‘I See John Liu Now': Norman Seabrook Charts His Own Course

Norman Seabrook at a COBA rally. (Photo: cobanyc.org)

Norman Seabrook at a COBA rally. (Photo: cobanyc.org)

In the one of the stranger election years of the last half century, Norman Seabrook’s labor endorsements still manage to stand out.

Take, for example, Comptroller John Liu.

The bombastic president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association is convinced Mr. Liu, mired in fifth place in the polls and bereft of millions in matching funds following a federal investigation that uncovered fund-raising fraud, will be a 21st century David Dinkins and surge to the top of the heap on Election Day.

“John Liu is the David Dinkins of politics right now,” Mr. Seabrook told Politicker in a recent interview, referring to the city’s first black mayor. “They didn’t want Senator Obama to win, either.”

COBA isn’t the only union to back Mr. Liu, but what raises eyebrows was Mr. Seabrook’s first choice in the mayor’s race: NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, a polar opposite of Mr. Liu’s when it comes to policing issues. When Mr. Kelly declined to enter the political arena, Mr. Seabrook went from backing the most prominent supporter of stop-and-frisk to the candidate who wants to see the controversial tactic outright abolished. Mr. Seabrook said he supports stop-and-frisk, if applied constitutionally, and Mr. Kelly–like the relatively conservative Councilman Peter Vallone, who has COBA’s backing in his Queens borough president bid–was a tireless defender of his correction officers.

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Mr. Seabrook is no ordinary Liu supporter. He drives around a Liu-themed van and already unleashed $208,000 in independent expenditures in support of Mr. Liu’s candidacy, an ambitious amount for a union with fewer than 9,000 members. At a rally for Mr. Liu at the Apollo Theater last month, Mr. Seabrook all but stole the show, swaggering on stage to piped-in funk music and declaring, with a preacher’s cadence, that all of Mr. Liu’s Democratic rivals were “phony characters” that the comptroller “could not lose” to.

“I said Bush would win over Gore, I saw Pataki, I saw Giuliani, I saw Bloomberg. God has enabled to show me a vision. I see John Liu now,” Mr. Seabrook recalled. “I was the only labor leader outside of Illinois to support Barack Obama [in the 2008 presidential primary]. Every single person, every newspaper, you turned around, it was all about Hillary Clinton.”

“At the end of the day, it was okay. They were going along with the same song as everybody else while I was playing the same song on another turntable and others didn’t understand the words,” he said.

Mr. Seabrook’s messianic belief in Mr. Liu reached bizarre heights recently when he admitted he had tried to broker a failed deal to have Mr. Liu and scandal-scarred comptroller hopeful Eliot Spitzer appear together in a mailer. Mr. Spitzer, the thinking went, would have gained an inroad with Asian voters, while Mr. Liu would have been able to tap into Mr. Spitzer’s considerable financial resources.

But the controversy was nothing new. Last year, Mr. Seabrook drew fire in the press when he was secretly taped delivering a profanity-laced address to members of his overwhelmingly black and Latino union at Rikers Island. Mr. Seabrook, who is black, challenged officers to recall what kind of work to which minorities were once relegated.

“What did we have?” Seabrook asked. “We was niggers and spics with a badge. . . . If any of y’all are offended by my language, y’all in the wrong room, ’cause I’m keeping it real in here.”

The audio, complained Mr. Seabrook and members of the union, was selectively edited to make it sound much worse than it was. But Mr. Seabrook is unabashed in his belief that his minority workforce is under-appreciated and understaffed, ill-equipped to handle prison riots, in particular.

Mr. Seabrook’s unusual melding of left-wing and law-and-order convictions was a result, he said, of coming of age in the charred South Bronx of the 1970s, notoriously remembered for its relentless poverty and crime. Mr. Seabrook, now 53, was an indifferent student, cutting classes and getting booted out of several high schools before earning his G.E.D.

“My life wasn’t a prince charming life. It wasn’t a bed of roses, for sure,” he said.

Landing jobs working security, he took a civil service test to become a correction officer, where he was a popular rank-and-file member. A highlight of his career, before winning a 1995 election to become president of COBA, was working security for a Nelson Mandela visit to New York in the 1980’s.

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While some of the most politically powerful unions like the United Federation of Teachers, 1199 SEIU and 32 BJ SEIU calculated that Bill Thompson, Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Christine Quinn were viable pro-labor choices for mayor, throwing their weight behind them, Mr. Seabrook ignored Mr. Liu’s stagnant poll numbers. What mattered, Mr. Seabrook argued, was Mr. Liu’s knowledge of the city government.

“I don’t care what the labor leaders want. I care about what the workers want,” he said. “John Liu already knows what the numbers are because he knows where the bodies are. He knows where the money is. At the end of the day, why wouldn’t I trust the guy who knows where the money is?”

When gushing about Mr. Liu, Mr. Seabrook makes sure to mention the candidate promised retroactive raises for the city’s unionized workforce, which has been without new contracts for several years. This is one topic his rivals have been “hemming and hawing” about, in Mr. Seabrook’s words. Critics argue such raises are fiscally unsustainable.

Mr. Seabrook furiously rejects that line of reasoning, as well as criticism of Mr. Liu, whose bid for Gracie Mansion lost momentum after federal prosecutors scored damning guilty verdicts against his campaign treasurer and a fund-raiser.

But Mr. Seabrook insisted it was an easy decision.

“I have to take care of those who take care of us,” he explained.