Charles and Inez Barron Two-Step in East New York

Inez Barron, Assembly Member from East New York, is running to succeed her husband, CM Charles Barron, in the 42nd Council District.  The two districts being largely coterminous, Inez Barron has a good shot of taking over her spouse’s seat.  At which time, presumably, Charles Barron would run for her Assembly seat, and the two Barrons (assuredly, of no relation to your writer) could continue to serve the overlapping districts for another decade or so.

It is not a sure thing, however, as Chris Banks, the man who ran a tough primary race against Inez Barron in 2012, is seeking the Council seat this year.  He has spoken of “Barron fatigue” in the district, and has outraised the field substantially.  However, he has taken a great deal of money from Manhattan real estate and taxi interests, which doesn’t necessarily play well in the heart of black Brooklyn.  The Barrons, with their Panther past and Garveyite “anti-gentrification” platform, will surely make hay of their opponent’s ties to moneyed interlopers.

It is truly amazing to behold Charles Barron, generally held to be the moving force behind the family’s political life, in action.  Yesterday, for example, during the City Council’s vote to overturn Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the stop-and-frisk and police oversight bills, it was startling to hear Barron, following his customary sit-in during the Pledge of Allegiance, stand up and pay tribute to Viola Plummer, his former chief of staff: “There wouldn’t be no today if it weren’t for Viola Plummer, the December 12th Movement, Rev. Herbert Daughtry, who put it on the line, to make this day history.”

Viola Plummer, of course, was the woman who was fired from the Council in 2007 for calling for the assassination of CM Leroy Comrie.  “If it takes assassination of his ass, he will not be a borough president in the borough where I live,” opined Plummer, angry that CM Comrie had abstained from voting to co-name Gates Avenue after Sonny Carson.

Viola Plummer complained that she meant “assassination” in the metaphorical sense, arguing that as an “educated, extremely intelligent black woman,” it would be “preposterous” for her to call for the actual murder of the head of the Queens Delegation.  CM Barron announced that he was so proud of his chief of staff that he wanted to “give her a raise.”

The December 12th Movement, incidentally, named for the date of Kenya’s independence, prides itself on bullying Harlem shop owners to close for Malcolm X’s birthday:  “December 12th Movement shows the power of a small group of dedicated people: for years now DEC 12th has forced Harlem merchants to close down their businesses on 125th Street on Malcolm's birthday. Now that's people's power!”

Charles Barron is certainly a throwback to old-style radical black nationalist politics, with his dithyrambic praise of Robert Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi.  What other council member could hope to have David Duke release a video endorsement of his or her congressional campaign, on the basis of shared antipathy to Zionism and belief in black self-determination?  Of course, Charles Barron would surely repudiate David Duke’s support, just as CM Margaret Chin has repudiated independent expenditures made on her behalf by the real estate industry.  But where there is common ground or common interests, one supposes that even presumptive enemies can make common cause.

Charles and Inez Barron have together earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars for Man Up!, a community group in East New York run by Andre Mitchell, a political associate of the Barrons.  Charles Barron supported Mitchell, an ex-con (convicted of manslaughter) who now runs violence prevention programs, in several runs for district leader and state committeeman, none of which was successful.  Questions arose in 2011 when it emerged that Inez and Charles Barron had also paid Mitchell substantial sums to work as a campaign aide, and also paid campaign funds into a related organization called Hip Hop Stand Up and Vote, which shared the same address.  This kind of electioneering on the part of non-profits is strictly illegal and has sent Hiram Monserrate, among others, to prison.

Man Up! has also benefitted richly from a recent major real estate deal in District 42.  The Related Companies, requiring the support of the Barrons to implement the building of their Gateway II mall in East New York, acquiesced to a $3 million Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) that would fund and provide operating space for various local organizations.  The East New York Restoration Local Development Corporation (ENYRLDC) was formed to administer the funds from the CBA.  The executive director and associate executive director of the ENYRLDC are both contributors to Inez Barron's current campaign, and Andre Mitchell is the chairman of the board.

Furthermore, Man Up!, which Andre Mitchell still runs, has the contract to run all job training programs funded by the CBA, and can slot preferred candidates into construction and retail jobs at Gateway II.

