Race Plays Part in Brooklyn Congressional Race

A black congressman from Brooklyn is retiring. Three black candidates and one white candidate are vying for his seat. But some black leaders insist that the district should only be represented by an African-American.

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DON GONYEA, host:

Democrats are certain to retain their hold on New York's 11th Congressional District after its longtime congressman, Major Owens, retires this fall. What's less certain is whether the mostly black district in Brooklyn will continue to be represented by a black member of Congress. A well-funded white candidate has joined three black candidates running for the open seat. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC has this report on the race.

Ms. YVETTE CLARK (Councilwoman, New York): Good afternoon, good afternoon, how are you doing?

BETH FERTIG reporting:

As a native of Central Brooklyn, City Councilwoman Yvette Clark is a familiar face as she campaigns through a street fair in a Caribbean neighborhood along Flatbush Avenue.

Unidentified Man: You did a nice job.

Ms. CLARK: Thank you, thank you very much. Well, I'm trying to work my way to Congress and I need your support.

FERTIG: Clark is a product of this neighborhood. Born to Jamaican parents, she grew up just around the corner and followed in her mother's footsteps by entering local politics. She says she wants to continue advocating for her community in Washington.

Ms. CLARK: They want to be connected to their representative and that's something that I find everywhere I go. So I'm out here really just touching lives and making sure that folks feel connected and have a stake and are vested in the development of our community.

FERTIG: But the question of who is best suited to represent this community has become a heated topic in Brooklyn's political circles and in newspaper headlines. The 11th Congressional District is almost 60 percent black and Clark is one of three black candidates running along with a white candidate named David Yassky. That's led Reverend Al Sharpton and a few other black leaders to worry that Yassky could benefit if the black vote is split. City Councilman Al Vann, an elder statesman in Brooklyn politics, says no one is questioning Yassky's right to run, but Vann notes the district has had a black member of Congress ever since it was created in the late 1960s, when blacks faced tremendous hurdles entering politics.

Mr. AL VANN (City Councilman, New York): I think that if he were a different kind of person, if he clearly understood the history of the Voting Rights Act, if he understood the struggle of black people in the Civil Rights Movement, and our ongoing struggle to find equality in this society and he was concerned about the majority of the people who lived in the 11th Congressional District, no, he would choose to run in another district.

FERTIG: Vann insists this is not reverse racism. He says that as long as blacks continue to have a lower standard of living, they'll continue to need their own representation. He also notes that Yassky only recently moved into the district. But Yassky continues to campaign to his own beat. Like the other candidates, he's been stumping at block parties and at this senior center where he danced with a potential voter.

Unidentified Woman: He's a married man and I'm a married woman.

FERTIG: Yassky's council district includes some of Brooklyn's wealthiest neighborhoods, as well as public housing projects. As a former aide to Senator Charles Schumer, and through his work on affordable housing issues, Yassky says he's got the experience all voters are seeking, regardless of race.

Mr. DAVID YASSKY (Candidate): Absolutely voters need to know that their congressman understands their needs, is passionate and committed about representing them, but I don't think that most voters think that somebody's ethnic background is a barrier to understanding their needs and passionately representing them.

FERTIG: But it's not just Yassky's race that's causing concern, it's his money. Yassky has raised over $1.2 million, more than his three competitors combined. Some black leaders have asked the black candidates to rally around one consensus candidate, but so far nobody's willing to drop out. Chris Owens, an education advocate and son of the incumbent congressman Major Owens, says he's heard the argument, but he's not leaving the race.

Mr. CHRIS OWENS (Candidate): There are many people who have said that to me. I meet some at the subway stops, I meet some at community forums, who say, you know what, you're going to split the vote, we can't let a white candidate win. And I say - I remind them that of the 239,000 registered Democrats in this district, most of us are African American, and if that's their concern, just make sure that all of us vote.

FERTIG: Another candidate in the race is State Senator Carl Andrews, the apparent favorite of the Brooklyn Democratic establishment.

State Senator CARL ANDREWS (Democrat, New York): Thank you, thank you. You all know I'm running for Congress now, right? I'm not going to be your senator anymore.

FERTIG: Sara Hackett(ph) says she's voting for Andrews because she knows him and she speaks for many when she says she doesn't care how many candidates are running, her only issue is who's most qualified.

Ms. SARA HACKETT (Voter): I feel (unintelligible) and I know that the best candidate will win. I am not looking at race, color or creed.

FERTIG: After all, she says, the voters will be the ones to decide. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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