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Owens’ Unhappy Last Hurrah

NEW YORK — For Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), the last hurrah has come to this.

On the Thursday night that President Bush delivered his political valedictory, basking in the praise of the Republican National Convention before his final campaign, Owens was halfway across the city in a packed community center, fighting for his political life.

Less than two weeks before his final primary election on Sept. 14, at a campaign forum sponsored by the Central Brooklyn Council of Churches, the 11-term Democratic Congressman went elbow-to-elbow with the two young City Councilwomen who want his job — officials whose families have been intertwined with Owens for years. And though clergymen were present, the candidates — and some of their supporters — seemed to have forgotten the simplest Biblical teachings about manners.

To Owens’ immediate right, Councilwoman Yvette Clarke (D), 39, called the 68-year-old Congressman a windbag who shades the truth.

“We need a real leader on the ground, serving the community, not someone making pronouncements from Washington, D.C., going around saying, ‘The Republicans are coming, the Republicans are coming,’” she said.

Sitting to Clarke’s right was 35-year-old Councilwoman Tracy Boyland (D). She accused Owens of unfairly attacking her record and refusing to discuss issues.

“This campaign has brought out the ugly side in my opponent [Owens],” she said, “and my family has had to bear the worst of it.”

Owens, however, proved that he could give as good as he got. He called his challengers tools of the Republican Party — incrementalists willing to accept little more than “crumbs” from the political bosses, as well as irresponsible public officials who squandered valuable federal aid for city programs.

By the end of the evening, a smattering of Owens supporters were booing Boyland. Through the din, the Congressman gave the crowd of 150 his essential campaign pitch.

“You all know me,” he said, “because I’ve been around for a number of years.”

That may be so. But it was not enough to prevent this soap opera of a primary.

A Fair Fight

Utica Avenue is a busy thoroughfare in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, located geographically, economically and socially in the middle of the 11th Congressional district. While the neighborhood seems vital on a sunny late afternoon, its more sinister elements are also in plain view: Look-outs for drug dealers are on many corners, their eyes darting nervously as they survey the passing street and pedestrian traffic. A parked police cruiser seems more an object of derision than fear.

Major Owens’ district office is in a second-floor walk-up on Utica Avenue, half a block from Eastern Parkway, above the intoxicating vapors of Conrad’s Famous West Indian Bakery, which waft into the Congressman’s suite. A faded sign at the top of the stairs reads, “Welcome for Peace and Empowerment.”

The waiting area for Owens’ office, however, is anything but welcoming or empowering. It has the requisite helpful information and local color — a Georgia O’Keeffe print of the Brooklyn Bridge, a photo of the World Champion 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, and a plaque congratulating Owens for being named one of the 100 most influential black New Yorkers of the 20th Century. But it is impossible to overlook the fact that Owens’ receptionist is sitting behind bulletproof glass.

(Indeed, Boyland takes note of this during the campaign forum. “You don’t have to talk through plexiglass to talk to me,” she boasts.)

Just beyond the barrier, Owens sits in a wood-paneled room, two hours before the campaign forum is due to begin, and discusses how he came to be in this electoral predicament.

He looks tired. He has already been to two senior centers in the district this day, where he ran into his opponents and their entourages. He also traveled to Harlem to seek the endorsement of the Amsterdam News, the city’s most influential black newspaper. He saw his opponents there too.

“It’s very interesting to move around with my proteges,” Owens says.

In the fall of 2003, the Congressman announced that he would run for one more term, then retire at the end of the 109th Congress. The idea, he says now, was to give ambitious politicians in the neighborhood advance warning and set up a fair fight for 2006.

It didn’t work out that way. Owens himself has a fight on his hands — a circumstance that many political observers trace back to his announcement.

“I thought it was kind of noble — not stupid,” Owens replies.

Last fall, soon after Owens’ announcement, his son, Chris Owens, a 45-year-old HMO administrator and veteran civic activist, spread the word that he intended to seek his father’s seat in 2006. He even launched a Web site to promote his future candidacy.

That’s when the trouble started for the elder Owens. Many politicians assumed that the Congressman was maneuvering to install his son in his seat, possibly by refusing the nomination and having Chris Owens appointed to replace him on the ballot — a practice that has occurred over and over again in New York.

Major Owens insists this was not the case. “I’ve been a public official for 30-some years,” he says, “and I have not pulled any dirty tricks.”

While other elected officials took Owens at his word, Boyland, and then Clarke, entered the race several months ago. Owens remained confident, however, that they would choose to get off the ballot before the filing deadline. He was wrong — and now confesses to being “naïve.”

“There’s a new world out there,” he laments. “There’s a savage political climate.”

In the April 15 campaign finance report, the two Councilwomen each had tens of thousands of dollars in their campaign war chests; not a huge amount, but respectable. Owens, by contrast, had just $2,000 in the bank.

Owens has had to hustle ever since, and thanks to his contacts in New York and Washington, he’s recovered nicely. As of Aug. 25, he had $58,000 on hand after raising $380,000 for the cycle. Clarke had $38,000 in the bank, after raising $63,000. Boyland showed $53,000 in the bank after raising $166,000, but her fundraising reports, according to the Federal Election Commission, have been riddled with errors, as well as suggestions that she has been co-mingling her Council and Congressional campaign funds.

Owens is still not sure why he wasn’t granted his victory lap. “My slowness to prepare for the race,” he says, “was due to my disbelief that they would challenge me.”

Family Ties

In Washington, Major Owens may be just another liberal black Congressman.

But in Brooklyn, he is something else.

