Rep. Yvette Clarke (D)
New York 11th District
Brooklyn. Just saying the word in a comedian’s monologue used to elicit laughter. It evoked an accent of twisted English, a raucous, in-your-face style, a sense of humor with an edge, and the chip-on-the-shoulder assertiveness of those sure they will always be in second place. Brooklyn would never be more important than Manhattan; the Dodgers would always lose the World Series to the Yankees or the pennant to the Giants, and when they finally did win, in 1955, they moved to Los Angeles two years later. As its name testifies, Brooklyn was a separate community (named after the Dutch town Breukelen) from the 17th century on, and in the 19th century, it was one of the largest cities in the country, with its own celebrities—Henry Ward Beecher, Walt Whitman, John Roebling. By 1898, when the five boroughs were welded into Greater New York, 1 million people lived in Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn of the comedians really came into being as the subways were built in the early 20th century. In 1913, a transit agreement was struck to link the city’s then-independent lines and triple the track to 619 miles. The agreement helped Brooklyn expand well beyond its established neighborhoods near the Brooklyn Bridge and into then-rural southwestern Brooklyn.
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Suddenly, Manhattan factory workers no longer had to live in the crowded Lower East Side tenements that social reformer Jacob Riis had exposed in the 1890s. They moved in droves into neighborhoods of three- to five-story apartments and four-family houses. Brooklyn grew from 1.1 million in 1900 to 1.6 million in 1910 to 2 million in 1920 and to 2.6 million in 1930. The old Brooklynites were mostly Protestant—Dutch, Yankee and German, plus some Catholic Irish. The new Brooklynites were heavily Italian and Jewish, and they populated the sports and entertainment businesses for a long generation, making their hometown nationally famous. In 1940, Brooklyn had 2.7 million people: One of every 49 Americans lived in Brooklyn. The heart of the old Brooklyn was Ebbetts Field, where the Dodgers played. Around the time Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball, Brooklyn was experiencing an influx of blacks into Brownsville and Crown Heights near Ebbetts Field. Just as rapid was the flight of ethnic whites, driven away by “blockbusting,” in which hard-nosed real estate brokers stoked white fears, then bought their homes cheaply and re-sold high. After “Dem Bums” left for Los Angeles in 1958 and Ebbetts Field was knocked down for an apartment complex, Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods continued to grow.
By 2007, Brooklyn had 2.5 million people and was no longer a staple of national comedy. Some of its old neighborhoods have been ravaged by crime, but there is also great vitality among upwardly mobile Hispanic, Asian, Caribbean and Russian immigrants, among the hard-working, middle-class blacks, and among new generations of Italians and Jews. A change in zoning laws in 2004 resulted in a burst of new residential and office-space construction that has reinvigorated Brooklyn’s commercial district.
The 11th Congressional District of New York begins at the edge of downtown Brooklyn and includes some of the borough’s jewels: the Grand Army Plaza, the Parisian-style Eastern Parkway (the world’s first six-lane parkway) and Prospect Park, home to the Brooklyn Library, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, with its Japanese landscaping and placid duck ponds. Park Slope, on Prospect Park’s west side, has become increasingly affluent, filling up with young professionals who appreciate the easy commute to downtown Manhattan. On the east side of Prospect Park is Crown Heights, with its mix of modest apartment buildings and nicely restored row houses. However, it was the scene of violent clashes between blacks and Hasidic Jews in 1991 (the Lubavitch Hasidim, who make up the largest Hasidic sect in the world, are headquartered in Crown Heights). Prospect Park South, also adjoining the park, is an affluent neighborhood with artsy yuppies whose stately mansions contrast sharply with the vibrant Caribbean street life just around the corner on Flatbush’s Church Avenue and with struggling, depopulated Brownsville to the east. Most of these neighborhoods have great ethnic diversity. One minute you are in “La Saline,” a center of the Haitian community in the East Flatbush-Crown Heights area, nicknamed for the slum district of Port-au-Prince, and the next, you are in “Little Pakistan” in Midwood, home to the largest concentration of Pakistanis in America. The district’s population is 56% black, roughly half Caribbean in origin, and 12% Hispanic. Politically, the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but the borough’s party organization has been weakened by allegations of corruption.
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: Nov. 21, 1964, Brooklyn .
