Hakeem Jeffries and the Limits of Gutter Politics

Sometimes the one way to make everyone angry is to take the most sensible position. Take Atlantic Yards. The arena would provide Brooklyn a real public benefit, and whatever one thinks about the adequacy of the percentage of “affordable” housing in the project, I defy anyone to find any developer who’s ever done any better. Yards opponents say they aren’t against an arena, they just think the Yards (easily accessible to half the City’s subway lines, as well as many bus transfer points), is an inferior location compared to putting an arena in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (a mass transit desert located in a flood zone). And they are all for development of the Yards (a deep hole in the ground, whose conversion costs have scared away nearly everyone), but just oppose any plan likely to be viable there. But the Yards plan’s opponents are fundamentally right that the Ratner plan proposed for development is just too damned big, and that the only response Yards plan supporters have given to questions concerning how we will evolve solutions to the seemingly insoluble problems the project presents is “if you build it, they will come”. Pardon my skepticism.

Only two candidates for elective office in the area have looked at this situation and proposed an appropriate “mend it, don’t end it” solution (unless we can interpret the silence of several others as the same thing). The first candidate to evolve such a position was David Yassky, running for Congress. He was later joined by Hakeem Jeffries, running for State Assembly. They are to be congratulated for their courage. Strangely, despite their almost identical positions on the same project (which makes Jeffries appear almost to be Yassky on a melanin overdose), their candidacies have produced, in some, strikingly different responses. Developer Bruce Ratner seems to have signaled his support for Jeffries’ Assembly campaign, while regarding Yassky, with far more venom than he’s directed at outright opponents, as a traitor to his cause. Jeffries also has the support of Reverend Clinton Miller, a leading Yards opponent, while Yassky has picked up no similar support. I myself would have to regard this all as a little strange, except that, while reluctantly supporting Yassky, I find myself questioning Jeffries’ very fitness for public office. Could it be that there is a world beyond Atlantic Yards? Perish the thought!

My reluctance to support Jeffries against his opponent Bill Batson does not stem from a feeling that the best way to move to a good Yards compromise is to elect a few uncompromising opponents; even if true, it would be unfair, simply as a matter of tactics, to punish Jeffries for having the right position. And it isn’t because there are too many lawyers in the legislature (although there are); there are also too many professional political/union/social service staffer types (Batson is all three; although his artsy credentials are sort of neat and different). Frankly, as far as qualifications go, the choices in this race are an embarrassment of riches; contrast for comparison the choices for Congress in the 10th CD, which much of this area overlaps; there the choices (Towns, Barron, Green, Powell) are merely an embarrassment. And, it’s not because Jeffries' uncle, Leonard, is one of America’s leading anti-Semitic fools; one can’t play guilt-by-consanguinity games in Brooklyn politics, or one would have to lay at Councilman Lew Fidler the sins of his in-laws, the Garsons, who also happen to be his political arch-enemies; and anyway, Jeffries’ employment at Paul Weiss, the source of much of his campaign financing, would seem to indicate that Jeffries has no trouble getting along with Jews (although his uncle Len was once president of a Jewish fraternity, so who knows?). My problem, ironically enough, is Jeffries’ public act of bigotry involving one particular Muslim.

Back in 2000, when Jeffries was making his first attempt at public office by challenging incumbent Assemblyman Roger Green, the candidates appeared in a debate on NY-1. Jeffries was in the process of completing an elevated philosophical oration explaining “the things that matter”; I couldn’t get my hands on a transcript, but basically it ran along the lines of “it doesn’t matter that I am younger and he is older” and “it doesn’t matter that I say po-tay-to and he says po-tah-to”, until coming to the inevitable “what really matters is…”. Apparently though, Jeffries got detoured along the way, for the real message was not what really mattered, but the content of one of the comparisons. Specifically, the thing that didn’t matter, that really did matter to Jeffries, was to let people know that, despite his name, Hakeem Jeffries was not a Muslim, but a Baptist. In itself, this was only mildly objectionable to prigs, and no worse than the sort of pandering common among Jewish candidates with not necessarily Jewish names (in Southern Brooklyn, usually the ethnic middle name on the ballot ploy is favored; e.g., Michael “Jules” Garson, Herbert “Saul” Lupka, and Michael “Chaim” Nelson, among others).