In the mid-1960s, when Owens, then a librarian, was first becoming active in the community, two main paths existed for black Brooklynites looking to get into politics. Many became loyal foot-soldiers in the powerful Brooklyn Democratic machine led by the notorious, and corrupt, Meade Esposito. Others joined more radical, and occasionally even violent, organizations.

Owens, though, chose a third way. He shared the radicals’ passion for social change, but he was determined to work within the political system. So he almost single-handedly launched a political reform movement in Brooklyn.

In 1965, Owens led a slate of candidates running for the City Council. All lost handily, but he persisted. He worked for neighborhood nonprofit agencies and activist groups that promoted affordable housing. He caught the attention of then-Mayor John Lindsay, who made him commissioner of the Community Development Agency, a post he held for five years.

In 1974, Owens upset a machine-backed candidate to win a state Senate seat. Eight years later, when trailblazing Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) announced her retirement, Owens ran for her seat and won, again defeating a machine-backed candidate who, like Esposito, would later go to jail.

Since then, Owens has been an inspiration and advocate for dozens of reform-minded minority politicians, leading them into battle against the vestiges of the old Esposito organization (the current Brooklyn Democratic chairman, black state Assemblyman Clarence Norman, is himself under indictment).

“He’s been part of the social and political fabric of Brooklyn for more than a generation,” says Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant and lobbyist in New York.

One of Owens’ early alliances was with none other than the Boyland family, a politically active clan from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Tracy Boyland’s uncle was elected to the state Assembly with Owens’ help. When he died, Tracy Boyland’s father took over the seat. In 2002, right after his re-election, her father quit the Assembly and turned the seat over to his son — Tracy Boyland’s brother.

As a college student, Tracy Boyland spent a summer on Owens’ Congressional payroll. She also spent another summer working in Washington for the Congressional Black Caucus.

In 1991, Owens helped another reformer, Una Clarke, win a newly drawn City Council seat against a machine-backed candidate. But nine years later, Una Clarke, the first West Indian-born member of the City Council, challenged Owens in the Democratic Congressional primary. He was shocked, and hurt. But he geared up for a tough campaign, and won the Democratic primary by 8 points.

In 2001, Yvette Clarke was elected to her mother’s old Council seat. And now, as Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke attempt to bring down Major Owens, their relatives appear to be cheering the loudest. Una Clarke has confessed to feeling like a “stage mother” watching her daughter take on her former nemesis; and everywhere Tracy Boyland goes, she is accompanied by her extended family wearing “Team Boyland” T-shirts.

It’s enough, Owens says, to make him miss fighting the old party machine, which wouldn’t permit the kind of family-fueled opportunism that he believes the two Councilwomen are displaying.

“That kind of spontaneity the clubhouse wouldn’t allow,” he muses. “There was a progression. Believe it or not, the clubhouse had a sense of honor. There were rules, at least.”

Boyland is term-limited from the City Council in 2005; Clarke is eligible to serve one more term.

“As a matter of honor, I have to make sure she doesn’t get re-elected” in 2005, Owens vows.

Some political observers explain the Boyland and Clarke candidacies as being more about 2006 than 2004 — that is, an effort to get to the head of a long line once Owens, assuming he’s re-elected, does retire.

Even Hank Sheinkopf, a seasoned New York consultant working for Boyland, says “it’s not unreasonable for her to run in two years, assuming that Major’s vicious attacks take hold” and she loses this time.

But Owens doesn’t buy those explanations. He also sees a GOP plot behind his foes.

After her Council career ended, Una Clarke became an economic development official in Republican Gov. George Pataki’s administration, and worked the Caribbean community hard to get him re-elected in 2002. According to the Village Voice, Boyland’s top donor in her Council and Congressional races is developer Donald Capoccia, who has close ties to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and has given generously to the state GOP through the years.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say the Republicans are out to get me,” Owens says.

New Blood, Not Blood Feuds

Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke reject all talk about family feuds, Republican plots or positioning for a future election. They say their campaigns are simply about offering the voters of the 11th Congressional district fresh, energetic leadership.

“He hasn’t been able to do the job for us in Washington,” Boyland says of Owens.

“This candidacy of mine is about moving this community into the 21st Century,” Clarke adds.

Ruth Connell, a PTA activist at the campaign forum who asks the candidates a question about parental involvement in the public schools, says she is supporting Clarke because the Councilwoman seems the most in touch with the community. While Owens, she says, talks of securing federal funds for education, “you have to get it to the people,” and Clarke seems best equipped to do so.

Chris Owens, who is serving now as his father’s campaign manager, is all too aware of this primary’s impact on 2006. At the campaign forum, it is the younger Owens, not the Congressman, who is working the crowd most aggressively, passing out literature for his father and encouraging everyone to vote.

But asked about his own ambitions, the younger Owens demurs.

“I would prefer not to comment about anything on ’06 until after ’04,” he says.

In a curious way, Major Owens is also looking to the future. He has just established a new organization called Brooklyn for National Action. Inspired by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) — whom Owens endorsed for president — the group’s short-term goal is to send money and volunteers to swing states in the presidential election to work for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“We’re going to take the might of Brooklyn, the resources of Brooklyn, and see how many places we can go,” Owens says.

Over the longer term, the group intends to elect more reformers to local political offices.

Owens says he is confident about the outcome of the Sept. 14 primary. Still, with no marquee contests on the primary ballot, turnout is expected to be low, and Owens can’t help but worry. It is hardly the final campaign he was envisioning.

“The turnout can be devastating,” he says. “When you have low turnout, you can get freakish results.”