On June 8, a memo was sent to “Black Elected Officials, City, State, and Federal” from City Councilman Albert Vann. It warned of the “peril of losing a ‘Voting Rights’ district—the 11th Congressional District—as a result of the well financed candidacy of Council Member David Yassky, a white individual.”
That was one of the nicer things Mr. Yassky’s critics had to say about his bid to represent the central Brooklyn district, which is about 60 percent African-American and Caribbean.
Since its creation in 1968, the district has been represented by only two people: Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and Representative Major R. Owens. Hence, almost inevitably, the political conversation with real issues at stake—crime, housing, development—came to be dominated by race.
In the end, though, race was beside the point: It was Yvette Clarke –the only woman in a field of four – who prevailed, with around 30 percent of the vote.
Here’s a taste of what the neck-and-neck campaign looked like on the ground.
David Yassky, 42, City Councilman, top fund-raiser
David Yassky had been yawning for four hours. It was 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the election and he’d been campaigning since 9 a.m. It was pitch dark outside, and he turned his soccer-dad blue Mazda minivan to the corner of Albany and Lincoln in Crown Heights.
Dozens of black teenagers and twentysomethings were dancing to loud reggaeton and enjoying the late hours of a block party. It may not have been an ideal setting for the super-white, Oxford-shirt and rimless-Prada-wearing Mr. Yassky to search for votes.
But Mr. Yassky plunged ahead, weaving his way past the revelers. He reached the D.J. booth and grabbed the microphone to introduce himself. What he heard back were jeers and hisses.
“We don’t want him!” one woman kept yelling.
Undeterred, Mr. Yassky continued with the shortened stump speech and polite solicitation of votes. When he was finished, one of his handlers rushed to him with a way to rescue the appearance from disaster.
“Music! Say you’re going back to the music!”
Either blithely unaware or totally indifferent, Mr. Yassky handed the microphone off and then rushed off to the nearby stoops to hand people his literature.
It was a reprint of his endorsement form The New York Times. The stoop sitters listened, shook his hand and even had some questions.
Earnest and socially awkward, Mr. Yassky exuded nerdiness: To everyone he met, he gave an awkward thumbs-up. Occasionally, he pumped his fist. He slouched.
But he said he was undaunted.
“This may sound cliché or anti-septic, I don’t know what the word is, but I think our campaign appeals to all voters,” he said. “People think East Flatbush voters are Yvette voters. Well, I’m competing for them, and if they think Crown Heights voters are Carl voters, I’m competing for them, too. And if people think that Park Slope [voters] are Yassky voters, you know, except to the extent that they go for Owens, I’d like to think if that they don’t vote for Owens, then they’ll vote for me, and the same is true in the other places, too.”
Yvette Clarke, 42, Councilwoman, women’s rights advocate
Yvette Clarke, in a cherry-red, knee-length skirt and matching jacket, stood on the City Hall steps surrounded by Haitian men in dark suits. The men there considered her “family,” and “one of us.”
It was the latest display of Ms. Clarke’s endorsements from one of two demographic groups that Ms. Clarke hoped would propel her to Washington. Weeks earlier on the same steps, Ms. Clarke stood flanked by Roberta Flack, the singer, Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, and nearly 100 other women.
Women, she said, “hold up half the sky … but rarely get the recognition, rarely get the opportunity to have their voices part of shaping the policies.” That is where Ms. Clarke, the daughter of former Councilwoman Una Clarke, comes in.
“I cannot imagine a Congress that was half female allowing our children to be sent to war, into harm’s way without an extremely good reason,” she said.
After a pause, Ms. Clarke went on to say simply, “There are not enough women in Congress. Women need to speak for themselves, for their families and for their communities.”
Carl Andrews, 50, State Senator, establishment favorite
On the Saturday before Election Day, State Senator Carl Andrews was expected to be joined by his supporter Al Sharpton at a block party in Brownsville, a predominantly African-American neighborhood where Mr. Sharpton is considered a demigod.
Mr. Andrews began to wade into the small crowd. Then a D.J. spotted the large frame in the suit among the more causally dressed partygoers and eagerly announced his arrival.
“Brother Al Sharpton is in the House!” the D.J. said.
One of Mr. Andrews’ handlers waved to the D.J., hoping to correct him.
With the microphone still held to his mouth, the D.J. said, “Oh no, not yet? Sharpton isn’t here yet? Then who’s that?” The D.J. was pointing to Mr. Andrews.
It was a strange question to ask of the man who spent nearly three decades in politics. Mr. Andrews is better known for his work as a behind-the-scenes specialist than he is on the front lines. Even Mr. Andrews is the first to admit that he prefers the backroom role.
Mr. Andrews ran field operations statewide for Eliot Spitzer’s successful 1998 run for Attorney General, and helped coordinate Hillary Clinton’s operation in 2000.
“As we get to the final two days here, I’m going back to the technician mode,” he said last Saturday, with more than a little glee. “Now when my managers hand me a sheet of paper telling me what I’m doing, I’ll edit it.”
“I have my hands in the pot,” he continued. “With 9/11 coming up, that’s an unusual event. I have unusual downtime right before the election, so to keep myself from going crazy I’ll put my hand in the gumbo and add a little more spice to it. I’m going to put my little hand in the Election Day operation.”
At the block party, Mr. Andrews tried schmoozing, with mixed results.
“Why kind of look are you giving me? Is that an angry look?” Mr. Andrews said as a way of introducing himself to a young man.
The Reverend Al Sharpton never arrived.
Chris Owens, 47, health-care administrator, legacy candidate
A hypnotic flute and electronic drum machine swirled together behind the voice of the man hoping to replace his father in Congress. “This is Chris Owens sending a song out to George Bush and the radical right. We need to get our priorities straight and save this world.”
It was Mr. Owens’ anti-war song, released about two weeks before the Democratic primary. It is also a sign of how much he has and hasn’t learned from his father’s two decades in Congress. Rabidly liberal but cocooned by New York’s penchant for re-electing incumbents, father and son both champion lefty causes without hesitation.
“Because we know love is the way. Love. Is. The. Way,” Mr. Owens’ voice intoned, the last word echoing into silence. “Why should we hate, why should we threaten anyone. We all need light from the sun.”
It was an improvement from what his father, the self-proclaimed Rappin’ Rep produced. On March 3, 2003, he read into the Congressional Record his anti-war song: “Stop the war / We need the cash / Give Medicaid families / All of Rumsfeld’s stash / Throw the body bags / into the trash.”
Like a true fringe musical act, Mr. Owens has a cult following. He was early in his opposition to the Iraq war, unabashedly called for impeaching the President, is proudly inflexible in his opposition to the Atlantic Yards development project, insists on universal health care, and wants affordable housing to be guaranteed by the Constitution.
“I’m the radical in this race,” Mr. Owens told The Observer.
He was also the least experienced politician in the race. After arriving at the Brooklyn station of 94.7 WPRN Friday night, Mr. Owens was turned away from a pre-scheduled interview because he had not bought advertising from the station.
Later, his campaign spokesman said that they yielded and bought the ads. The interview aired.