A nondescript three-story brick building at the corner of Clarendon Street and Nostrand Avenue in East Flatbush could determine City Councilmember Kendall Stewart's political future.
Stewart, who is facing four challengers, owns the building, which has a café on the first floor and apartments above. Earlier this year, as the City Council began to hold hearings on a bill that would toughen the city's law on lead paint - a measure that Stewart, many landlords and the Bloomberg administration oppose - the Daily News reported that his property on Nostrand had 144 building code violations, including peeling lead paint.
Confronted with this, Stewart said many of the problems had been corrected and reportedly blamed the building's woes partly on his Haitian tenants. "It's a cultural thing,"The Daily News quoted Stewart, who was born in St. Vincent, as saying. "The Haitian folks, because of their poverty, will have five to eight people living in an apartment, and they will break the locks if one doesn't have a key."
Since then, Stewart has variously denied making the comments and said he was misunderstood. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, he said, "These things hurt but it gives me the impetus to let people know what I've been doing for the Haitian folks...I am an adopted Haitian."
Councilmember Stewart said he opposes the tough lead pain bill proposed by Councilmember Bill Perkins because he said it will not solve the problem. Instead, Stewart said he is working on a proposal that would require an apartment to be inspected and certified as lead free before children under the age of seven could live in it. If lead were present, the landlord would have to clean it up.
Stewart has four opponents - three Democrats and one Republican. To the three Democrats, this furor over the building is one more item to be added to their list of grievances against Stewart.
Earlene King, a former aide to onetime council member Lloyd Henry, said that when she visited Stewart's building four years ago "it was not fit to be lived in.""He is a slumlord,"said Sam Taitt, a communication professor at Kingsborough Community College who ran against Stewart two years ago.
The three other Democrats all say that they were approached to run by people in East Flatbush because Stewart was not doing enough for the community. "He's unaccountable and inaccessible,"Sam Taitt said. He has "failed miserably,"said Omar Boucher, a Democratic Party consultant who ran unsuccessfully for State Senate last year. Earlene King said the council member has failed to provide constituent service. "I have been told as I walk around the neighborhood that these people are not being serviced,"she said.
Omar Boucher and Sam Taitt fault Council Stewart's vote in favor of last year's 18 percent property tax increase. Taitt attacks Stewart for endorsing Governor George Pataki, a Republican, over Democrat Carl McCall in last year's gubernatorial election. As a district leader as well as council member, Taitt said, Stewart's "responsibility is to strengthen the Democratic Party."Stewart counters that he endorsed the governor "not because of labels but because of performance,"particularly Pataki's efforts to provide health care to children who are undocumented immigrants.
Further, Councilmember Stewart said he has accomplished "quite a great deal" in his two years on the council, including introducing legislation that would make it easier for foreign teachers to be certified in the city's public schools and helping to spearhead a resolution opposing the war in Iraq.
As a representative of district with a large number of immigrants, most, but not all from the Caribbean, Stewart said he has tried to focus attention on what he sees as the excesses of the federal Patriot Act. "A lot of our folks have been detained indefinitely,"he said. "That is really not what America stands for. That is not just."
Stewart also said he has brought in money for computers in the district's school, kept local senior citizen centers open and tried to get a mall on Flatbush Avenue near Brooklyn College, a project that stalled when K-Mart withdrew from it. If re-elected, Stewart hopes to try to improve transportation to senior centers, bring in money for commercial revitalization of the district - and open a Haitian history library.
Aside from faulting Councilmember Stewart, his opponents embrace a number of issues, many geared to economic development of the economically diverse East Flatbush community. Earlene King, for example, urges that more be done to attract businesses to the community, including creation of the long-awaited plans for the mall on Flatbush Avenue. This project, she said, could create 500 jobs and provide vendors with a safe place to conduct business.
Sam Taitt said he would create a credit union in East Flatbush, work to make businesses in the area aware of city contracts so that they could bid on them, and establish a community center in the area that would help provide computer access to young people in the neighborhood. "That will address the requirements of living in the 21st century,"he said, noting, "many of our kids don't have computers and many of our parents have never touched a computer."
Boucher said he would fight to repeal last year's property tax hike and replace it with a stock transfer tax. He also calls for a multi-purpose community center to help train residents and more day care slots. To achieve some of this, he says, "I am for the community rolling up their sleeves and doing for themselves."
All three Democrats say they can beat Stewart. Sal Grupico, who could not be reached for an interview, may be less sanguine about his chances. He received 10 percent of the vote in 2001 and told the New York Times then that he had trouble finding Republicans in the district, commenting "I think most of them are gone and dead."
The Democrats note that in the 2001 primary, Kendall Stewart captured only about 21 percent of the vote. Omar Boucher, Sam Taitt and Erlene King all say they have been urged to run by community residents. King believes that being a woman (all the candidates last time around were men) will help her chances. Taitt says he has boosted his visibility in the community since he ran in 2001 and got only 15 percent of the vote.
"It's always tough to take out an incumbent unless he shoots himself in the foot, and [Stewart] has certainly done that,"said Boucher.
Posted July 28, 2003
Four candidates remain on the ballot for the Democratic primary in district 45, with Salvatore Grupico picking up the Conservative Party line, along with the Republican slot. Stewart holds a substantial lead in fund-raising, having collected four times as much money from contributors as the number-two fund-raiser, Erlene King. In addition to money from small individual donors, Stewart has received contributions from realtors and labor unions.
Updated August 29, 2003