David Yassky, a Brooklyn City Council member and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer, will run for an open Brooklyn Congressional seat next year, Mr. Yassky told The Observer.
Mr. Yassky will seek the seat now held by Major Owens, who has announced that he will retire next year. The City Council member will join a crowded field in a district that includes Park Slope, Crown Heights and much of Flatbush.
“We need people in Congress who know how to get something done,” Mr. Yassky said in an interview over Mexican food in Park Slope last weekend. “Half of the [Congressional Democrats] have just given up and the other half are working from a 30-year-old playbook.”
The tousled Mr. Yassky, 41, has an unusual profile for the city’s pothole-oriented legislature. Raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he attended Princeton and Yale Law School, then went to work as an aide to Mr. Schumer and as chief counsel Mr. Schumer’s crime subcommittee. Working as a Congressional lawyer, he helped enact the Brady Law, the Assault Weapons Ban and the Violence Against Women Act. He also saw the Democrats’ power dissolve after the 1994 elections. He lives in Brooklyn Heights; his wife, Diana Fortuna, is president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Mr. Yassky’s Schumerite credentials helped him win election to the City Council in 2001.
There, he has specialized in finding ways to use the Council’s relatively weak legislative powers-most real lawmaking power resides at the state level-to enact meaningful laws. Among his accomplishments are a bill that creates taxi medallions that can be used only on environmentally friendly cars, legislation giving city residents grounds to sue gun-makers for certain gun crimes, and a bill making even minor domestic-violence arrests a bar to owning a gun.
Mr. Yassky has also found himself sometimes at odds with his colleagues and with various groups in his Council district. He took compromise positions on a new dorm for Brooklyn Law School and on the rezoning of the North Brooklyn waterfront, in the latter case angering neighborhood anti-development groups, but also frustrating developers who would have preferred looser rules around affordable housing. Currently, he’s trying to broker a deal with Mayor Bloomberg on a solid-waste management plan that has set Mr. Bloomberg at odds with the City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
Mr. Yassky is unapologetic about those cases.
“I’m a very pragmatic person,” he said. “I’ll take two-thirds of a loaf rather than nothing, and that means a lot of the time the activists who want all or nothing will be disappointed.”
Mr. Yassky’s jump into federal politics is anything but simple. New York’s 11th Congressional District was created after a lawsuit brought under the federal Voting Rights Act in 1967, according to Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. Before that, the district’s African-American population had been divided among several mostly white districts.
In 1968, the district elected Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress. In 1982, Chisholm retired and was replaced by Mr. Owens, who had been a path-breaking civil-rights-era figure in his own right and a senior deputy to Mayor John Lindsay. Mr. Owens, though, has faded from the public stage in recent years, and may now be best known in Congress for the rap poetry of his own composition he sometimes reads into the Congressional Record.
The half-dozen or so other candidates seeking the seat are all African-American and Caribbean-American, and Mr. Yassky’s status as the only white candidate in the race could give him a victory on straight ethnic lines as other candidates split the black vote. The district was 21 percent white and 59 percent black in the 2000 census, and has probably gotten whiter since then as Brooklyn gentrifies.
But it also puts him in the unusual position of a white candidate running not only in a majority-minority district, but in a district created specifically to empower black voters and politicians.
“Part of what [the Voting Rights Act] is trying to achieve is to have people of color in government, but the main goal is that people of color are represented and their voice is heard,” Mr. Yassky said. “If I win, the voice of every part of the district will be heard.”
So far, none of his likely opponents have made race an explicit issue.
“It’s not an issue for me-I’ve campaigned in this district and I’ve received white votes, black votes, Orthodox votes,” said State Senator Carl Andrews, a longtime Brooklyn political worker who is also seeking the seat. Mr. Andrews has already been endorsed by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose statewide field operation Mr. Andrews ran in 1998. “I’m campaigning in all communities and I expect to do well in all communities.”
Another candidate, State Assemblyman Nick Perry, had another objection to Mr. Yassky’s candidacy, and indeed to that of all of his rivals: His 13 years in the Assembly make them relative newcomers.
“David Yassky is one of these newly elected people who haven’t yet taken the time to warm their seats in the various houses they have been elected to,” Mr. Perry said.
Also considering the race are three political heirs: Mr. Owens’ son, Chris; City Council member Yvette Clarke, who ran against Mr. Owens last year and whose mother, Una, also served on the City Council; and City Council member Tracy Boyland, whose family holds something of a political monopoly in sections of Brooklyn and who finished behind Ms. Clarke last year.
Ms. Clarke, whose mother was a pioneer among Caribbean-American politicians, is facing an unexpectedly strong re-election challenge, apparently the fruit of her challenge to Mr. Owens, which could hamper her Congressional bid.
To some observers, the complicated race, the lack of a clear front-runner and the fact that a white candidate could well inherit a historically black district are part of broader questions about African-American political leadership.
“Who comes after the civil-rights generation of black leaders?” asked John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a Park Slope resident. “Is it a white progressive activist in a district that is significantly white and progressive? Is it a West Indian candidate in a district that is also very significantly West Indian? We thought that the civil-rights movement was something that would have permanent continuity, but it doesn’t necessarily appear so in this case.”