Call Edolphus Towns what you will: a 13-term Brooklyn congressman; a congenial politician with a raspy voice and a gift for charming seniors; a bald-headed, 74-year-old product of the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Here’s one thing you likely won’t call him: a troublemaker.
So when, on Dec. 10, his office formally announced his election to the powerful chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—a potentially huge post in these times of economic collapse and bank-industry bailouts crying out for scrutiny—some political observers saw a certain irony in the situation.
“He’s been in the house 26 years,” said Fred Siegel, a professor of history at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in Manhattan. “Any footprints you’re aware of?”
Running the Oversight Committee, the House’s main investigative arm, is all about making footprints, and typically calls for a set of aggressive character traits: energy, good management skills, a willingness to hold government colleagues to account, a flare for wielding the threat of subpoena power and media-mobbed hearings to cow opponents.
The main rap against Mr. Towns—the recurring refrain of his primary opponents for the last 16 years—is that it’s been a long time since he’s displayed anything remotely like those characteristics.
California Democrat Henry Waxman, Mr. Towns’ direct predecessor, was the paradigm, leveraging the position for maximum influence by spearheading high-profile investigations and afflicting the powerful with his peevish demeanor. “Waxman showed what could be done in that committee,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “The chair has got a roving commission to go after almost anything, from the spill in Tennessee at that coal impoundment pond to hauling in Citibank executives.”
Expect Mr. Towns’ style to be somewhat different.
“I’m not one of the guys who jumps in front of the cameras,” he told The Brooklyn Paper in August 2008.
Video of Mr. Towns, a North Carolina native, at committee hearings and giving Congressional testimony depict a mild-mannered politician who sticks to his talking points.
“Henry Waxman was a crusader type in that job,” said Councilman David Yassky of Brooklyn. “I think Ed Towns will be focused on putting forward the concerns of average people. He is quite connected to his constituents and to what the man and woman on the street are worried about.”
Certainly, “the man and woman on the street” in Mr. Towns’ central Brooklyn district, the 10th, which encompasses East New York, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Canarsie and Fort Greene, have no shortage of concerns.
There’s the violence: The 73rd Precinct in Brownsville saw 31 murders in 2008, up from 26 in 2001, and the 75th Precinct in East New York had 17 murders (down from 35 in 2001). And the poverty: In 2007, according to New York City Department of Planning statistics, 47.5 percent of the residents in Brownsville and Ocean Hill, and 45.7 percent in East New York, received public assistance.
Mr. Towns, in a phone interview with The Observer, said he would use the powers of his new position to investigate all manner of problems, from the stimulus package, “to see if it’s doing what it should be doing,” to issues related to athletics and the independence of inspectors general.
“We also plan to look at contracting,” Mr. Towns said. “I’m concerned about some things we’re hearing about contractors who will get a contract and then they won’t even pay the taxes on their contract. … And, of course, the other part, aside from that, is the waste, fraud and abuse that goes on in our contracts.”
“I’m concerned about something that’s little known among people—but I’m becoming very interested in this whole selling of body parts,” Mr. Towns later added. “I happened to be on Court Street one day and I bumped into a couple of friends of mine and they were telling me about an incident in their own family. I said, ‘This is crazy.’ I said, ‘Maybe we need to look into it.’ I have not made a decision to look into it or not. It won’t be one of the first things I do because I’m concerned about jobs and whether or not the money we are putting out is doing what we said it’s doing.”
The main thing, Mr. Towns said, is getting people back to work.
Bill Thompson, the city comptroller and a political ally of Mr. Towns, was among those who said that the congressman would handle his new role well.
The chairmanship “suits someone who can establish a vision and can bring energy, and focus,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s not just being a muckraker, it’s [about] being responsible also. And I think he can do that.”
Not all of Mr. Towns’ constituents are convinced. Public discontent over Mr. Towns’ performance has simmered for years and has prompted a series of challenges by rival Democrats, among them Susan Alter in 1992, Barry Ford in 1998 and 2000, Charles Barron and Roger Green in 2006 and Kevin Powell just last year. (Mr. Towns won only 47 percent of the primary vote in 2006 versus 38 for Mr. Barron, a councilman, and 67 last year versus 33 for Mr. Powell, a former Real World contestant who wrote an autobiographical book about being a recovering misogynist. In both primaries, Mr. Towns made few public appearances and refused to debate his opponents.
The Times, in its 1998 endorsement of Mr. Ford, wrote, “In the competition for most mediocre member of the New York delegation, Representative Edolphus Towns is always a contender. In his 16 years in Congress, Mr. Towns has distinguished himself mainly for his large record of missed votes and his subservience to special interests, notably the tobacco industry.”
Similar complaints continue to this day.
Lucy Koteen, a longtime Fort Greene resident and president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, said she rarely sees him at district meetings.
“He doesn’t come out to events; he rarely has forums on anything,” she said. “Even when he had [a] forum on the post office, which I went to four or five years ago, he didn’t discuss any other issues.”
