The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

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APR 2013 Issue

Stars Come Out in Brooklyn

The current contest for city council in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill-Prospect Heights is shaping up as a track meet, with several well-known locals stepping up to the starting block. Two went to Brooklyn Tech at the same time, and now rep the local arts and activist communities; one has won other races in the district before; two others trained with leading title-holders. The crowd watching the preliminary events has included some household names in entertainment (Chris Rock, Talib Kweli) and local politics (Ed Towns, Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, Rev. Clinton Miller), as well as some of the city’s leading behind-the-scenes players (Bill Lynch and Marilyn Gelber).

Yet as in all such races, it’s still possible that this one could be whistled dead as a false start. That’s because the longtime champ, Tish James, may still decide to get back in it. As of the last week of March, the future of James’s current campaign for public advocate remained unclear. In the most recent filing period (in mid-March), she placed a distant third in fundraising (behind Reshma Saujani and Daniel Squadron), although around the same time James did gain the endorsement of a key union (32BJ). James continues to be a very popular figure in Fort Greene-Clinton Hill, and if she were to get back in the race for the council seat, it would be like Usain Bolt just walked onto the field. Most of the candidates I spoke to said they wouldn’t take on that challenge.

But assuming that Tish doesn’t reenter the race, we can look forward to an exciting contest, with a mostly new set of faces in the storefront posters of Brooklyn’s 35th District, which starts at Flatbush and Myrtle, heads down Washington, and ends where Eastern Parkway meets Schenectady in Crown Heights. Laurie Cumbo may be the name most familiar to Rail readers, given her work as the founder of MoCADA. She’s also leading in fundraising, with nearly $70,000. Ede Fox, a former lead staffer for both Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams, is just behind Cumbo. Jelani Mashariki is liked by many area activists, including the Occupy Sandy folks at 520 Clinton; donations from Chris Rock and Kweli have helped him reach nearly $30,000. And there is Olanike Alabi, who lost her race for Hakeem Jeffries’s state assembly seat (to Walter Mosley) last year, but who has chalked up two past ballot victories as district leader. Jesse Hamilton, a Crown Heights district leader (supported by Eric Adams), and Frank Hurley, an attorney, round out the current roster.

In a district like this one, money is unlikely to be the determining factor. All the candidates (except Hurley) are on track to take advantage of the city’s 6-1 matching funds—and there are not a whole lot of local media ads to buy. Endorsements from unions like 32BJ, the Transit Workers Union, and 1199, or from the Working Families Party, certainly will help any effort. In a contest with six black candidates mostly around the same age (40), race or age won’t matter; the fact that over the last four decades, a woman has held the seat for all but two years, could make sex more pivotal, except that there are three female contenders. In such a crowded field, most would say that getting the eight or nine thousand votes needed to win the primary will be all about hitting the pavement, going door to door, repeatedly visiting senior citizen centers, and attending countless community meetings and religious gatherings.

As the candidates make the rounds, local residents will either meet or become reacquainted with opponents distinct from one another far more by experience than ideology (whichever one prevails is almost certain to join the council’s Progressive Caucus). Alabi, a product of Clinton Hill, will remind folks of her work as district leader from 2006-2012 (she was elected three times, at one point tallying about 4,000 votes). In her 2012 race against Mosley, she touted her attention to health care and education issues, as well as her outreach to senior citizens. An ally of Ed Towns, Alabi’s work for John Liu in 2009 also brought her close to Bill Lynch and Rev. Youngblood; among the leading figures inside the district supporting her is Rev. Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Alabi is tight with Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which worked closely with Tish James in the Atlantic Yards fight.