Education: Attended Oberlin Col..
Elected office: NY City Cncl., 2001-06.
Professional Career: Childcare specialist, Erasmus Neighborhood Fed., 1987-89; Leg. aide, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, 1989-91; Exec. asst., NY Workers' Compensation Bd., 1992-93; Youth program dir., Hospital League/Local S.E.I.U. 1199 Training and Upgrading Fund, 1993-97; Bus. devel. dir., Bronx Overall Devel. Corp., 1997-2001.
The congresswoman from the 11th District is Yvette Clarke, a Democrat elected in 2006. She was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Jamaica. As a young girl, she tagged along to political meetings and events with her mother, Una Clarke, who in 1991 became the first Jamaican elected to the New York City Council. Yvette Clarke attended Oberlin College in Ohio, but fell short of graduating by six credit hours. She returned to New York, helped train child-care workers, worked as a state legislative aide and served as business-development director for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. In 2001, when term limits forced her mother off the City Council, Clarke defeated four other candidates to succeed her in the predominately Caribbean area of Flatbush and East Flatbush.
|Yvette Clarke (D-WF)||168,562||(93%)||($545,983)|
|Hugh Carr (R)||11,644||(6%)|
|Yvette Clarke (D-WF)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (90%)
Since its creation in 1968 until 2006, the 11th District had been represented by just two people, both Democrats—trailblazer Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and a 1972 presidential candidate, and Major Owens, who succeeded her in 1982. Owens had announced in 2004 that he would serve just one more term and hoped that his son Chris, a health-industry administrator, would succeed him. But Clarke was also part of a political family that had designs on the seat. Her mother had run against Owens, an African-American, in the 2000 Democratic primary, a bitter contest that exposed divisions between the local Caribbean-American community and the African-American community. Una Clark accused Owens of being ineffective and anti-immigrant. Owens accused Clarke of betraying their friendship, and he won 54%-46%. Four years later, Yvette Clarke and fellow City Councilwoman Tracy Boyland challenged Owens in the Democratic primary, both aware that his son would likely run for the seat two years later. Owens won the low-turnout primary with an unimpressive 45%, to 29% for Clarke and 22% for Boyland. When Clarke faced re-election to the council in 2005, Owens retaliated by backing, unsuccessfully, her primary-election opponent.
Clarke decided to run again in 2006, but first had to navigate a competitive primary field. New York City Councilman David Yassky, who is white, jumped in, only to be called a “colonizer” by Owens for running in a majority-black district that had been created in 1968 in response to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit. The black community feared that the well-financed Yassky, who had moved three blocks into the district to run for the seat, would be the beneficiary if the black vote was splintered among the three prominent black candidates: Clarke, Chris Owens and state Sen. Carl Andrews. By the end of August, Yassky had raised over $1.3 million, more than the other three candidates combined.
But Yassky had an awkward campaign style that made it difficult for him to connect with voters. Clarke’s status as the only woman in the contest and her support among Caribbean-Americans were helpful. On the leading local issue, Clarke supported a plan to build a Nets arena and other development in Brooklyn, while Owens vigorously opposed it. Clarke stumbled when she was forced to backtrack from her claim that she had graduated from Oberlin. But she picked up the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union’s powerful Local 1199, which worked to turn out votes. In the September 12 primary, the only election that mattered in this heavily Democratic district, Clarke defeated Yassky 31%-27%, while Andrews finished third with 23% and Owens last with 19%.
In the House, Clarke has had a solidly liberal voting record. In her activist freshman class, she operated largely in the background and waited nine months to file her first bill, which sought to reduce the backlog of immigration applications. In June 2008, the House passed her bill to create an appeals process for individuals wrongly denied rights in homeland- security investigations.
Clarke occasionally goes her own way. In November 2007, she voted against passing a bill to ban workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians because it did not also protect transgender workers. She was one of nine Democrats who voted in December 2007 against a resolution recognizing the importance of Christmas. Because of a conflict with Democratic adviser Howard Wolfson that had lingered after the 2006 campaign, she was the final member of the New York delegation to endorse Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Clarke ran unopposed in the 2008 Democratic primary and was re-elected with 93% of the vote in November. But past conflicts and political changes in Brooklyn could affect redistricting and pose problems for her.