So it is really classic, Tammany-style dealings going on in East New York.  Charles and Inez Barron set their friend up in a “community based organization” which receives a steady flow of public money.  The group has a lot of visibility, and functions basically as a permanent campaign machine for the Barrons.  Then Charles Barron works out a sweetheart deal with a major real estate developer to give his friend a job and power over local hiring—always the key factor in a Daleyesque machine.

Thus the Barrons come to resemble ever closer their idols Mugabe and Qaddafi: erstwhile fighters for freedom who are transformed by power into grotesques.


Rafael Espinal, the Dupe of District 37

Rafael Espinal was chosen in 2011 to run for Assembly by the Vito Lopez machine and its Dilan family appendage. The seat was vacated by Darryl Towns, following his appointment as state housing commissioner, and the campaign became a proxy war between the Kings County organization, the Towns family and the WFP. Espinal’s victory was held up as a victory for Lopez and a sign of his ascendency.

Now, after serving almost two years in the Assembly, Espinal is running for City Council in District 37, less because of his commitment to service than because his former boss, CM Erik Dilan, is term limited and needs a new job. So Dilan will take over the Assembly seat kept warm by his lieutenant Espinal, and Espinal will move to the Council.

This is a familiar two-step in New York. Mark and David Weprin swapped places in 2009, and Inez and Charles Barron are preparing to do the same thing as the Council’s self-described “elected activist” reaches the end of his third term. Larry Seabrook of the Bronx used to brag (dubiously) about being the first African-American to be elected to three different legislative bodies, though when you consider that the three districts he represented were all similarly-sized subsets of the same group of impoverished neighborhoods, his accomplishment becomes slightly less impressive than, say, Obama’s. City politicians make careers of filling one another’s shoes, and talk openly about the relative material benefits of being a council member vs. a state senator, such as the commute, per diems, office space, etc.

Even amidst such honest cynicism, however, Rafael Espinal’s case seems particularly absurd. In fact, Rafael Espinal embodies all the obsessions of City Council Watch in one person. His fealty to the city’s real estate interests is unparalleled. Other Democrats in Brooklyn, for example, have received support from the Real Estate Board’s PAC, Jobs for New York. The open secret about this kind of independent expenditure is that, since you can’t legally ask for the money, you can credibly claim that you have nothing to do with it, and that your independence is immune to campaign money.

Not so Espinal, who has decided to let his benefactors know how pleased he is to be their choice. “I'm very grateful for their endorsement,” says Espinal. “They do believe that I'm the best candidate to create jobs and to do the job in the City Council.” One might think that a politician in tenant-heavy East Brooklyn would keep landlord support under his hat, but Rafael Espinal is apparently unembarrassed to be the real estate candidate, and to trumpet that information.

Espinal has a lot of friends in the landlord community. Jay and Jerry Wartski, for instance, have given his campaigns ample contributions, totaling in the thousands of dollars. Jerry Wartski was arrested in 1974 for running a “hot sheet” hotel, and then came to notice in the early 1980s when he was identified by the FDNY as the center of an “interlocking group of investors” whose SROs burned down at a rate three times normal. Legal problems continued to dog the Wartskis, who have a long history of neglecting buildings and forcing out their tenants illegally.

Joseph Jerome, the principal of JEMB and the moving force behind the Small Business Coalition; Taxpayers for an Affordable New York, an earlier manifestation of the powers behind Jobs for New York; Katrina Peebles, wife of Roy Peebles of the Peebles Corporation, the largest black-owned real estate company in the country and recent buyer of 346 Broadway; Stephen L. Green, real estate magnate and brother of boy wonder Mark Green; Aaron Sirulnick, chairman of the Rent Stabilization Association: these are the hefty contributors to the campaigns of Rafael Espinal, one-term Assembly Member and cutout for the Dilans and Vito Lopez. Do you think they are paying for the excellence of Espinal's judgement, or for the attention of his bosses?

