Some prominent black leaders are intensifying their efforts to stop a white Jewish candidate from winning the Democratic primary for Congress in Brooklyn's majority black 11th Congressional District.
Black elected officials have held a series of meetings, including one Monday morning, to address their growing concern that well-funded New York City Councilman David Yassky could prevail in a Sept. 12 Democratic primary against three African-American candidates. Efforts to convince one or two of them to drop out to avoid splitting the black vote have fallen short.
The drive to stop Yassky from winning a congressional district originally created to empower minority voters ratcheted up this week with the Monday meeting. Councilman Al Vann, who called the meeting, referred to Yassky in an invitation memo as "a white individual."
And the Rev. Al Sharpton last week called on three of the state's top Democrats to state their position on the race, calling Yassky's candidacy "a calculated undermining of the Voting Rights Act," according to The New York Times.
Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton are keeping mum on the issue, while Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor, has already endorsed a former aide, state Sen. Carl Andrews, in the congressional race. The other candidates are Councilwoman Yvette Clark and Chris Owens, son of the district's current representative, Major Owens, who is retiring.
Owens has held the 11th Congressional District seat for 23 years. The seat, first held by Shirley Chisholm, was created in response to the 1965 Voting Rights Act to empower minorities in this heavily Democratic district. The primary winner, therefore, is almost assured a victory, and for that reason the race is likely to be one of the most closely watched in the country.
Meanwhile, some Orthodox volunteers for Yassky were also rallying their community with a voter registration drive to boost turnout for him.
"We registered almost 100 people in front of Kosher Delight," one volunteer, Chaim Deutsch, said in reference to an eatery on Avenue J.
Deutsch is the founder of the Flatbush Shomrim security patrol and an aide to Brooklyn Councilman Mike Nelson, who is also backing Yassky. "We're hoping to get one of the largest turnouts ever from that community to come out and vote for David," said Deutsch, while sitting in his minivan filled with Yassky posters.
In an editorial on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal suggested that Rev. Sharpton was playing on stereotypes by calling Yassky, who is Jewish, "greedy" in an interview with the Daily News.
Sharpton did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.
The Journal blasted those critics of Yassky for whom "their overriding concern is the color of Yassky's skin."
But other critics have noted that Yassky changed his residence from outside the district in order to qualify for the 11th Congressional District seat and therefore may not be as well versed in the needs of its neighborhoods as the other candidates.
Local Jewish organizations have not spoken out on their own about the campaign against Yassky, but, when asked, several leaders said race should have no place in the contest.
"I haven't seen it resonate" in the Jewish community, said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He expressed confidence that "the voters in the 11th Congressional District will determine who will represent them as the Democratic Party candidate, not elected officials or community leaders, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion."
Joel Levy, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League said, "We're not taking any position on the race, nor can we, but we are also taking the view that no district belongs to any one group and we hope the best candidate will get elected to represent all the people in Congress."
Strategists believe Yassky will need a large concentration of the Jewish vote to win.
In Midwood and Flatbush, where a majority of the district's Jewish voters live, pro-Yassky forces are concerned about low turnout.
"Getting out the vote is the biggest problem," said Leon Goldenberg, who is chairman of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, and a Yassky supporter, citing low turnout among Orthodox Jews in recent elections. "I have nothing against the other candidates, they are all fine people running." But Goldenberg said Yassky would do a better job getting more funding to protect synagogues and yeshivas against the possibility of terror attacks.
Yassky has played up his own religion in his appeals to white parts of the district, including a Passover-themed mailing in April. And he has told Jewish audiences the story of a cousin, Chaim Yassky, who was killed while trying to bring medical aid to a besieged Jerusalem during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.
Goldenberg said Rev. Sharptonís stance against Yassky "will hopefully work to David's benefit. He never apologized for Crown Heights or Tawana Brawley and in this community he's not very highly respected. It might even help [Yassky] in the black community."
One prominent Orthodox person not backing Yassky is Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is supporting Andrews. But he said some of the rhetoric against Yassky was "absolutely outrageous, unadulterated racism ... The color of skin of anyone should not be an issue, especially in light of the fact that a guy like Yassky is liberal, has been a public official in this city for years and has done a good job." Hikind added that he didn't feel the incumbent, Owens, had been particularly effective.
Chris Owens has also picked up some prominent Jewish endorsements in former politician Ruth Messinger, director of the American Jewish World Service and civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel.
Can you buy a slice of pizza and a soda in New York for $1.85?
Barring an occasional lunch special, probably not. Then why, advocates for the elderly ask, is the city spending that little on meals for the elderly? The cost for a senior center meal, or the slightly higher cost of a home-delivered meal, $1.89, hasn't been raised since 1999. Inflation during that period rose 19 percent, notes Bobbie Sackman of the Council of Senior Centers and Services.
Sackman's organization has launched the "pizza and soda campaign" to highlight the city's paltry contribution to senior nutrition. Advocates are seeking a 35 cent increase, which would amount to another $4.57 million based on 13 million meals served per year.
Another 35 cents would mean $135,856 added to the food budget of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, which serves about 388,160 meals a year through funding from the Department for the Aging, says Rabbi Moshe Wiener, the council's executive director. "I'm fully confident this particular initiative has broad support through the City Council and ... will not be outweighed by other initiatives and interests," said the rabbi.
But William Rapfogel of Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty sees the campaign as an uphill battle. "It's harder to do this kind of stuff when you are not facing significant budget cuts," said Rapfogel. "People tend to be more energized around a crisis argument."
Christopher Miller, a spokesman for The Department for the Aging, said the agency "understands the need for an increase in food cost, and we continue to advocate in Washington for an increase in the Older Americans Act. We have not seen an increase in 15 years."
Rev. Sharpton and the organized Jewish community seem to be in agreement on at least one issue: The need for a state task force on bias crime. Noting the 2000 passage of a law increasing penalties for hate crimes, Rev, Sharpton, in an open letter to Gov. George Pataki, said "criminal penalties alone are obviously not getting the job done."
He noted that within one week, a gay man was attacked in Manhattan, a 24-foot swastika was painted in Centerreach, Long Island, and a black man was arrested for attacking white children in a mall. At the same time, a white Howard Beach man was convicted of attacking a black man with a bat last year.
Joel Levy of the ADL said such a panel had convened in the past. "It may need to be reactivated," he said. "The general idea of having a task force on hate crimes is a very good one as a public-private proposition."