat was drawn in East Brooklyn, with Fortune forced into the same district with Thomas Boyland and Fred Schmidt’s half-Brooklyn District eliminated, with him forced to challenge a Republican incumbent in an all-Queens seat.

The State Senate seats of Tom Bartosiewcz and Major Owens were blown to bits, leaving Owens to run for Congress in an area largely outside his turf and Bart running in an area almost entirely bereft of Poles, who were given to Marty Connor.

Further, a Congressional seat was drawn with a Latino plurality.

All the opportunities were blown.

Two Latinos ran for the Congressional seat, giving victory to organization backed Deputy Borough President Edolphus “Ed” Towns.

Bartosiewicz, whose talent for victory in difficult circumstances rivaled Marty Markowitz, beat two Latinos, one of whom (Tito Velez) attacked the other (Alex Miranda) with a Louisville Slugger.

And in the newly created Cypress Hills/Bushwick 54th AD, a District Leader of Italian origin named Tom Catapano, a relic of an Italian Community immortalized in “Goodfellas” (the remnants of which held on so long there was still one white plurality census tract in Cypress Hills in the 1990 census), with the help of Ed Towns, put together a coalition primarily of blacks and whites and beat the Latino candidate, Martin Dilan (and did so again in a 1984 rematch).

The next change came when Olmedo was convicted on corruption charges, and was replaced by a vote of the City Council (the way it was then done) by Towns aide Nydia Velazquez, then widely rumored to be Olmedo’s girlfriend (although another Councilmember’s name also comes up).

This was done despite the fact that some witnesses at the Council's hearing questioned whether Velazquez was a legal resident of the District, as required by law, and Velazquez responded that she had moved to the area earlier that month. 

Olmedo retired temporarily to out of town dwellings before beginning a new career as a perennial candidate and manufacturer of kitchen table petition signatures.

Robles was besides himself, and challenged Velazquez, beating her in the 1984 special primary, and again in 1985.   

When Robles ran for Council, a local Italian-American power broker named Vito Lopez ran for his Assembly seat, with Velez and another candidate splitting the Latino vote (though someone cleverly got Mirto to run and try to split the meager white vote as well).

The East Brooklyn corridor was now entirely represented in the Assembly by Italian Americans. 

In 1988, Bartosiewicz finally got tired of campaigning full time (the only way he could hold his seat) and retired.

The most promising Latino candidate, Luis Osorio, screwed up his petitions leaving “Batman” Velez and “Robber” Olmedo facing Deputy City Clerk Ada Smith, who, in context, looked like the reasonable alternative, since cups of coffee generally cause less damage than baseball bats.

With the votes of Latinos (and those sympathizing with criminality) split, Smith won. In 1990, Smith held on as Lopez’s candidate, nursing home magnate Nellie Santiago, split the Latino vote with Olmedo. 

In 1992, redistricting once again took a hand.

Ada Smith’s apartment building in Williamsburg was attached by a usually one block wide corridor to black parts of East New York and Southern Queens, making way for a new Latino seat, which Santiago won, despite Lopez now opposing her.

A new Latino Congressional seat was also created, which a Lazurus-like Nydia Velazquez won, beating four other Latinos, including one Bronx import put up by Lopez to help carpetbagger Steve Solarz, whose own Congressional district had been eliminated.

Representation in the 54th also changed, but not in the way one would expect. Catapano was still taking the advice of Ed Towns, who encouraged him to load up his Latino district with as many blacks as possible.

The damage now done, Towns’ son Darryl ran against Tom Cat and beat him. Towns held that seat, beating Latino opponents, including Dilan, for nearly two decades, as the 54th neared its 30th Anniversary as a Latino Majority seat held by non-Latinos.

Dilan, meanwhile, went to the Council in 1993, beating Vito Lopez’s candidate, and then beat Santiago for the Senate in 2002, with Lopez’s support. His son Erik now holds the Council seat, and has just taken Darryl Towns' District Leadership.

Given the history of the 54th (and, the history of the neighboring 53rd held by Lopez), is it any wonder that Latinos, including those who have no use for Lopez and the Dilans, suffer from boiling blood at the thought this seat may yet be held by another member of the Towns family?

Is it any wonder that for Marty Dilan, the 54th AD has become something akin to a great white whale?

Which raises some interesting questions.

Deidra Towns, daughter of Ed, sister of Darryl, was born in the Dominican Republic and later adopted by the Towns family.

While color prejudice is an internal (not to mention external) fact of life in all Latino communities, blacks from Latin America are generally considered Latino unless, like the black minorities in Panama or Costa Rica, they speak English instead of Spanish.

By that measure, Deidra Towns qualifies as Latino.