Former chief of staff to a Council Member who took over his father’s seat, willing stooge to real estate interests, Assembly Member Rafael Espinal is the sort of man whose fondest dreams are of being a cog in a sputtering machine. Fortunately for him, if not for the people of CD 37, those kinds of dreams are easy to attain, if your personal standards are low enough. It's like Pinocchio in reverse--he's the boy who always wanted to be a puppet.

Ruben Wills' 3-Ring Circus

Council Member Ruben Wills was back in the news this week when it turned out that he had allocated more than $30,000 in discretionary funds to the Young Leaders Institute, whose own leader, Van Holmes, was arrested for stealing money from the non-profit.  Wills, like Holmes a protégé and beneficiary of Shirley Huntley and her largesse, faces similar suspicions about a non-profit he himself founded, New Yorkers 4 Life, from which $30,000 has gone missing.

The FY 2012 budget records that Wills made a $28,000 allocation to YLI in 2011, his largest single discretionary line item. Wills’ campaign spokesperson, arguably splitting hairs, insists that this figure represents the combined disbursements of 2010 ($11,000) and 2011 ($17,000).  However, given Wills took office at the end of 2010, five months after the FY 2011 budget had been passed, it isn’t clear that there are any hairs to split anyway.

The spokesperson also explained that Ruben Wills is “committed to assisting the Attorney General to root out corruption in the City Council, and has not been charged with any crimes.”  When asked about reports that Wills had ducked meetings with the AG’s office about New Yorkers 4 Life, and even walked out of a meeting, the spokesperson answered, “the Council Member had several other meetings with the Attorney General.”

An odd item appears in CM Wills latest campaign filing: a sizeable contribution from his own defense attorney.  Steve Zissou, a noted Queens criminal defense lawyer, and Zissou’s associate Christopher Renfroe, each gave the Wills campaign $1,150 in the past month. Zissou’s other prominent clients include Christopher “Dudas” Coke, the drug kingpin whose 2010 arrest in Kingston by the Jamaican military resulted in more than 70 confirmed deaths, and drug-related murderer Richard “Buju” Gilliam.

There is no particular reason why a politician shouldn’t accept campaign money from his own defense attorney: the CFB manual says nothing about it.  It may make good sense from the attorney’s point of view, especially if re-election could lead to more business, but it seems strange.  Edward Wilford never contributed to Larry Seabrook’s campaigns, and Joseph Tacopina never gave money to Hiram Monserrate.  Miguel Martinez didn’t get any contributions from George Bellinger, and Shirley Huntley never got anything from Sally Butler.

On the other hand, Dan Halloran has taken contributions from his attorney Dennis Ring, who also used to be his chief of staff…maybe Halloran is the exception that proves the rule.

Ruben Wills ran into some trouble in mid-June when, according to the Post, he “saw a group of about 20 youngsters go into [Baisley Pond] park at about 12:15 p.m. and followed them because he thought they looked suspicious.”  One of the youths flashed a gun at the Council Member.

Given the hubbub that ensued in Florida when a community watchman followed a “suspicious looking” youth to see what he was up to, is it tendentious to ask what Wills was thinking?  What makes a bunch of kids going into the park at lunchtime suspicious?  The article does not say what the kids looked like, but the scenario raises the question of what does and what does not constitute “profiling.” 

Wills’ spokesman says the Post has it wrong.  “He did not follow some people because they looked suspicious,” she says.  “He saw an altercation about to transpire and he went to break it up.”

In either version of the story, is this behavior foolish or heroic?  Noble or insane?  Wills is neither a police officer nor a trained mediator. In a sense he is fantastically lucky that he wasn’t beaten up or shot.  On one hand we have to admire the grit and sense of civic duty that led him to intervene; on the other, we have to ask when and in what circumstances we should make the assumptions that lead to such interventions.   Wills’ instincts about the situation were correct, as it turns out, but his judgment about what to do about it was, sadly, flawed.


District 48: Who Watches the Watchman?

With a certain Florida neighborhood watch group so much in the news, New Yorkers might be puzzled to note that we have such groups operating here as well.  And not only within gated communities either, and not necessarily privately funded.  So let’s take a look at New York City’s own paramilitary, quasi-religious and City Council funded neighborhood watch groups, the founder of one of which is currently a leading candidate for City Council.

