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Clarke Wins in Contentious N.Y. Congressional Race
By: Tanangachia Mfuni
Special to the NNPA from the Amsterdam News
Originally posted 9/19/2006

NEW YORK (NNPA) – When Councilwoman Yvette Clarke snagged the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn’s hotly contested 11th Congressional district primary, local Black politicos breathed a sigh of relief.

Crowded with three Black and one White candidate in a district that’s 60 percent Black, the race looked favorable for Councilman David Yassky, the White candidate benefiting from a split of the Black vote. However, Clarke prevailed with 31 percent of the vote; followed by Yassky’s 26 percent.

State Senator Carl Andrews received 23 percent of the vote, while Chris Owens, the retiring congressman’s son campaigning to replace his dad, received less than 20 percent of the vote.

“I had three candidates,” said Bed-Stuy Councilman Albert Vann, who wanted to see a Black candidate get the Democratic nomination.

“It was more important that one of them would win and less important who it would be,” said Vann.

The veteran Brooklyn politician was among those eager for a Black candidate to fill the historic seat created by the 1968 Voting Rights Act, affectionately still referred to as “Shirley Chisholm’s seat.”

For Clarke, set to face Independent candidate Ollie McLean in November, the reality of winning the primary is only beginning to set in. “I was having an out-of-body experience all day yesterday,” said Clarke.

Clarke – who succeeded her mother, Una Clarke, in the City Council – won the nomination despite several setbacks.

Three weeks ago, the councilwoman admitted to having forgotten she never completed her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, contrary to what she stated in official documents.

Earlier in the race, Rev. Al Sharpton had accused Clarke and her mother of not providing support when four White police officers tragically killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant, in the Bronx in 1999. It’s a charge Clarke refuted by providing pictures of her mother rallying with Sharpton and Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou.

Despite the snafus, Clarke credits her win to a strong relationship with the Brownsville, Crown Heights and Park Slope communities of which the congressional district is comprised.

“There was a part of me that really knew there was a base that was unmovable, a testament of my connection to the constituency,” said Clarke, who as councilwoman, represents parts of Crown Heights and Flatbush.

“I knew that nobody else in the race had established that sort of relationship with the constituency.”

She added, “[My] representation went beyond the legislative process; it was attending the weddings and funerals and all of the things that connect you to the community.”

Clarke’s Jamaican heritage helped to rally grassroots support from Brooklyn’s large Caribbean population. Also, endorsements from the likes of former New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Brooklyn/Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner possibly boosted her over the top.

Councilman Vann further speculated Clarke’s gender gave her an edge over her three male competitors.

“There could be a correlation that Shirley Chisholm held that seat,” said Vann, speaking of Chisholm, the first person elected to the District 11 seat.

Chisholm went on to become a presidential candidate.

While some Black Brooklynites are breathing easier after Clark’s win, others mull over how the Black community could come so close to losing the historic seat.

McLean, Clarke’s challenger in the general election, questioned the commitment of Black Democrats who ran in the primary.

The low voter turnout was possibly indicative that some were put off by what McLean, a longtime Brooklyn activist and co-founder of the United African Movement, described as “plantation politics” that don’t address the needs of constituents.

“They’re hearing superficial answers to everything,” said McLean, speaking of voter’s frustrations with elected officials.

“It’s like putting band aids on the cancer,” she said.

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