But, Deidra Towns was raised in a home imbued with black culture, and I don’t mean Afro-Cuban. Her CV indicates some involvement with black causes, but contains little evidence of any Latino indentification.  

Does Deidra Towns speak Spanish? Does she check the Hispanic box on her census form? Does she have any affinity whatsoever with Latino culture?

In some ways, we might as well ask if Barack Obama is black.

But there are differences.

No matter how white bread his childhood home, Barack Obama’s skin was a constant reminder of his blackness, whether in Hawaii, Indonesia, Chicago or NYC. Diedra Towns’ skin probably provides no such reminder of her being Latino.

When Barack Obama could not catch a cab, it was because of his black skin. When Deidra Towns can’t catch a cab, her being a Latino is not a factor.

Further,  like Moses choosing to live as a Jew, Barack Obama made a conscious choice to join the black community he was only a member of by proxy. As Brent Staples notes, Obama literally learned to walk the walk.  

Can Deidra Towns do the mambo? Does she prefer Joe Bataan (an Afro-Filipino who did learn to walk the Latino walk) to Otis Redding?  Does she take her chicken fried or broasted?

I do not think this is a qualification to hold the seat. I’ve endorsed whites in black districts, blacks in white ones, and blacks and whites for Latino seats. But, if all things were equal, it is preferable for an elected representative to share their district’s cultural affinities.

Especially in a district with appears to have a long-term grievance.

Some observers, representing very different viewpoints, have made this point quite explicitly.

Marty Dilan (a supporter of Rafael Espinal)  has outright accused Nydia Velazquez of running Jesus Gonzalez to split the Latino vote to help the daughter of a long-time ally who is herself a close friend:  “It’s about congressional politics…In my mind, Congressman Towns is in cahoots with  Nydia Velázquez.” 

Rock Hackshaw  (somewhat sympathetic to Deidra Towns) asks “Why is it when a member of the Towns clan is running here, you will find two Hispanic opponents competing to split up the anti-Towns vote? Just a question; that’s all.”

Gary Tilzer (presumably a likely supporter of Jesus Gonzalez) says: “Candidates in the 54 Split the Vote Allowing the Black Candidate to Win . . . Was It Done on Purpose?

The NYT did an analysis of the Assembly race in the 54AD which has two political power houses, the Towns and Lopez machines backing a candidate against each other and an independent reform candidate back by New Kings Democrats.  What the reporter Liz Robbins does not understand the the splitting of the Latino vote is the only chance that Deidra Town s has a chance to win.   

The biggest mistake the reporter Robbins made is not understanding the politics behind congresswoman Velázquez decision to back the reform candidate Gonzalez against her family friends who help her get into politics the Towns family.  Without Velázquez helping to split the Latino vote in a district which is about a third black and lost black voters like most neighborhoods in Brooklyn Deidra Towns would have not chance in running. If the reporter Robbins investigate should would find a Svengali style political media manipulator Hank Sheinkopf who could put such a deal together with the WFP and two congressional representatives working together in a borough that has lost black and Latino voters is working for Towns. Brooklyn Special Election Could Upset Politics as Usual (NYT) A 54th Assembly District race, whose three candidates are all Democrats, is upending decades of uneasy political peace.”

Why, even if it were true, this would bother Tilzer is a puzzle. Presumably he is anti-Vito Lopez. Towns was in the race no matter what, and many people I know who are not Towns fans were ready to support Deidra in a head to head race as “the anti-Vito,” the same way they backed her dad for Leader. If Tilzer is right, Nydia’s running Jesus has created the most likely vehicle for an anti-Lopez victory, so why is he complaining?

I ran into Towns early in the race, and got the feeling he believes this as well. I asked what was up with him and Nydia having different candidates, and he said, “Nydia and I will be working for the same side in the end.”   

By that, did he mean splitting the Latino vote?

I am dubious about this popular scenario.

ET may believe that this is the scenario. Nydia may even believe that is the scenario. But, as I said to Towns, “you may believe that,” and he neither admitted or denied it, “but I’m not sure the Working Families Party (WFP) is in on the joke. The Working Families Party plays to win.”  

I’m reminded of when Bea DeSapio, an old West Brooklyn political hand, ran a slate for school board, filled with weak little “rabbits” who had some strength in some a particular area, or with a particular ethnic or interest group constituency, whose job it was to bring out their pack of votes, and then lose, passing them onto Bea as part of the proportional representation process.

The problem is, running a rabbit is only really useful when you convince them they can win, so that they work hard enough to bring out their vote.

The last time Bea ran, one of her rabbits did so well she won a seat on the first ballot, and passed on virtually no votes. As a result, Bea’s career as School Board President (and, for that matter, as a School Board Member) came to an end.

Incidentally, the rabbit was named Dorothy Siegel and she is now the WFP Treasurer and head of its Brownstone Brooklyn Club, where I’m sure she’s had the opportunity to pass on a few lessons about rascally rabbits outsmarting Edolphus Fudd.

I do not believe Deidra Towns is placing higher in this race than third.

The black population in the District has dropped, and some of the old black majority housing projects now have Latino pluralities.

Further, Vito Lopez has a history of using his Chairmanship of the Assembly Housing Committee (and Erik Dilan’s Chairmanship of the City Council’s Housing Committee) to manipulate support from the leaders of NYCHA Tenant Associations, hitting Deidra in her supposed base. 

I’ve seen it done. Ask Jo Anne Simon for details.

Union support of both Gonzalez and Espinal will add further attrition to Towns’ black vote.

Further, Deidra seems unlikely to inherit the inroads among Latino made by her father and brother during their long incumbencies. She does not have their track record, or much of any record at all in these communities, and Darryl’s club has been decimated by the loss of his leadership, which left control of the Democratic Election Inspectors entirely in the hands of the Dilan Family. At best, Deidra might inherit Darryl’s strength among Guyanans in the City Line area.

I suspect Marty Dilan knows this. 

A while back when Colin Campbell traced some IP numbers of commentators on Brooklyn Politics to the Ridgewood-Bushwick empire (and Nick Rizzo published it), there were a couple of posts on the blogs by pro-Espinal commentators mentioning that Deidra Towns was Puerto Rican.

As noted, to the extent that she is, Deidra Towns is Dominican.

As is Rafael Espinal.

But, Jesus Gonzalez is Puerto Rican.

It goes without saying that this matters.

Someone wise in the ways of NYC politics once told me there were no Asians, only Chinese and Koreans; and no Latinos, only Puerto Rican, Dominicans and Mexicans. He added there were no Jews in Williamsburg, only Hasidim.

I do not think this is true any longer (except concerning the Hasids), but I still think ethnicity matters.

A Puerto Rican may favor a Dominican over an Anglo (black or white), but still prefer a Dominican over a Puerto Rican. A black Dominican might not prefer an Anglo-black over a white Dominican, but might prefer Deidra to one, but not if Diedra was from PR instead of DR.

Elections in New York are won and lost on such racial minutiae.

I once stood at the Brooklyn College polling place trying to persuade a rainbow of voters to support Lloyd Henry over Colin Moore for City Council. Asians, whether yellow or brown, always came through when I mentioned the Korean deli boycott Moore had been involved with.  

Except for one couple.

Mitch Alter, working the polling place for Moore (by, among other things, telling whites to vote for the third candidate) shook his head at me with pity:

They’re from Guyana, like Colin.”

In the Countywide race for Judge, two black women face each other. Vito Lopez believes only a black can win a countywide primary in a low turnout year. His original choice couldn’t get through the screening panel, and he was urged to pick a Hispanic by those who thought a disproportionate number of votes would be coming from the 54th. Instead he adopted a black candidate being supported by a political enemy. I think this was a mistake.  

The anti-Vito candidate is named Cheryl Gonzales. She is Trinidadian. Every Latino knows a Gonzales ending in an “S” is black, the same way every Jew knows a Buchanski ending in an “I” is Catholic and that Michele Bachmann’s double “NN” makes her a shiksa.

Query: do Latinos support Gonzales against a woman named “Sharen Hudson” on the oft chance she might be a Latina? Does a Gonzalez with a "Z" also on the ballot act as free advertsing?   

Query: does it matter to Latinos in Glendale that David Weprin’s mother’s first language is Spanish?

If I did not consider the candidates in the 54th such a mediocre lot, this all might be the subject of outrage. But, in the scheme of things, it is surely no worse a way of deciding how to vote than flipping a coin.

As I’ve often written, politics is really about culture; in the case of electoral politics, this means that, when a citizen casts a ballot, he/she is making a cultural statement about his values. The understanding of this simple fact is the common thread that unites Lee Atwater, Bill Clinton, Karl Rove and Chuck Schumer.

It is in essence why Barack Obama is a black man and Afro-Filipino Joe Bataan is a Nyorican. It is also why Deidra Towns is probably not a Dominican.    

CORRECTION: I am told by an extemely reliable source that Deidra Towns speaks fluent Spanish and does so better than Rafael Espinal, while Jesus Gonzalez speaks no Spanish at all. Still no answer though on the Joe Bataan, census form, and broasted or fried questions.

  • I would like to get in contact with the person who wrote this post. My dad was beat up by Tito Velez and suffered greatly. I’ve been looking for articles about this event but could not find anything until I read this post.