The Great White Hope

After running fourth in a field of four in a race for Congress with only 19% of the vote (despite having the support of, and same last name as, an incumbent Congressman with nearly a quarter century of service), Chris Owens decided to snatch dignity from the jaws of defeat by claiming credit (with some credibility) for the defeat of white candidate David Yassky. Having been handed a bunch of lemons, Owens decided to claim he was manufacturing lemonade, and it’s hard to disagree that this was better than squeezing sour grapes, even if it's still a matter of empty calories. So, it seemed petulant at that juncture to point out that, at the time Owens decided to stay in the race, it was far from apparent that his presence wouldn’t cost a stronger black candidate victory.

I nonetheless held my tongue. Though I'm no fan of Owens, it seemed commonsensical that, once the primary was over, it was time to stop shooting the critically wounded and concentrate instead on bagging a few Republicans. Also, it was undeniable that Owens’ supporters, give or take a few Greens, deserved more than a bit of credit for moving on and getting off their ass and knocking on doors in service to the cause of electing a Democratic Congress which would not include their “hero”. I put the word “hero” in quotes to emphasize it; when I first wrote the line, I said “candidate”, but that word lacked the intensity necessary to convey the dedication bordering on worship that Owens generated among his faithful. Perhaps an even better word would be “moshiach”.

Some starry eyed Owens supporters are now urging him to run for Yvette Clarke’s seat on the City Council. In the Congressional primary, Owens ran fourth out of four in Clarke’s district, with only 13% of the vote. While this area was the home base of two other candidates (Clarke and Andrews), and Owens could probably pick up some of their support, the area would also be the home base of nearly every council candidate but Chris Owens. Doubtless Chris' supporters are the truest of believers, but most of them live elsewhere. They make great volunteers, but in the 40th Councilmanic, they’d make lousy voters. While Chris might end up being the class of the field if he ran in the 40th, a run by him on such alien turf would beg the question of whether his candidacy there would not render him, to quote his father's immortal words, a "colonizer" and an "interloper".

Say this for Chris Owens, he does not lack confidence concerning his own capabilities. The "Peter Principle" states that, in a hierarchy, people rise to their level of incompetence, and then stop rising. By contrast, at least as concerns electability, Chris Owens keeps on failing and yet continues to expand his ambitions exponentially. Twice defeated in races for City Council, he then ran in a Congressional District of 600,000. Defeated in a Congressional race, he now has announced plans to run either Brooklyn-wide, for Borough President, or Citywide, for Public Advocate. Defeated in such a race, as he most surely would be (sadly depriving us of the opportunity to see Hugo Chavez speaking on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall to commorate the designation of Caracas as Brooklyn's "Sister-City"), it is only a matter of time before he runs for State or National office. One day, Chris Owens will make a great Presidential candidate, untainted as he is, or ever will be, by the sins one accumulates when one actually holds public office.

And like lemmings to the sea, Owens’ supporters, despite defeat after defeat after defeat, will follow him wherever he goes. In politics, there is really nothing comparable. In 1973 and 74, in the wake of Watergate, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern” buttons sprouted like mushrooms; but, Yvette Clarke has not yet even been sworn into office, so it’s still too early for such a backlash (unless someone finally locates her Oberlin diploma hidden deep inside William Jefferson’s freezer squeezed somewhere between the packs of hundred dollar bills and the Swanson TV dinners). And yes, even after losing presidential nominations two times running, supporters of Jesse Jackson kept wearing their campaign buttons, almost as an act of defiance. In 1984, even an egg as hardboiled as State Senate hopeful Carl Andrews initially refused to endorse Walter Mondale after he’d been nominated, because, he determined that Jesse’s endorsement was not sufficiently unequivocal. However, in Jesse’s case, there was a racial element, and more importantly, a sense of group aspiration. By contrast, if intensity of his following is the barometer, then Chris Owens, given where his support comes from, is truly Brooklyn’s “Great White Hope”.

And, hope springs eternal; this week in “The Daily Gotham “, Owens groupie Mole333 announced: “Chris Owens, a favorite grassroots progressive in Brooklyn ….is doing his best to make the grassroots in Brooklyn both more unified and more effective with a new initiative…called New Brooklyn Leadership…Last night was Chris' thank you party for those who helped him in his recent run for Congress, and his announcement of the New Brooklyn Leadership movement. At its root, this is an attempt to keep together the very active, very dedicated grassroots coalition that rallied around Chris Owens' candidacy and to hone that coalition into a more effective and lasting tool. And it was a good start. Members of both IND and CBID were there, representing the area's two best known ‘reform Democratic’ clubs. Members of the Green Party were there, including former Brooklyn BP candidate Gloria Mattera. Daily Gotham's own anti-Green enthusiast Michael Bouldin was there. Members of Develop, Don't Destroy Brooklyn were there. Bigwigs from New Democratic Majority were there. It was, in short, a pretty good cross section of the recent Norm Seigel (sic) (2005) and Chris Owens (2006) campaigns and probably the most active participants in Brooklyn's sometimes thin grassroots….New Brooklyn Leadership will hopefully be the ongoing result of last night's enthusiasm. “

