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Death of a Council Member

by Administrator, Jul 28, 2003

Given the game of politics as played in Brooklyn -- especially the intensity with which Councilmember James E. Davis played it -- there is little surprise in the speed with which politics resumed after Davis was shot and killed in City Hall on July 23rd by a would-be political challenger named Othniel Askew.

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"Phone calls to potential candidates, it is said, were being placed as the assassinated councilman was being carried down the steps of City Hall," wrote Errol Louis, a columnist for the New York Sun who himself once ran for the district 35 council seat.

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It is a pace at which the council member himself was familiar.

19 MONTHS IN OFFICE

Two years ago, Davis, a police officer and community activist, astounded many political experts when he defeated several prominent candidates, including the choice of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, to win the council seat from district 35.

In his 19 months in office, Davis had focused a lot of energy on constituent service, and in winning over people who had been skeptical of him, an effort that apparently was at least partially effective. "James had grown on us," said Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party, which ran Letitia James against Davis in 2001.

"There wasn't a minute of the day that James wasn't reaching out to somebody," says Peter Williams, a Medger Evers College administrator who also ran against Davis for the seat, which includes Fort Greene and parts of Crown Heights. Davis, he says, "had the most presence of any elected official in Central Brooklyn."

Davis was also an aggressive politician. A former rival of Davis's told the New York Times that Davis warned he would investigate his child support payments if the rival challenged him. Last winter, the Courier Life Newspapers quoted voice mail messages that Davis had left for State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, threatening to back an opponent if he couldn't count on her support in the 2003 election: "If you support somebody against me in 2003, fine - 2004 is coming. If I lose in 2003, fine. You and me in 2004. So disrespect me, I make a note of it." Senator Montgomery was not available to confirm this account.

But this type of pushing is not uncommon, State Senator Kevin Parker told the Times. "It's what happens in Brooklyn and in politics across the country. But nothing [Davis] did was more egregious that anything anyone else was doing. If James was guilty of anything, it was the elimination of the pretense that people use when they are doing the same thing."

Doug Israel, a staff member at the good government group Citizens Union (the sister organization of Gotham Gazette's publisher), said that in a conversation before the shooting with Anthony Herbert, who was planning to challenge Davis in the primary for the district 35 seat, the candidate told him his campaign staff had been threatened by Davis's staff. "He said that he has had a terrible experience over the past several weeks," said Israel. (Two days after Davis' murder, Herbert denied that either he nor his staff had ever been threatened).

Othniel Askew made a similar accusation on the morning of July 23rd, when he called the New York City office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and claimed that Davis had threatened to reveal his criminal history -- Askew had been arrested for drunk driving and for assaulting his boyfriend with a hammer -- if Askew stayed in the race.

Askew had hoped to challenge Davis for his council seat and had circulated campaign literature, filed with the city Campaign Finance Board, and claimed to have collected over 2,500 signatures. But he would not make it on the ballot this fall, he told reporters, because he narrowly missed the Board of Election's filing deadline.

Members of Davis' s staff have told reporters that Askew's allegations are delusional and said that, after Askew failed to make the ballot, he approached the council member about a job. They recalled the young man's intense and strange demeanor. As recently as the day of the shooting, Askew had also approached fellow candidate Anthony Herbert, asking him to withdraw from the race and support Askew instead.

Police are still investigating the events leading up to the crime, but what is clear is that Askew came to City Hall as a guest of Davis and was able to bypass the metal detectors because he was with the council member.

In the council chambers, Davis introduced Askew as a former rival turned friend. A few minutes later in the balcony, Askew fired a silver, 40-caliber handgun six times into the council member's chest. A plainclothes police officer on the floor of the chamber shot and killed the gunman.

THE CONTEST

In the midst of the shock and the struggle to understand came a practical reality. If a person was going to take Davis's place on the ballot, that person has to be chosen soon. Candidates for office in New York State can name a committee on vacancies to choose a new candidate in the event the initial candidate dies or becomes disabled. Davis chose a five-member committee headed by his mother, Thelma Davis, a registered nurse.

Exactly a week after James Davis was slain, that committee submitted the name of James Davis's younger brother, Geoffrey Davis, director of a youth services program at Medgar Evers College. "The torch has been passed," the younger brother announced. His press conference was less than reverent, reporters asking questions about a criminal record -- Davis pleaded guilty to attempted possession of stolen property in a case dating back to 1985 -- and Davis was less than responsive, refusing to answer a question about how many children he had.

Geoffrey Davis does not have the record of activism in the community that his brother had but many observers believe his connection to the slain council member will give him an advantage in the race. He reportedly has the support both of City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and of Brooklyn Democratic leader Clarence Norman, who had repeatedly clashed with James.

Geoffrey drew attention immediately after his brother's death. Standing outside NYU Downtown Hospital, where James Davis had been taken, Geoffrey told reporters, "The system killed my brother. Everybody knew my brother wouldn't stop fighting the system. It's the same way they killed Malcolm X and Martin Luther King."

Later that same day, outside the family home in Crown Heights, Geoffrey promised to continue his brother's crusade against violence. He has also indicated the family may file a lawsuit against the city for allowing Askew to enter City Hall with a gun. "Security was lacking," he told the New York Post. "Askew should have gone through the metal detector."

The day after the murder, Herbert said he expected to remain in the council race. Being on the council, he said, has "always been a dream of mine. I know how government works and what it takes to bring people together."

Herbert has criticized Geoffrey Davis for his response to his brother's death. "We don't need people going on in the hotness of the moment," The Sun quoted Herbert as saying. "If this is how he's going to react - 'The system killed my brother' - how is he going to interact with the council?'"

But Herbert was kicked off the primary ballot when the Board of Elections ruled that he did not have enough valid signatures.

Another announced candidate in the overwhelmingly Democratic and African-American 35th district is Abraham Wasserman, a Hasidic Jew running on the Conservative Party line who received less than 10 percent of the vote in the 2001 primary.

Shortly after James Davis's death, Letitia James, an aide to Assemblyman Roger Green who narrowly lost to Davis in the primary election of 2001, filed to get on the ballot. She will be a candidate on the Working Families Party line in November.

In the past, James has worked in the office of the State Attorney General and served as counsel to Al Vann. In the 2001 General Election, she won 42 percent of the vote on the Working Families Party line. James said she is running because residents asked her to and called offering help and donations. "This is grass-roots organizing, and I was drafted, if you will," James told the New York Post.

Despite the chaos in the aftermath of the murder at City Hall, there will, as Cantor says, soon be a new councilperson from the 35th district. That person, says Pete Williams, may well be able to provide services and representation to the people of the area as well as James Davis did. But, Williams adds, whoever it is, "no one can emulate his style."

Posted July 28, 2003

Campaign Update:

After briefly considering entering the race, activist Eric Adams, longtime leader of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, decided not to run for the council seat from the 35th District. Adams has condemned Geoffrey Davis for not paying child support, but he did not explicitly endorse Working Families Party candidate Letitia James.

On August 29, Anthony Herbert, who was knocked off the Democratic ballot, said that he would run as a Republican in the general election. Herbert said that he had met with Republican leaders in Brooklyn, and that they had invited him to take the place of Republican Party district leader Francis Voyticky, who had been on the ballot. Voyticky said that he thought Herbert would be "the better candidate to carry the Republican banner."

Rather than running its own candidate, the Independence Party endorsed Geoffrey Davis, despite the disclosures about his background. Bob Conroy, chair of the Brooklyn Independence Party, said party leaders "feel comfortable that those things took place in the distant past."

Updated August 30, 2003

Last Updated (Jul 18, 2013)