Having watched Tish James go through every possible contortion to let her constituents (at least the black ones) know she's a Baptist, I have to believe that Southern Brooklyn is not the only place where some religions carry more political advantages than others. It's the same everywhere. Carolyn Maloney used to be famous for doing a targeted piece in every campaign which created the (false) impression that she was Jewish (it always included her maiden name, so she appeared as  the subliminally suggestive “Carolyn Bosher Maloney”. Insiders referred to it as “the Carolyn Kosher Baloney piece”). In that spirit, the Presbyterian Maloney would also (scandalously) take communion in Catholic churches, go all prep-school Episcopal WASPY on the Upper East Side, and sound like she was raised on a turnip farm when she spoke at a Harlem Baptist church. So, I've got no problem with Hakeem letting folks know he's Baptist. But, I think it's telling that he saw little advantage, even pre-9/11, in having people mistakenly believe that he was a Muslim, even though the 57th AD is not without its Mosques. There are plenty of Muslims on Atlantic Avenue too, but I've never met a Brownstone Brooklyn pol who believed that running as one would help a candidate. So, it’s also telling that Jeffries didn’t stop there. “It doesn’t matter” he said, comparing himself to Green, “that I’m a Baptist and he’s a practicing Muslim”.

Nice. Why bring it up, except to bring it out? If last fall, Pat Russo, the Republican challenger against Bay Ridge Councilman Vinnie Gentile had said "it doesn't matter that I'm a married father of three (or however many) and he's a practicing homosexual", no one would have been fooled into thinking that his comment was innocent. Hakeem Jeffires had given his audience a rare glimpse into how low an ambitious pol will stoop to obtain office. It was Hakeem’s clear intent not only to make sure people knew that he was a Baptist, but also to make sure people knew Roger wasn't. The first is politics (and OK); the second is gutter politics, and repulsive. Hakeem was not a teenager working on his dad's campaign (to allude to someone else's purported youthful indiscretion; although that one had no videotape); he was an adult member of the bar, working at a white shoe law firm. The line was delivered in a manner designed to disingenuously disguise its intent; in fact, to facially convey exactly the opposite intent. It’s no wonder Hakeem graduated from law school cum laude. However, no one savvy, including the New York Times, believed that the intention was anything but pernicious. Perhaps Hakeem’s behavior should be forgiven, but only after explanation and/or apology; yet, in the four years Hakeem’s had to do either, he’s ironically seen fit to play the Arab, specifically the Egyptian---He’s been in da-Nile!

These days, Roger Green is not the world’s most appealing victim. In an Islamic Republic, he’d probably have been forced to surrender one of his hands for robbing the public till; here he barely surrendered his Assembly seat for about 15 minutes. Some make fun of Roger’s reluctance to discuss his private, but obviously sincere (he is a convert), religious beliefs, but in this day, when so may pols so disingenuously wear faith they don’t really embrace, faux-sincerely, upon their sleeves, there is something refreshing about a pol keeping such things private. And, except in those rare instances where a politician’s stances on the issues might actually beg the question of his religion’s impact (say, when a Quaker pol’s positions on matters of war and peace indicated he’d never support the use of arms under any circumstances, Hitler be damned, but not fought), it’s probably no one’s business. Certainly, Green’s socially liberal record has never evinced any evidence of an interest in legislatively implementing Islamic law. Clearly, Green saw no advantage in publicizing his religion, and despite his immediate shocked outburst during the debate (he walked out), he’s chosen not to bring it up again (probably because bringing it up again would only serve the purpose of reminding people of the fact which Hakeem chose to bring to their attention). I'll add that, since coming out of his spiritual closet, Green has been refreshingly (and seemingly almost recklessly) frank about such topics as Islamic racial prejudice, and Islamic anti-Semitism. Although otherwise having outlived his usefulness in Albany, he is a rare voice of truth and clarity on what are increasingly important issues (not that this would justify his election to Congress; although it may be his best argument).

But Roger Green’s career in politics is almost over. Early next year, one of two very bright, very talented, young men will begin his first term in Albany representing Brooklyn’s most sophisticated African-American constituency. Undoubtedly, that young man will have committed any number of minor sins against good taste and decency to get there. We can’t clean up dirty politics; I’m not even sure we want to. But, we can set some limits. Defeating Hakeem Jeffries for the very reasons outlined here would send a message loudly and clearly about what we would like those limits to encompass.

FOLLOW UP: 

A reader obviously closely affiliated with the Jeffries campaign provided the helpful information that, back in 2000, Jeffries had a private meeting with the district’s Imans and apologized to their satisfaction.He then took me to task for ignoring Jeffries’ contrition.

I'm glad Jeffries apologized to the Imans (even in secret); he owed it to them; but, he also owed an apology to the entire voting public of the 57th AD for assuming they would respond to such a too cute by half ploy. I've yet to hear of a similar act of contrition directed at the general voting public. So, I'm not ignoring Hakeem's contrition; I'm waiting for it.

For the record, I don't assume that Hakeem is or was a bigot; but, that doesn't make things better; it makes things worse; a bigot wouldn't know better; Hakeem did. I assume he did this knowing exactly what he was doing; to do otherwise would be to assume he was an idiot, and that's clearly not the case.