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In East New York, Corruption Creates an Open Seat

by Caroline Lewis, Aug 11, 2008
 
State Assembly district 40, inez barron, Winchester Key, Kenneth Evans, Earl Williams, and Nathan Bradley

An Extra Race

The 40th district has had no one representing it in the State Assembly since Diane Gordon's conviction on corruption charges in April. And most observers expected that is how it would remain until the new legislature assumed office in January.

But Inez Barron has sought to have a special election to put someone in the post between November and January. Voters would fill the partial term on September 9 -- primary day. The New York State Supreme Court has approved this idea although its decision is still pending appeal.

What was Barron's motivation for trying to squeeze in this election? "Well, it's the law," she said. "And the court upheld that."

Attorney Henry Berger, who specializes in election law, disagrees." Only the governor can decide to hold a special election," he said.

Before the court ruled, most of the candidates for the full term assumed that the governor's decision to leave the office vacant for the rest of the current term would stand. They petitioned accordingly -- except for Barron. "We have been petitioning for both," Barron said. "That's why we had to get it clarified in court that both elections were, in fact, taking place--so that we could petition for both terms."

Earl Williams found out about the special election only three weeks before petitions were due for all elections, but was determined not to let Barron run uncontested. He managed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot as Barron's only opponent in this election. He thinks he has a chance of winning, but still calls the special election "a waste of taxpayers' money."

"[The special election] will have no effect on the outcome of the general election," Williams assured.

"What could someone do in six weeks?" asked candidate Kenneth Evans.

It is likely that the State Assembly will never be in session during the brief stint the special election winner holds office.


Update: Inez Barron won the Democratic primary with 2,922 votes out of a field of five candidates. Williams had 1,360 votes, and Key had 1,172 votes.

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Barron now faces Republican Kenneth Waluyn. Waluyn has not filed an itemized financial disclosure form with the state's Board of Elections. Barron has a balance of $13,195 in her campaign finance account.

District 40 is heavily Democratic and the Democratic candidate is pretty much guaranteed to win the race. Barron has received endorsements from the Working Families Party, numerous elected officials (including her councilmember husband, Charles Barron) and labor organizations.

In the East New York section of Brooklyn it seems there are nearly as many people vying for the vacant State Assembly seat as there are vying for the primarily low-income neighborhood's limited affordable housing. The crowd that has submitted petitions to get on the primary ballot seems to echo the sentiment voiced by John Whitehead, a city sanitation worker and Community Board 5 member who considered running but decided against it, that, "Anyone who wants to change the community is qualified."

Will residents be as open-minded? They did, after all, re-elect Assemblymember Diane Gordon in 2006 after she had already been indicted for corruption. The seat became available when Gordon was convicted in April.

Six Brooklynites with varying degrees of prominence and qualifications are trying to take up residence in Gordon's former office. They are: retired educator Inez Barron (wife of City Councilmember French doors adorning her district office -- the only physical reminder of Gordon's venality -- the candidates say they want to help improve the neighborhood. To those invested in the community, its problems are glaringly obvious and seemingly ignored.

"I see a gap in our community," said Williams, who in his 70s is still active in community service projects in the Starrett City development. "There's no resources coming in; there's nothing happening. I just want to add the little bit of sense I have and see if we can turn it around."

The Community's Needs

In How East New York Became A Ghetto, Walter Thabit explains how real estate agents took advantage of the Puerto Rican immigrants and African Americans who migrated to the neighborhood at the eastern edge of Brooklyn in the 1950s. Today, the neighborhood still has housing problems, along with many other concerns, although there have been improvements.

East New York/Starrett City had the sixth highest rate of foreclosures among New York City neighborhoods in 2006, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. More residents of the community have jobs than in past years, but the average commuting time, the second highest in the city, indicates the need to create more local employment. Felonies have fallen sharply (from 88.2 per 1,000 residents in 1990 to 28.6 per 1,000 residents in 2006), but remain high compared to other parts of the city, and residents and candidates still see violent crime as a big problem.

The candidates generally agree on many of the basic needs of the community. The big questions are what the priorities are and how to get things done.

Developing the Neighborhood

Housing is on everyone's list of needs. There are several public housing projects in the community, but still not enough affordable housing to go around.

Candidates Key and Williams say they have already had success in addressing that issue.