Based in Prospect Heights, Fox has been active in Community Board 8, as well as in the New Kings Democrats and other reform-minded clubs, and she’s making her experience inside the council the centerpiece of her campaign. Fox maintains that unlike her rivals, she won’t need to learn the ropes. “I know how to find the money and deliver for people,” she says. She’s focused on an array on economic development initiatives, such as increased small business loans (especially to minorities and women) to meet the district’s needs for more services (e.g. laundromats); and she envisions bringing high-tech jobs to the area near Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights zoned for manufacturing.* Fox vows that her past work with Councilwoman Mark-Viverito (who may become the next speaker) will help her turn her policy agenda into action.

Laurie Cumbo touts her experience overseeing the growth of MoCADA, which started in Bed-Stuy in 1999 but has been a fixture on Hanson Place in Fort Greene since 2006. Building an arts institution, Cumbo says, illustrates her “track record of community impact and success,” and she also points out that several members of the council’s Progressive Caucus—including Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander—came from outside the system. Cumbo explains that in order to sustain and grow MoCADA, she’s had to work with various elected officials and an array of city agencies (e.g. the Dept. of Cultural Affairs, and the Dept. of Youth and Community Development). With its after-school programming in several public schools and monthly cultural events that serve the residents of Whitman, Ingersoll, and Farragut public housing, MoCADA has built a strong presence in and around Fort Greene.

The Develop Don’t Destroy crowd is quick to point out that MoCADA’s website lists Forest City Ratner as a funder (in the $25-50,000 category). Cumbo says that Forest City, along with the Nets and the Barclay’s Center vendors, “should be giving to more organizations in the area,” and that her experience working with various players in the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership will help her secure such funding. MoCADA has also been home to several discussions of hot-button issues, as illustrated by its 2010 exhibition on gentrification (which included the artist Specter’s anti-Atlantic Yards poster, “A Nightmare on Atlantic”). In the view of Marilyn Gelber, a pivotal figure in Brooklyn philanthropy, Cumbo combines business acumen with “a real understanding of the transformative power of the arts in the lives of communities.”

Jelani Mashariki, who went to Brooklyn Tech at the same time as Cumbo, also champions his cultural work—with the annual International African Arts Festival and the Paul Robeson Freedom School—as part of his broader community activist background. By day he’s the director of Pomoja House, a homeless shelter serving 200 men in Bed-Stuy; the shelter is run by Black Veterans for Social Justice, the group founded by his father, Job Mashariki. (That his mother, Bernette Carway-Spruiell, is one of the founders of the Working Families Party’s chapter in Central Brooklyn also may work to his benefit.) Though Pomoja House is just outside the district, Mashariki is a longtime Clinton Hill resident and via his work at the shelter he also knows firsthand how to deal with city agencies, in his case the Department of Homeless Services and the NYPD.

The affordable housing crisis is a central focus of Mashariki’s campaign. In addition to advocating for restored funding for both Section 8 vouchers as well as the city’s Advantage program (which helps people transition out of homeless shelters), he points to the need for more HPD oversight of private landlords. Particularly in the Crown Heights portion of the district, landlords and management companies are forcing out long-term tenants. The housing pressures affect more than just lower-income people of color, though—“Even the gentrifiers are getting gentrified,” says Mashariki. Such advocacy may win votes among residents of housing projects and senior centers, and it could help inspire the Occupy folks at 520 Clinton as well as in the Crown Heights Assembly to work on his behalf. He’s also likely to become the candidate most outspoken against the NYPD’s overzealous use of stop-and-frisk—a policy that Mashariki knows all too well, having been on the receiving end of it 10-12 times in his life, including once earlier this year.

At the moment, it’s pretty difficult to pick a winner among these four leading contenders (Hamilton, meanwhile, may be able to parlay his support from soon-to-be Borough President Eric Adams, and perhaps from the party machine, into a few thousand votes). At the same time, it’s also hard to say that any of these folks would be a loser for the district. I’m eager to watch the race unfold over the spring and summer. If Usain Bolt does decide to get back in, it would end quickly—but at least I’ll have my first column for 2017 out of the way.

*In the original version of the piece, I misidentified the area Fox referred to as being along Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights.--T.H.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues