A BROOKLYN POLITICAL LOVE STORY: THE QUEEN IS GONE; LONG LIVE THE QUEEN.
I was out of the country for a couple weeks and because of this I missed the passing and funeral of a political friend and activist-ally: Jenny Ortiz-Bowman. Those of us who knew her well called her “The Queen”. I knew of her long before I formally met her and worked with her in 1996. She was one of the many colorful people who played the Brooklyn political theater in the last half-century.
Jenny was the wife of Reginald “Reggie” Bowman: the Brownsville-based political-activist extraordinaire. Reggie heads up the organization representing tenants of public housing in New York City. He is a prodigious advocate for the needs of those in public housing; and has been for decades. He has fought for the homeless, the jobless and the downtrodden. He has been fighting these battles most his adult life. He is one of the very few who has prolifically challenged the Boyland family’s dynastic grip on the politics of Ocean Hill/ Brownsville (Brooklyn/55thAD). He has run against that clan quite a few times. He has done tenant organizing most his adult life; and he once headed up the school board in the infamous “District 23”area.
When you combine Jenny and Reggie’s individual records of community involvement you will find over a century of activism. Their activities started way back in their youth. They both evolved from families where activism was treasured not measured. They met in politics and never left it; no matter the many heartbreaks and disappointments.
They knew each other for thirty-one years. They were married for twenty eight of them. They had both been married before and both brought kids from their previous marriages to the new union. It was truly the beginning of the modern-day version of “family”. It worked for them. They were a well-knit unit of wonderful human beings. They both valued and cherished their kids, grandkids, in-laws, blood relatives, friends and other loved ones.
Reggie and Jenny were always very supportive of each other. They also complemented each other’s activist-work. She managed most of his political campaigns/initiatives, and also worked with the Census Department. She was on the forefront of many political actions in her neck of the woods (and even beyond). He was employed by congressmen, state senators, other electeds, and many political activists of all races, nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Reggie even did a stint working with the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce. The two of them were truly “rainbow people”. They never shunned folks based on race, ethnicity, nationality or religion: they truly judged people by the content of their characters and not by the colors of their skins.
Jenny was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, on June 9th, 1951. She was the eldest -and only girl- of the Muniz family that moved to Brooklyn when she was still a child. For decades, her father (Ernesto Muniz) organized little-league baseball tournaments around the city: including the Bushwick areas of Brooklyn, Ocean-Hill, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy and East New York.
After graduating from High School, Jenny married at a young age, and moved to Montana for a short stint. She returned to NYC when the marriage failed, and has since worked assiduously in areas such as youth development, economic development, community affairs, police brutality, crime, housing, drug abuse, health, education, gun control/proliferation, community development, parks and recreation, et al. You name the issue and “the Queen” had been there and done that.
There was a time when the local Community Board allocated a large portion of land near Pitkin Avenue, for the building of a High School in Brownsville (which had none). Over 25 years later, the High School still wasn’t built: somehow the city failed somehow to free up the funds for building said edifice. Then suddenly one day, the very same portion of land was earmarked for the building of a juvenile detention facility: suddenly the money was found for said construction. Reggie and Jenny organized a sustained protest against the initiative. It lasted for months. People were on the street protesting. The police were called in and Reggie was arrested for staging an unauthorized sit-in protest in council member Enoch Williams’ office. The council member had signed off on building the prison.
In that initiative, Reggie and Jenny had a very simple position: build schools not jails. They lost that one but won many others. For example: Jenny was successfully involved in a civil-action suit brought against entities looking to set up more methadone clinics in the Bushwick-Ocean Hill-Brownsville-Bed Stuy-East New York areas. She was also involved in setting up more parks and recreation spaces in said areas. Beyond that she organized little league baseball tournaments like her dad did.
Jenny was a tireless advocate for the area’s youth. Youth development was one of her passions. So too were the arts. She was a playwright and a poet. I also suspected that she was a closet Puerto Rican nationalist (but that’s another story): her husband claims that she just loved her island culture.
Her passions overflowed to her political involvements. She shared the same feelings I do: that the black and Hispanic elected officials in this country have “collectively” failed their people; and that they can do better. In Brooklyn she was an insurgent to the core. Over the years, she helped many a challenger facing long odds against incumbents. She gave a lot of herself to her community. She gave tremendous amounts of time, energy, money and brain-power to issues and causes near and dear to her heart.
There were many who hired (or recruited) her to manage political campaigns, head up signature/petition-collection drives, register voters, bind petitions, turn back petition-challenges, supervise lit-drop operations, co-ordinate election-day operations, and the like. You name the operational-element in an election contest and Jenny could handle it. She met (and worked with) the current speaker of the city council (Christine Quinn) while managing a city council challenge in the 90’s.
