Racial Politics and Eminent Domain in Brooklyn

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Two hotly contested issues — the role of race in political representation and the use of eminent domain for economic development — collided in the contest for the 11th Congressional District in Brooklyn yesterday. The 11th has been represented by an African American since Shirley Chisolm first won in 1968. The Congressional race began to receive national attention when David Yassky, a white city councilman, moved into the district to seek the seat vacated by Major Owens against three black challengers, Carl Andrews, Yvette Clarke, and Chris Owens (Major’s son) . The District is also home to the City’s controversial plan to use eminent domain to support the Forest City Ratner development in Atlantic Yards, which will include an arena designed by Gehry and 6,800 units of housing. Yassky and Clarke both supported the Atlantic Yards development — with some criticisms of scope, while Owens vocally opposed it.

Yvette Clarke won the seat with 31% of the vote to Yassky’s 26%. Andrews won 23% and Owens trailed behind with 20%. What is the message to draw from Clarke’s victory? What role did race or gender play? How significant was her support for Atlantic Yards?

For full information, I live in the neighborhood adjoining the 11th. My coffee shop was abuzz with the race. My own observations are therefore partially informed by local discussion.

Race was obviously a significant issue in this contest. It may have been particularly fraught in light of the changing demographic of Brooklyn and the redistricting that changed the district from 75% black to 58.5% black, 21.4% white, with a significant Latino and growing Pakistani population. Yassky, a former law prof at Brooklyn Law School, had a good reputation as a City Councilman — he was active on causes ranging from lead paint to affordable housing. But he moved into the district solely to run for the open seat, which obviously opened him up for claims of illegitimacy. As the Times reported today, Major Owens referred to him as a “colonizer.” Terry Smith on Blackprof wrote a series of posts both lambasting Yassky for running in a majority minority district and the New York Times for endorsing him. From the coffee shop, I would venture the view that Yassky’s support for Atlantic Yards cost him votes from those he expected to support him — upper middle class (often white) residents of Brownstone Brooklyn.

Clarke, also a member of the City Council since 2001, was endorsed by the New York Daily News, as well as many unions, and prominent Democratic officials. She is the daughter of a former New York City councilwoman, Una Clarke. She was active against fire department closures and worked on HIV/AIDS issues. Clarke’s candidacy suffered a setback, however, over her false claim to have graduated from Oberlin College (she attended Oberlin but was shy the necessary credits to graduate).

Whether Clarke’s victory suggests popular support — and particularly support among working class and people of color — for Atlantic Yards and the use of eminent domain is hard to know. She received only 31% of the vote — though Yassky, another supporter, received the next highest vote tally at 26%.

However one views the outcome, the role of race in politics and the appropriateness of the use of eminent domain were avidly discussed in the weeks before the election — which seems a very good thing.


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5 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    There is a fantastic discussion of race and redistricting in the last half of this show:


    An advocate of minority-majority districts at the end of the show addresses claims by many critics of such districts that they ultimately harm the interests of minorities (largely represented by the Democratic party) because they channel so many of these Democratic voters into ‘safe’ districts that other districts that could be competitive fall into Republican hands.

    Just to be clear: I’m not taking a stand either way, and don’t claim that maximizing Dem seats is the best way to advance minority interests. I just think it is a troubling paradox of VRA advances; as the number of minority representatives may increase, their power might wane.

  2. KipEsquire says:

    “But [Yassky] moved into the district solely to run for the open seat, which obviously opened him up for claims of illegitimacy.”

    Not at all like, say, Hillary Clinton.

  3. mrshl says:


    Perhaps, it’s EXACTLY like Hillary. But the other part of the story is whether such claims are successful. Plenty of people may plausibly suggest Hillary is an “illegitimate” candidate. Voters are free to reject or endorse those claims.

  4. shamu says:

    nb-hillary moved to westchester and represents the entire state of new york. yassky moved to a majority black district and wanted to represenbt that district. not really the same. neither one is illegitimate, either, just a better or worse candidate.

    given that both clark and yassky have similar positions on the atlantic yards, i doubt that made a difference. that is to say, this was about race and class. unfortunately, it was also about a candidate who lied about her credentials, which, one would have thought, would have made a difference.

  5. Simon says:

    Some of the rhetoric in this race was genuinely shocking – the idea that there should be districts “reserved” for representatives of a certain color, and the poisonous idea that one is ill-represented if one is represented by someone of another color.