Given the recent proliferation of left oriented political groups, one is moved to ask what makes “New Brooklyn Leadership” different? Reading their mission statement sheds precious little light on the matter. Many of the the Principles of “New Brooklyn Leadership”, as announced by Owens, bear an uncanny resemblance to his idiotic proposals to reform the rules of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Mostly, they are the usual left wing catechisms buried in mounds of incomprehensible verbiage, possibly to avoid conveying any possible offense to potential follow travelers of the Popular Front, or possibly because the fuzzy language perfectly reflects it’s author’s manner of thinking. However, there may be a third possibilty: that Owens, like any pretender to the Messianic throne, is attempting to cultivate an aura of mystery. Like followers of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Owens’ acolytes are already engaged in Tamudic disputations over the meaning of his every utterance. Perhaps his blogger Boswell should consider changing his handle to “Mole of Tarsus”.

The most impressive thing about Owens is that he actually seems to believe this stuff, which is amazing considering that he survived a long stint as an advisor to that sub-moronic, toupee wearing neo-conservative phony, Council President Andrew Stein, not to mention his family’s long associations with the likes of Clarence Norman and his allies, without whom there would never have been a Congressman Owens, let alone a prodigal son. Can someone actually spend years turning tricks in a political brothel and still keep their cherry? No matter, because as a platform for building a victory for the ideas he holds so dearly, most of the principles that Owens articulates seem likely to yield the same level of success as all of his other electoral endeavors.

See for yourself:

“New Brooklyn Leadership supports public policies that promote and establish peaceful relationships between people and nations, recognizing that all people are equal.”

I eagerly await the unequivocal statement condemning Hugo Chavez’s allegations of Jewish deicide (surely the messianic Owens can sympathize) or homophobe Fidel Castro’s treatment of the LGTB community, especially his incarceration of PWAs in concentration camps.

Moreover, I wonder how important peace really is to Owens. We know Owens does not share the worldview of George W. Bush, but is he a Clinton style Liberal Internationalist or an isolationist of the Patrick Buchanan/Michael Moore school? Would he, like Clinton, define sending troops to help prevent genocide in the Balkans as support for “public policies that promote and establish peaceful relationships between people and nations”, or join Moore and Buchanan in considering such actions to be war crimes?

This week, in New Republic, Peter Beinart argued that, given our role in creating the chaos, before we withdraw from Iraq, we should offer all the involved parties one last opportunity to sit down and settle their differences, on the threat that if they were not successful, we would begin unconditional withdrawal immediately. The catch is, that if they came to an agreement, we would have to replicate our role in the Balkans, and stay on somewhat longer to help facilitate the implementation of the peace plan.

Frankly, I don’t think the parties involved would ever come to an agreement, but the question remains, if we are really committed to giving peace a chance and preventing a genocidal bloodbath, and the opportunity to play that role actually presented itself, should we stay, or is getting out now more important than helping to facilitate such a peace? Does “supporting public policies that promote and establish peaceful relationships between people and nations” mean that Chris Owens is willing, under the right circumstances, to stay in Iraq a bit longer? If not, what does it mean?

“New Brooklyn Leadership supports public policies that protect the lives of United States residents through strong security measures and maximized civil rights and liberties.”

That’s very nice. I’m a civil libertarian myself, and despair at the damage George W has done to our constitutional rights. I’m all for “maximized civil rights and liberties”, but I don’t, for one minute, believe they help to “protect the lives of United States residents”; does Chris Owens really believe they do?

The question here is how much in the way of our civil liberties are we willing to trade for how much security, and can these concerns be reconciled in a constitutional manner? What is required is a serious and thoughtful analysis conducted with the participation of those who understand the real value of our constitutional liberties. Instead, Chris Owens, by denying there are any trade-offs between these goals, serves to inadvertently weaken the hand of those who understand the importance of dealing with this conundrum. Denial of the problem is a sure recipe for marginalization and defeat.

Our rights are important, so much so that we are willing to pay some price to protect them. Anyone who wants to infringe upon our rights must be made to meet a high threshold before the matter even becomes worth discussing; sadly September 11th has served that awful purpose.

It is perfectly reasonable for Owens to argue that no amount of increased security is worth any infringement upon our liberties (and, sadly, it is perfectly reasonable for others to argue that some infringements may be both desirable and constitutionally permissible), but to instead argue that there are no trade offs involved, is either intellectually dishonest, or a willful substitute of faith for reason (which is supposed to be the vice of the religious right, not the secular left). This is an argument that can often be won, even in the heartland, but it can’t be won by denying its existence.

