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Courting Black Voters’ Support, a Candidate Hits a Hurdle

The New York Times

In setting Brooklyn politics astir as a white man trying to take a Congressional seat traditionally held by black politicians, Councilman David Yassky has faced one huge challenge: capturing the support of black voters, who are the majority in the central Brooklyn district.

As part of his effort to attract these voters, Mr. Yassky’s campaign sent out fliers over the last month that discussed his passion for gun control laws, an issue that resonates among many minorities. One flier featured an endorsement by Thelma Davis, the mother of James E. Davis, a black city councilman who was killed by a gunman in City Hall three years ago.

But now that flier is coming back to haunt Mr. Yassky, a reflection of the problems he has had trying to enlist black support. Just weeks after the flier was mailed to thousands of homes in the 11th Congressional District, Mrs. Davis and her son Geoffrey A. Davis, a onetime City Council candidate, rescinded their endorsement, saying Mr. Yassky had reneged on promises to transport elderly residents to a July 21 memorial ceremony for James Davis.

Further, Geoffrey Davis charged that Mr. Yassky had failed to make good on a commitment to pay him in exchange for assistance in gaining visibility among black voters.

“He wanted me to present him to the community, because no one in the community knew him,” Mr. Davis said in an interview this week.

“I worked for him and tried to help him because he has no relationship with the black community,” Mr. Davis said. “And when it was time for me to collect on what he had promised, he accused me and my mother of trying to shake him down.”

Mr. Davis said he was due an $18,000 consulting fee.

Normally, the loss of an endorsement from two people who have never been elected to public office would create little more than a whisper in a Congressional campaign. But this has been a distinctive Congressional race.

Four candidates in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary — all of them black except Mr. Yassky — are seeking to succeed Representative Major R. Owens, who is not running for re-election. Mr. Owens’s district is anchored by Crown Heights and Flatbush, and includes some wealthy, predominantly white areas of Brooklyn, like Park Slope. It is an area with a storied history in black politics, where in 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress.

To some politicians in Brooklyn and beyond, the rift with the Davis family points to the difficulty Mr. Yassky has had in gaining high-profile black support.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Yassky declined to discuss his views of the break in detail.

“I can’t account for whatever change of heart they had,” Mr. Yassky said. “They can explain it better than I can.”

Mr. Yassky said the family’s decision did not symbolize any broader lack of support he might have among black voters but was simply a withdrawn endorsement. “I don’t think it’s emblematic of much more than that,” Mr. Yassky said.

“The fact is that this campaign has very broad support in every part of the district, from tenant leaders and gun control activists to people who care about their community.”

However, at least one other person whom the Yassky campaign claimed as a supporter appears not to be on board. An updated list of endorsements provided by the Yassky campaign included Jesse E. Hamilton III, the president of the Lincoln Civic Block Association.

But when interviewed this week, Mr. Hamilton, a lawyer who lives in Crown Heights and is a candidate for the State Assembly, said he had not endorsed Mr. Yassky. Mr. Hamilton said he had held discussions with Mr. Yassky about helping coordinate the collection of petition signatures but that he had decided against it.

While Mr. Yassky’s Web site does not list any black elected officials on its page citing endorsements, it does list several black residents of the district who are active in civic and community groups.

Among them are Charlene Nimmons, the president of the Wyckoff Gardens Tenant Association, and James Caldwell, the president of the 77th Precinct Community Council. Both praised Mr. Yassky as a city councilman who had attended their meetings repeatedly and had been attentive to their members’ needs.

“Whenever we needed him, he was there for us,” Ms. Nimmons said. “We have serious issues here, and he always addressed those issues. His work spoke for itself.”

Over the last three years, Ms. Nimmons said, Mr. Yassky has assisted the association in getting $150,000 from the city to refurbish its community room and $7,500 for its offices. She added that Mr. Yassky had helped put into place financing for $300,000 in new security cameras for the Wyckoff Gardens complex.

Mr. Caldwell said Mr. Yassky had helped the precinct council get a city grant of $10,000 for its youth and senior programs. “He helped us when others in the City Council wouldn’t,” Mr. Caldwell said.

Supporters of Mr. Yassky say those endorsements are a reflection of his tenacity in serving community groups. And they view the fissures with the Davis family as nothing more than a misunderstanding about money.

Not surprisingly, some of his rivals in the primary have voiced different views.

“I think that it points to the fact that he has not established the types of relationships that indicate that his support is expressive of the depth of the black folks that live in the district,” said City Councilwoman Yvette D. Clarke, who is also running for the Congressional seat.

The other candidates are State Senator Carl Andrews and Chris Owens, who is Representative Owens’s son and a former member of a community school board.

Ms. Clarke said Mr. Yassky, who lived three blocks outside the Congressional district until recently, did not have many close relationships with the district’s voters.

“It’s clear, because he has just moved into the district, that he had to quickly assemble allies,” Councilwoman Clarke said. “He hasn’t been here for any length of time that would give him an intrinsic support base.”

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Courting Black Voters’ Support, a Candidate Hits a Hurdle"

#1 Comment By Dovid F. On August 8, 2006 @ 6:18 am

Mother and Son Davis are complete wacko eccentrics. Keep away from them. We need to support Yassky: he is the most qualified, he’s already obtained NYC funds for Crown Heights, the other candidates are either inccompetent or are from the corrupt Clarence Norman clubhouse. It’s about time we did something for ourselves. elect Yassky!

#2 Comment By Seen it all On August 8, 2006 @ 11:58 am

Yassky is a typical liberal. Check his positions on all aspects of gay rights. Try to find out how he holds on vouchers or private schools in general. Try to find his positions on foreign affairs.

By the way, among the "wackos" you must include Jesse Hamilton who sticks to Yassky like a leech.

Whatever Yassky tried to buy our votes with is negligible and if he gets in, we will be relegated to a deeper pit than we were by Major Owens.

The sh’chuna would be far better off with Clarke or Andrews, both long-time proven friends.

Vote with your brain, not your bias.

Too bad the PAC is out of business and our "leaders" are so incompetent and confused that they can’t get organized and inform us on this subject.

#3 Comment By Milhouse On August 8, 2006 @ 9:05 pm

Don’t forget Dr Steven Finger, the Republican/Libertarian candidate. Eichet a yid (at least as Jewish as Yassky and Owens, anyway).