While easily winning an 11th term last year, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), without any fanfare, also won election to become a Democratic district leader in his Brooklyn neighborhood.
His decision to seek a lowly, thankless party position may have seemed puzzling at first.
“It’s like the president of the United States running for dogcatcher,” said Erik Engquist, a political columnist for the Courier Life Newspapers, a weekly chain in Brooklyn.
At the time, Towns said he was simply trying to become more active in his community and do more to build the Brooklyn Democratic organization.
But some political insiders thought they saw other motives.
Towns, they believed, may have been plotting a coup to oust the longtime chairman of the county party, state Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. Like the College of Cardinals, Brooklyn’s 42 Democratic district leaders, who are elected in primaries in each Assembly district, can only select one of their own to become county party chairman.
Towns and Norman have had a long and complicated relationship, to say the least. It isn’t quite a blood feud, but it could be called a healthy rivalry, with some occasional accommodations. In most recent Brooklyn primaries — and primaries are tantamount to election there — Towns has promoted candidates for state and local offices who were not endorsed by the county organization.
Towns’ chief reason for wanting to take over the county committee — according to the speculation — is to ensure that his son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns (D), succeeds him one day as the 10th district Congressman.
“I think as any father would who’s in politics, I’m sure he’d love to see his son in Congress,” said another district leader in Brooklyn who did not want to be named. “If he could will him his seat, he would.”
Conspiracy theorists even paint a scenario similar to one that took place in neighboring Queens in 1998, when then-Rep. Tom Manton (D), who was and remains the county party boss, essentially handpicked his successor, now-Rep. Joseph Crowley (D). Manton did so by dropping out of his race for re-election after the filing deadline and controlling the county organization’s committee on vacancies that selected a replacement on the Democratic ballot. Political observers envisioned a County Chairman Towns pulling off the same maneuver in his son’s behalf.
Towns never did mount a coup (and ended up vacating the local post), but the law may be doing what he wouldn’t — or couldn’t. And now, although the underlying themes remain the same, the saga of Edolphus and Darryl Towns, Clarence Norman and the Brooklyn Democratic organization has changed drastically in the months since the Congressman became a district leader.
That’s because for most of this year, the party has been under investigation by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes (D) — who himself has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the county organization.
It started with the indictment of a judge — installed on Norman’s say-so — who was accused of taking bribes to rule a certain way in a civil case. It continued with a long examination of the county party’s judicial selection process, which is no one’s idea of democratic, despite the party name. And it culminated two weeks ago with Norman’s indictment on charges that he misused party funds and violated state election laws.
The indictment accuses Norman of using a Brooklyn Democratic Party credit card for personal expenses, double-dipping in his legislative and campaign accounts for travel expenses, and failing to report certain campaign contributions. The district attorney is also pursuing larceny charges against Norman’s top political aide in the county party. And many political insiders in New York are convinced that more charges are coming.
Rather than step down from his party post or from the Legislature, Norman has defiantly proclaimed his innocence, and supporters recently staged a demonstration of solidarity in front of Hynes’ office.
“We will be vindicated,” Norman told the New York Daily News.
Throughout it all, Edolphus and Darryl Towns have hardly been disinterested observers. This fall, as usual, they put up their own candidates for judgeships — who were predictably steamrolled by Norman’s designees at the party’s judicial nominating conventions. And a month before Norman’s indictment, Congressman Towns abruptly resigned his position as Democratic district leader, without explanation.
Part of the reason, Karen Johnson, chief of staff in Edolphus Towns’ district office and his top political operative, said last week, is that under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Towns is limited in his ability to raise soft money for the party.
But he also stepped down, Johnson allowed, “in protest” over Norman’s performance.
Darryl Towns elaborated.
“I think the allegations that Assemblyman Norman has facing him right now have added chaos to the party,” he said. “The leader obviously has more on his mind than business as usual, especially as we’re entering into these national elections.”
Norman’s problems, he continued, are a black eye on the entire Brooklyn Democratic organization and make it difficult for presidential candidates eager to woo the borough’s 900,000 registered Democrats to stump there.
But their antipathy toward Norman didn’t prevent the Towns men from arranging to have Darryl Towns replace his father as a district leader, a deal that went down two weeks ago. And that gave rise to immediate speculation that Darryl Towns was going to attempt a coup himself.
But the younger Towns said that as long as there isn’t a vacancy in the chairmanship, he is not willing to talk about taking over the party. He said he’s closer to Norman than his father is because the two serve together in the Assembly.
“I’d like to help the party get focused on other stuff,” Darryl Towns said. “I’d like to help Clarence clear his name and also clear the name of the party, too.”
But the 42-year-old state lawmaker did not try to dampen talk about succeeding his 69-year-old father on Capitol Hill some day.
“There is no vacancy for me right now for Congress,” he said. “At a time that there is a vacancy, that’s something I’d be very interested in.”
Meanwhile, the elder Towns hardly plans to fade away from Brooklyn affairs.
“While he resigned [as district leader], he remains truly dedicated to making a difference on the local level,” Johnson said.
There are rumors that two term-limited City Council members, Charles Barron, a veteran civil rights activist, and Tracy Boyland, who is just 34 and once interned in Rep. Towns’ office, are considering challenging the Congressman in the 2004 primary. Either would represent Towns’ most serious opponent since 1998, when party leaders like former Mayor David Dinkins (D) recruited a Harvard-educated lawyer into the primary against Towns as retribution for the Congressman endorsing then-Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for re-election in 1997.
But it’s hard to find anyone willing to bet against Towns winning a 12th term. And many believe that his son is well-positioned to replace him whenever he decides to retire.
“Ed Towns is a major player in New York City politics, and a major major player in Brooklyn politics,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York. “And Darryl Towns carries his name.”