“New Brooklyn Leadership supports public policies that promote and establish equitable social, economic and political outcomes for all Americans, including quality public education, affordable and accessible health care, and quality and affordable housing.”

 Can’t argue with most of that, although I am unsure what an “equitable political outcome” is. Does it mean “we” win, and who exactly would “we” be? Meade Esposito once said that he didn’t care what the process was, as long as his guy got the nomination. Is that what Chris Owens is saying?

Or, does it mean that I can’t run for Congress in the district in which I live, regardless of the content of my character, because I am not among the people who, in the words of the great Curtis Mayfield (a man whose life’s last few years are crying out to be used as a metaphor by opponents of Atlantic Yards) are “darker than blue”? Silly me, I thought that “all people are equal”.

“New Brooklyn Leadership supports public policies that recognizes that a diverse collection of strategies and methodologies must be employed to ensure successful, positive outcomes for constituencies.”

Does anyone, including Chris Owens, understand what that means? Is it NEWSPEAK? Positive outcome for “constituencies”? Why not individuals? Who gets to be a constituency? Obviously not English teachers, but whom? Born again Christians? Satmar Hasidim? The NRA? And, what exactly does one mean by a “diverse collection of strategies and methodologies”? Does it include charter schools and tuition tax credits?

“New Brooklyn Leadership's Vision: An electorate in Brooklyn that is motivated and mobilized to vote in every election for candidates who represent the best interests of the borough and of each individual jurisdiction.”

And what do we do when the parochial interests of an individual jurisdiction conflict with the best interests of the whole? Of course, for Owens and his followers, the answer is simple: Like the supposed conflict between liberty and security, the conflicts between the interests of a particular neighborhood and the good of the public never occur in real life, and anyone who says they do is just a reactionary lackey of the establishment (With faith, all things are possible).

“Mission: To maximize voter registration and voter turnout within Brooklyn regardless of an individual voter's profile through the development of appropriate outreach methodologies and the development of quality candidates for public and party offices.”

Funny, I thought the idea of winning elections was not to maximize voter registration and turnout “regardless of an individual voter’s profile”, but to turn out your base. Frankly, I want voter’s who don’t meet the right profile to stay home. And Chris, does this mean your volunteers blind-pulled Caribbeans on Primary Day? If so, it didn’t work.

“Goals: To prepare voter-related resources that are current, thorough and user-friendly.”

Chris, just call Jerry Skurnik.

“To increase overall voter turnout by increasing the number and percentage of younger voters who cast votes to a level that parallels turnout within other age cohorts.”

Unless, you’ve done some polling, this is not necessarily a useful strategy for victory.

“To utilize various strategies and methodologies to create the infrastructure needed to support the vision and mission of New Brooklyn Leadership, including the use of not-for-profit and for-profit business entities as well as political organizations.”

This sounds distinctly like something concocted by Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff (although, that is not necessarily a bad thing; talk to me guys, I’m listening); did you get the idea from Al Vann, or perhaps Vito Lopez?

Owens really should stop writing his own stuff; especially since his followers include gifted writers like Michael Bouldin; and I should really stop shooting at this poor sitting duck. At any rate, it hardly matters what manner of nonsense is in their mission statement, because the few people who might care won’t take more than thirty seconds to conclude that the one and only “mission” of “New Brooklyn Leadership” is election of Chris Owens to public office, and that goal is likely to occur about 15 minutes before or after the resurrection of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose dedicated followers are also still hoping for a "comeback” (although, unlike Schneerson, Owens really has nothing to “comeback” to).

I am reminded of a line, uttered by Terry Jones, who played Graham Chapman’s mother in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, which could be well applied to both groups of holy-rollers:

“Piss Off….He’s not the Messiah!”


A common refrain when I speak to Owens disciples is the question of whether I’ve met the man and actually talked with him.  My response is usually to ask if this is some form of torture for those who deviate from the party line. But, it wouldn’t help.  

Truth, be told, when I read some religious nonsense which assaults my intellect, and I then hear someone say "if only you could meet Rabbi X (or Reverend Y), you would understand", I think I already understand everything I need to know all too well.  

In my religious life, I've never been ever to make the leap of faith to a spiritual connection. I always considered the spiritual stuff something you used to entice the suckers to take their medicine. In recent years, though I've come to respect it; I just can't connect. I've always identified more with the Misnagdim than the Hasids, whose joy and exultation stuff is now the dominant mode even in my own Reform movement. I guess it's just something I can't understand. There are people whose musical taste I otherwise respect who love Led Zep and Barry White, and they've never blown my skirt either.

But, I gotta tell ya; to me Chris Owens is more like Bobby Sherman.