Chaim Deutsch, founder of the Flatbush Shomrim, (Hebrew for “watchers”) is hoping to succeed his boss Council Member Michael Nelson in the 48th CD, straddling Ocean Avenue and crossing Sheepshead Bay to encompass Brighton and Manhattan Beach.  The Flatbush Shomrim, founded in 1991 in the immediate wake of the Crown Heights riots, is staffed primarily by Orthodox Jewish men (typically “married or divorced”) who patrol the neighborhood and ostensibly serve strictly as the “eyes and ears” for the police.  There are a number of these Jewish shomrim groups throughout Brooklyn, and they operate in loose conjunction with each other.

The problem is that the shomrim, as neighborhood watchmen everywhere seem to do, sometimes get carried away with the grandeur of their own self-appointed authority.  In 2011, for example, when Leiby Kletzky disappeared on his way home, his parents notified not the NYPD, but the local shomrim organization, the Brooklyn South Shomrim, which called upon the Flatbush Shomrim to help look for the child.  Neither group contacted the police, although the boy’s father eventually did.  Unfortunately the amateur detectives wasted precious time examining security footage and his abductor killed the boy.

The Flatbush Shomrim receives public funding, in substantial amounts.  The 2014 budget earmarks $63,500 for the group in discretionary funding, from Council Members Michael Nelson, Lew Fidler, Jumaane Williams, and David Greenfield, in descending order of amounts given.  The Flatbush Shomrim also possesses a $250,000 command and control van, modeled on and decorated like an NYPD vehicle, which was paid for by Council funding in 2009.  The group operates in close conjunction with the local precinct, and acts much like a quasi-auxiliary force, with special jackets and flashing lights on their vehicles.

Chaim Deutsch is a Council employee, working as “chief of operations” for CM Michael Nelson.  Because his boss provides so much funding to the Flatbush Shomrim, Deutsch is no longer listed as an officer of the organization in its IRS documents.  But he is still closely associated with the group, and is frequently mentioned as its “leader.” 

Deutsch gained a great deal of visibility during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when he participated in salvage and clean-up of Manhattan Beach and other neighborhoods.  He became popularly identified with a chainsaw he carried around, blitzing fallen trees until the city ordered him to stop.  He supposedly even “rescued” CM Nelson from drowning.  His legitimate indefatigability and seemingly good works post-storm have raised his standing in the community, and when he announced his bid for the Council he shocked everyone with the speed of his fundraising, essentially maxing out his contributions in less than a month.  As the leading non-Russian in the field, Deutsch has quickly become the odds-on favorite for the nomination, and also has support from the growing Muslim minority population in the district, with whom Deutsch has built a coalition through his years of public safety work in the area.

City Council Watch is not endorsing or gainsaying Chaim Deutsch.  But we definitely think it is weird that the city, which already has a police force larger than many national armies, funds private security groups composed exclusively of Orthodox Jews to patrol public streets.  As Michael Lesher, a prominent Orthodox critic of the shomrim puts it, “If the Nation of Islam were to set up a private force of Muslims, ostensibly to scour Harlem for ‘bias crimes,’ would City Council members be heaping public money into its coffers?”

Probably not.  But that’s New York!


Replacing Al Vann: the Race in Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights

This election will see significant change in Bed-Stuyvesant, where Al Vann has been in one office or another for over 40 years, most recently as Council Member for the 36th CD.

CM Vann was at one time the lion of black politics in New York, and there were high hopes for him when he entered the Assembly in the mid 1970s.   Known for a time in Brooklyn as “the Mwalimu” (“great teacher” in Swahili), Vann was the moving force behind a landmark 1982 Federal case that led to the expansion of minority representation in New York at the state and federal levels. 

Since that time, however, Al Vann has become a classic career politician, content to go along with the status quo.  In 2001 he switched places with Annette Robinson and moved to the Council, and his time there has been practically somnambulistic.  Voting to extend terms limits in 2009, Vann faced a vigorous primary battle that year, but he won his third term with less than 30% of the vote. 