"Much of the new housing in East New York was during my tenure in Community Board 5," said Williams. "We were part of the plan that created the Nehemiah Houses, the Gateway shopping mall -- I advocated for that for at least 10 years."

The Gateway Center is one of the few commercial centers that has invested in and brought new jobs to the area, but the low-wage, high-turnover jobs haven't brought as much prosperity as some might have hoped.

Key is chief executive officer of East New York Urban Youth Corps, a non-profit that acts as a developer, among other things. Key says it has built a homeless shelter, affordable housing, a grocery store and the first AIDS center in East New York.

Education, Health and Jobs

Voters and candidates are concerned with severe social and health problems, a lack of quality education (Thomas Jefferson High School was shut down a few years ago due to poor performance) and a shortage of jobs in the area.

Key said he wants to expand enrollment in Head Start, the early childhood education program available to very low-income Americans, for which many East New York residents are eligible.

In addition to dealing with residents' demands for new and better schools, the new Assembly member will have the opportunity to vote next year on whether to extend mayoral control over the city's public schools.

Barron, who worked in the school system for 36 years including several as the principal of a Bedford-Stuyvesant school, objects to the system being run by people, including Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who are not professional educators. "When I'm in Albany, I do not intend to extend mayoral control," she said. Barron said her main goals in education include increasing resources for teachers and reforming standardized testing in order to improve tracking of students.

Evans, who was the Brooklyn director of the Urban League for 10 years, said he is most concerned with the community having input in the system and hiring teachers whose backgrounds would enable them to communicate well with the youth of East New York.

But the candidates also addressed the need to reach out to high school age youth in the district, many of whom turn to gang violence and prostitution. Key, who has worked with youth through the youth corps, noted that many students drop out by ninth grade. He favors incentives to encourge employers to hire these young people. "There needs to be a youth job training program that has education and counseling built in," said Evans. "It would help eliminate some of the crime in the 40th district."

Health care is also a priority. Williams would focus on the elderly, whom he said often have to choose between buying food and medication.

Barron thinks there needs to be an increased effort to educate the public about preventing health problems that plague the community such as obesity, asthma and HIV/AIDS, which she said increasingly affects "women of color."

Evans, who has done health care consulting, said his main concern is revamping hospital facilities in the neighborhood so that people don't need to travel to distant locations for treatment. He would also advocate for a burn unit in Brooklyn, he said.

Jockeying For Support

Every candidate may find a base of support. Just as Barron may attract women voters (there was recently a women's rally in support of her), Williams, a Panamanian immigrant, may appeal to Latinos and the elderly. Bradley may pick up any Gordon loyalists, having worked as her main aide for 18 years. (He could not be reached for comment for this article.)

In an election with so many names on the ballot, though, name recognition could play a big role in determining the winner.

Evans ran against Gordon for this position, dropping out of the race before petitions were submitted in 2002 and winning 25 percent of the vote in the 2006 primary. He is appalled that many government officials supported Gordon in 2006 -- when she had already been indicted. Key also ran in the 2006 primary, getting 11 percent of the vote.

According to Key, this means he and Evans have the most name recognition. Evans refers to himself as a "long shot," but says he has received more support from officials and is more serious in this election than in the past.

But Barron, who is already prefacing sentences with, "when I am in Albany," is not the only one (see blogger Rock Hackshaw's prediction) who thinks she has the election in the bag.

"Inez Barron has the biggest name power," said Whitehead. "Her first name is as small as my pinkie, but her last name is as big as my leg." He suggested that some voters might not even know which Barron is running: Inez or Charles (her husband).

Councilmember Charles Barron (whose district overlaps with the 40th Aseembly district), a former Black Panther, is known for high profile, controversial comments. He is widely respected in the area. Inez Barron, who has been an activist in organizations like the Black United Front, said her husband has had a very positive effect on her campaign so far. "In introducing myself to people they are receptive of my information and then they ask if I'm related to Charles Barron and I say, 'yes,' and then they ask are my politics similar to his," she said. "And when I say, 'yes,' they say they will absolutely vote for me."

According to Evans, sophisticated voters could find candidates' closeness to other local elected officials a detriment due to what he sees as a lack of effectiveness on the part of many politicians. "But there are a lot of unsophisticated voters," he admitted.

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