“He has not been helpful with the community’s efforts to battle the Atlantic Yards project,” said Ruth Goldstein, a longtime Fort Greene resident, activist and leader of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, which recently sponsored the centennial of the Martyrs Monument in the Olmsted-designed greensward.
“He was not supportive [of the centennial],” Ms. Goldstein said. “We got far more support from Tish James and Hakeem Jeffries, Velmanette Montgomery, Borough President Markowitz, Bill DeBlasio and Joe Lentol. Although when I spoke with him twice, he always expressed tremendous support. But we didn’t receive any funding or any tangible help.”
Mr. Towns, in the interview, brushed off the criticism.
“I have faced 13 primaries, and I’m still standing,” he said. “There must be a connection between me and the people.”
In response to the charges of inactivity, Mr. Towns’ office sent over a list of legislation he supported during his time in Congress. The list accounted for, among other things, his chairmanship of the Government Management Subcommittee, which held 23 hearings during the 110th Congress on issues like the independence of Inspectors General and health care for 9/11 responders, as well as bills later passed by the House to keep Starrett City as middle-income housing and to increase funding for historically black and Hispanic-serving colleges.
And there are certainly those in the district who sing his praises, among them Richard Buery, the executive director of Groundwork, a youth empowerment organization in East New York, who has found “Ed Towns to be very responsive to our work, very supportive of the work we’re trying to do in East New York.”
So, too, has Edward Brown, who has served for three years as president of the Ingersoll Houses Tenant Association in Fort Greene.
“Congressman Towns has been very respectful to our community and addressing our needs to date,” Mr. Brown said. “I’ve heard the stories about him, but I have yet to experience the aspects of those stories.”
Mr. Towns’ tenure was not always so controversial, just as his public demeanor wasn’t always so inert.
He was 48 years old when he was first elected to the House in 1982, replacing the scandal-ridden Frederick Richmond, who resigned in disgrace that August. Mr. Towns, a former administrator at Beth Israel Medical Center, had already been baptized by Brooklyn’s political machine, having served five years as Brooklyn’s first African-American deputy borough president under Howard Golden.
His first foray into electoral politics was a resounding victory, and during his early years in office, Mr. Towns the community activist–cum–congressman made frequent appearances in the clips. He was active in efforts to register minority voters, to draw attention to police brutality and to create youth job programs. In 1984, he got himself arrested at an anti-apartheid protest in front of South Africa’s Park Avenue consulate. That same year, Mr. Towns acquired funding for the renovation of 23 Park Slope brownstones—a move that helped resurrect the neighborhood.
By 1991, Mr. Towns had risen to a position of power in the Congress, serving as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus as it fought the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
“This decision is not a matter of black or white, but a matter of principle,” Mr. Towns declared at a press conference.
At some difficult-to-determine point, that Mr. Towns vanished.
“What happened is that he shifted into neutral,” said a former Brooklyn elected official who has worked closely with him. “He reached the level of seniority in Washington where people were coming to kiss his ass all the time, but he wasn’t a superstar enough to really capitalize it. And then he got sucked into the whole tobacco money stuff. That was a serious blind spot for him. … It was an indication of how he had become captured by the Washington special interests.”
Explaining his opposition to a ban on smoking in airplanes, Mr. Towns told an anecdote about a man playing a harp on an airplane, according to a November 1995 New York Times article about Mr. Towns’ role as one of the top 20 recipients of tobacco industry money in Congress:
“Finally after about 15 minutes of that I said to him: ‘You know, look, this is no concert. This is a flight and I would appreciate it if you would refrain from making the noise.’ And, of course, he responded by saying: ‘What the hell do you want from me? I am not allowed to smoke, and I have to do something or else I am going to go crazy.’ Don’t you think a lot of incidents will occur if you do not allow people the right to smoke?”
In September 1996, the Daily News reported that Mr. Towns was one of two New York congressmen, and one of only 32 nationwide, to oppose a bill denying pensions to congressmen convicted of felonies.
“It’s the classic ‘they get in power and they become just like the people they were trying to get out of power,’” said a Brooklyn Democratic Party leader who endorsed Towns in the last election.
Other of Mr. Towns’ colleagues are more charitable, noting, among other things, that Mr. Towns spent many of his quiet years as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated institution.
“I can vouch for the fact that it was demoralizing,” said a former congressman, Major Owens. “I was there. The need to raise so much money for reelection is also demoralizing.”
But that was then. In this new day of a Democratic-controlled Congress and a president apparently bent on eliminating government waste, fraud and abuse, Mr. Towns could regain his footing.
He has taken some steps in that direction, most recently by hiring Albert Wiltshire, a well-connected Brooklyn politico and former Brooklyn Navy Yard administrator, as his chief of staff. And, in December, he helped convene a meeting of black leaders at Medgar Evers College to discuss how Brooklyn might benefit from federal stimulus funds.
Mr. Towns, for one, said he was “very excited” by the opportunity.
“Every time I’ve had a chance to talk to Obama or even listen to him in his speeches, he’s talked about transparency,” Mr. Towns said. “And this committee will be making sure these agencies are transparent.”