Legislatively, Vann did demonstrate a return to form in 2010 when he pushed a bill restricting the sale of tax liens, a concern of his dating back to at least the early 1980s.  But basically he has been asleep at the wheel while his community has stagnated.  A measure of his inactivity is the fact that after twelve years in the Council, CM Vann wound up chairing the Committee on Community Development.  Senior Council Members typically jockey for powerful committee chairs, where they can help steer important legislation and run oversight hearings.  Community Development oversees no City agencies and in this current 4-year session has had two bills referred to it.

There are four serious candidates vying for Vann’s seat this year, and befitting their place in the City of Churches, each of them is either a minister himself, or the son of a minister.

District Leader Robert Cornegy Jr. is Al Vann’s chosen successor.  Son of a minister, the almost 7-foot tall Cornegy had a brief and unspectacular pro-basketball career and ran against Vann in 2009, endorsing him in the general after losing in the primary.  Cornegy then joined the Vann-controlled Vanguard Independent Democratic Association and succeeded him as president of the club in 2012.  

His official bio is sketchy on his experience, but in the last few years Cornegy has been working as a legislative analyst for the Council.  It is not a big stretch to imagine his rabbi, Vann, thinking the job would look good on Cornegy's resume and familiarize him with the not-quite Byzantine workings of 250 Broadway.  Cornegy is the favorite candidate of the Major Owens-Yvette Clarke faction of the Brooklyn Dems, and will surely offer a formidable fight.

Kirsten Foy, former de Blasio staffer, is the favorite of the unions and the “progressive” side of the Democratic Party.  Foy won a great deal of press attention and street credibility when he and Council Member Jumaane Williams were detained following a scuffle with police at the 2011 West Indian Day Parade.  He has since filed suit against the NYPD for injuries he sustained after he supposedly entered a “frozen zone” and was tripped and manhandled by the police.

Foy has a long history of organizing against police brutality and for economic justice in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.  He worked with Al Sharpton and honed his rhetorical chops as a spokesman for the National Action Network.  Foy worked for the de Blasio campaign for Public Advocate and was awarded with posts as head of Intergovernmental and Community Affairs.

At some point in the recent past Kirsten Foy, perhaps on the advice of his mentor the Rev. Sharpton, became a “licensed Pentecostal minister.”  I looked into what it takes to achieve such licensure, and it appears to vary, but typically involves submitting a questionnaire and a check to the licensing authority.  Well, just remember, Napoleon was self-anointed Emperor of France after all.

Reverend Robert Waterman is the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church and the owner of Canticles Lounge, which is an alcohol-free Christian nightclub/cabaret.  Rev. Waterman has raised a significant amount of money, most of it apparently from his parishioners.  Unlike his main opponents Rev. Waterman does not seem to have much support outside the district, but when turnout is only 6000 voters, it is hard to predict what could happen.

Our last subject in the race for the 36th Council District seat is the Rev. Conrad Tillard, formerly known as Conrad Muhammad, formerly known as Conrad X.  Reverend Tillard first came to public attention as the chief youth minister of the Nation of Islam, and then the minister of Harlem’s famed Mosque No. 7, the former seat of Malcolm X.  Reverend Tillard made some conventionally controversial remarks against white devils and Jewish slave masters, etc. from that esteemed perch, was later stripped of his ministry under a cloud of suspicion, and then underwent a second Damascene moment when he left the NOI and returned to the faith of his fathers, receiving baptism by the Reverend Calvin Butts.

I suppose in another place we could speculate at length about the Rev. Tillard’s search among famous spiritual leaders for a father figure to take the place of the jazz musician who deserted his family when Conrad was young…but who cares really?  In 2002 Tillard weighed a run for Congress as a Republican against Charles Rangel, but he never got on the ballot.  Today Rev. Tillard has a pulpit in Brooklyn and is, along with Elizabeth Wurtzel, facing a lawsuit from Penguin Books for failure to deliver after receiving a substantial advance for his memoir.

In closing, based on recent pictures of Rev. Tillard, we can say that, though you may take the man out of the Nation of Islam,  you can’t take the bowtie off the man.