In 1996 she was the chief-technician for an insurgency challenge for Brooklyn’s surrogate judgeship. A large multi-racial-ethnic group of Brooklyn candidates decided to put together a ticket -with a black male lawyer at the helm- in an attempt to make history. It was an ambitious and historic challenge for the 14 year job. Before 1996 you hardly ever saw blacks running for county-wide judicial spots. Since 1996 it appears that blacks can’t stop running for countywide judgeships in Brooklyn.
There are many Jenny Ortiz-Bowman political stories out there in the land of lore. The one you will probably hear most (through the grapevines) isn’t true. It is said that Jenny once “mooned” a federal court judge when he returned a verdict she hated. I was there: all Jenny did was turn her back on the judge as he read the verdict in an election case. It was her protest-action. Some other people in her entourage also turned their backs in protest. Word on the street said she showed him a small piece of her Puerto Rican butt. That story went viral throughout Brooklyn’s political community. Let me debunk it finally. Jenny had enough class to handle herself with dignity anywhere and everywhere: especially in federal court. She had charisma, grace, intelligence and compassion. And yet she could be as “street-savvy” as anyone who ever survived the rough tough streets of New York City most their life: like she had. She was a treasure. She would make you laugh in an instant. She was witty and sometimes subtle; and she could tell a good political tale as any of the best. She also had a good memory.
In my estimation Jenny was a political moderate with progressive leanings. On economic issues she appeared to be on the left. On social issues she appeared to be a common-sense democrat. She was always willing to work with folks from all political angles or parties. She was a coalition-builder who stood firm on her core principles. Like her husband she championed the cause of poor people and those in need.
She was often quite firm in her stands. Once in a Brooklyn state-senate race she supported Ken Evans over John Sampson. Attorney Mitch Alter tried hard to sway her. He made regular trips to her husband’s campaign office hoping to get not only her endorsement for his candidate (Sampson), but also into her Election Day operation/ coverage as well. Jenny was the campaign-manager. I was heading up the field operations. She privately confided to me that she didn’t trust Mitch Alter beyond her eyesight. She suspected his continual forays into the politics -of the Black and Hispanic areas of Brooklyn- were insincere and mercenary. Sampson won the race but Jenny never regretted her decision to support Kenneth Evans in that race.
Jenny and Reggie also supported Congressman Major Owens for many years. Reggie was once (or twice) employed by the congressman (including when Owens was a state senator). In the last decade they successfully supported Lisa Kenner who won the female district leadership (55thAD/ Dems); thy also supported quite a few successful judicial candidates over the years. Back in the days of School Board elections, it was routine for Reggie to get the highest number of first place votes. Jenny was his most tireless and vocal advocate.
Sure Jenny was highly opinionated; sure she was firm in her stands; sure she was at times angry at the frustrating Brooklyn political scene; and she definitely let elected officials know her positions and feelings: she was real. She was the real deal. She had the requisite political passion only the sincere ones hold today.
I am told Jenny encountered a massive stroke that took her life a short time later. I am also told that she didn’t suffer through prolonged pain, agony and/or distress. The beautiful poem that follows was extracted from her funeral program; I decided to share it with you: When tomorrow starts without me, and I’m not there to see, if the sun should rise and find your eyes all filled with tears for me;I wish so much you wouldn’t cry ,the way you did today,
while thinking of the many things
we didn’t get to say.
I know how much you love me
as much as I love you,
and each time that you think of me
I know you’ll miss me too;
but when tomorrow starts without me
please try to understand
that an angel came and called my name
and took me by the hand,
and said my place was ready
in heaven far above,
and that I’d have to leave behind
all those I dearly love.”
Jenny Ortiz-Bowman died a couple days after first falling ill. She passed away on the evening of April 9th, 2012. She was sixty-one years young. Her devoted husband was at her side when she died. After speaking to Reggie on my return to the USA, I confided that my wife was battling a rare type of cancer and had already had one surgical operation -was heading for another soon/ plus a stint with chemotherapy. I also confided that my immediate and extended family happened to be going through its own share of anxiety and stress presently. These aren’t easy times -in every which way- for all concerned.
Let me close out by telling you how Jenny got her nickname (“The Queen”). It was after winning a beauty contest back in her teens. A popular Hispanic newspaper (El Diario/La Prensa) used to hold an annual contest to crown the most beautiful Latina teen. Jenny not only attained the record highest number of first place votes ever cast but she was also the last official queen the newspaper ever crowned. The contest was later disbanded.
A memorial service for Jenny Muniz-Ortiz-Bowman will be held in Brooklyn, on the 9th June, 2012. For more info contact her husband Reginald “Reggie” Bowman at this telephone number: 1-917-600-1589.
Stay tuned-in folks.