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22nd September
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, September 22, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

All elections have two sets of results. First there are the numerical winners and losers, the actual people who win and lose the seats in contention.

But beyond the statistical winners are those who win influence for themselves and their ideas by backing the right horse in the just completed race. By that measure, the most interesting results come from Brooklyn’s hotly contested 11th Congressional District where Rep. Major Owens is retiring after 24 years. Open seats are rare occurrences, as incumbents in these carefully gerrymandered districts usually only leave in chains or in boxes.

City Council Member Yvette Clarke won the primary race, which means that she will be sworn in as congresswoman come January, barring a disaster of such magnitude that not even Brooklyn can imagine it. But others will also see their fortunes rise or fall from the recent outcome as well.

This particular contest caught the public interest for all the wrong reasons. Although the district has a large black majority, it also has a growing affluent white population. When it appeared that four black candidates were poised to compete for the seat, a white City Council member representing a part of the area, David Yassky, announced his candidacy.

This yielded in turn the predictable racial rhetoric and attempts by some black leaders, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, to thin the field of black contenders to prevent a white man from winning a “voting rights” district.

Only one prospective black candidate decided to abandon the race, leaving Mr. Yassky with three black opponents: state Senator Carl Andrews, Chris Owens, the son of the congressman, and Ms. Clarke. Ms. Clarke tried to win the seat from Major Owens two years ago, just as her mother, Una Clarke, who preceded her in the council, tried to grab the seat in 2000. Both Clarkes were making desperation moves because they knew that they would ultimately lose their City Council spots in any case due to the term limits system.

Ms. Clarke’s campaign seemed to be picking up some steam until revelations came out that the Oberlin College degree listed on her resume had never been completed. This is actually serious news: she lied about her past in a manner that suggests she is not a person of congressional caliber. The Village Voice followed up with news that Ms. Clarke was behind on paying back her student loans, despite her $90,000-a-year salary as a council member. Just as things started to unravel, in came Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose own district is just next door. Mr. Weiner chose to overlook the Oberlin problem and endorsed Ms. Clark.

Mr. Weiner had run a spectacular come-from-behind race for the Democratic nomination for mayor last year, nearly forcing a run-off with Fernando Ferrer, and is widely seen as a leading candidate to succeed Mayor Bloomberg in the 2009 election. Now he has advanced his prospects considerably by his timely and effective endorsement of Ms. Clarke. Backing a winner makes you perceived to be someone who can deliver the goods.

Not only did Mr. Weiner bring his considerable energy to the Clarke effort, but he also brought along Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, who has achieved, in some circles, iconic status as an opponent of the Iraq War. As the flap over her phantom degree and unpaid loans diminished, Ms. Clarke picked up some much-needed momentum as the race ground down to its final days, culminating in her victory.

Mr. Weiner was a winner, too, having demonstrated that his endorsement was meaningful in a close race. This will not be forgotten as the city begins to concentrate on a successor to Mr. Bloomberg, who will be forced from office due to term limits.

One clear loser in the contest was the Rev. Sharpton, who endorsed Mr. Andrews. Mr. Sharpton’s backing has become the most coveted in the city. In the past two mayoral elections, we have been treated to the spectacle of the various hopefuls elbowing each other to secure Mr. Sharpton’s backing. In a citywide election, that backing is, I believe, a double-edged sword, as whatever force the Sharpton nod brings from black voters is offset by the negative perception of Mr. Sharpton in other precincts.

But in a closely fought race in a largely black district, one would think that Mr. Sharpton would be influential enough to carry the day. He wasn’t. Mr. Andrews finished an anemic third, even running behind the object of Mr. Sharpton’s contempt, Mr. Yassky. Count the Rev. Sharpton as a loser.

While they would never admit it, the Working Families Party had to be disappointed with the primary result, and also should be listed among the losers. Had Mr. Yassky, the white hopeful, won, they were poised to endorse the best performing black candidate, in an open appeal to toxic racial politics. Mr. Yassky versus Black Brooklyn would have been a national story that would have increased their profile at a key moment.

This is partly because party ranking on ballots is determined by performance in gubernational contests. In the last gubernatorial election, the Independence Party secured the coveted third spot, Line C, due to the impressive performance of Thomas Golisano. This year both the Working Families and Independence Parties have endorsed Eliot Spitzer. The leaders of the Working Families Party hoped to elbow past other small parties by luring black voters to pull their lever for Mr. Spitzer, as opposed to pulling a Democratic or Independence Party lever for the same name.

Despite this setback, the Working Families Party is not giving up.This will be a quietly fought battle behind the main event between now and Election Day, and one that may define state and city politics for years to come.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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