Pity the 34th Council District

The race for the 34th District City Council seat is one of those convoluted knots of lunacy, intrigue and stupidity that is so unlikely, it could only be true.  The cast assembled for this campaign belongs in a Greek tragedy crossed with a French farce.

The 34th includes a swath of northern Brooklyn encompassing part of Williamsburg and Bushwick, and a sliver of Queens.  Council Member Diana Reyna has represented the district for the last 12 years.  One of the more notable moments of her legislative career occurred in 2003 when she paraded in a Carnival “mas” during a working visit to Trinidad.  The picture of 29 year-old CM Reyna in a bikini has since vaporized down the memory hole, but it was apparently a spectacle in itself.

Diana Reyna got her start as the protégé of former Kings County Dem chair Assemblyman Vito Lopez, whose Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council is a legendary engine of political power and the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars of local and federal money.  As Chief of Staff to Lopez, Reyna was hand chosen to take the seat in 2001, and won in a three-way race.

Eight years later however, Reyna and her former boss fell out over the development of the Broadway Triangle, a 31-acre industrial zone bordered by Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Bushwick.  AM Lopez had arranged for the city to hand over a sweet development deal to RBSCC in conjunction with United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg.  CM Reyna opposed the no-bid deal and promoted Los Sures, a rival development organization which, like Ridgewood-Bushwick, originated in the early 1970s as a Latino tenants’ rights advocacy group. 

Lopez and Reyna both have deep interests in their respective favorite development organizations.  RBSCC produces thousands of voters loyal to Lopez, and employed his live-in girlfriend as Housing Director for a meager $330,000 annual salary.  Reyna’s mother-in-law on the other hand worked for Los Sures as head of its senior center, and the CM was questioned about the $40,000 discretionary funding she funneled there.

In any case, the once cozy pair feuded, and Lopez put up Maritza Davila, another of his protégés, to run against Reyna in 2009.  Davila lost.  This time around, Lopez himself, having been stripped of his Housing Committee and Kings County Democratic Committee Chairs following his groping scandal, has decided to run for the very Council seat that his former Chief of Staff is vacating.  Though Ridgewood-Bushwick has lost a lot of its city funding and Lopez could face federal handcuffs any day in the current storm of corruption arrests, he still has his followers on the ground.

The favored candidate for the 34th CD seat is Antonio Reynoso, current and long-term Chief of Staff to Diana Reyna.  Starting in early 2012, he has been endorsed by the entire Democratic establishment, who were presumably hoping to forestall Vito Lopez from jumping in. 

Reynoso is an inoffensive candidate, if you think that being a City Council staffer as one’s entire qualification for office is not offensive.  Here we have again the phenomenon that City Council Watch has long identified as the signal marker of a decayed political culture: the election of Chiefs of Staff to succeed their bosses. 

One doesn’t have to agree with the Bloombergian technocratic principle that a businessman will always make the best elected official to find it weird that so many people run for office on the basis of having carried water for other elected officials.  It exemplifies machine politics for politicians to promote their staffers as their successors.  Like a monarchy or a fungus, the system divides, spawns and replicates itself perpetually.  Lopez begat Reyna begat Reynoso.  How can we seriously see Reynoso as a reform candidate when he is the spiritual grandson of his opponent?

Tommy Torres is the third candidate in the race to become the honorable member from the 34th Council District.  Regular readers of the Daily News will recall that Mr. Torres was in the news last September when it emerged that he was the boyfriend of since-defeated Assembly Member Naomi Rivera in the Bronx.

Being Naomi Rivera’s boyfriend may show questionable taste, but that isn’t enough to disqualify Torres from office.  The fact that he has worked outside of politics for 13 years as a high school gym teacher and coach could actually work in his favor.  Except it appears that Torres accepted a position on his girlfriend’s staff as a fulltime community liaison, at the same time he was working for the Department of Education, also fulltime, including after-school coaching duties. 

Nobody has yet explained how he managed to do two hands-on jobs in Brooklyn and the Bronx, simultaneously.  Sounds like fraud to me, but I think the US Attorney’s office has its hands full at the moment.  Let’s wait and see!