Margarita Lopez-Torres and the Multi-colored Coattails: Liars, Liars, Pants and Panties on Fire.

Rock Hermon Hackshaw

Sometime in early 2001, I requested a meeting with Clarence Norman in his capacity as County Leader of the Democrats in Brooklyn. I wanted to discuss a few issues with him, and he willingly obliged me. Let me say first off, that despite the many run-ins I have had with Clarence, he has always treated me with dignity and respect. Whenever he met me, he was very cordial, very civil. Surprisingly so, since I managed his opponent in 1996 (Joan Gill), and I actively supported many other candidates against him over the years (Gumbs, Davis, Roper and Roberts/two). Also, I happened to have challenged many of the electeds (much to his chagrin), by working as advisor/consultant/technician and in other capacities, with insurgents challenging the status-quo, since 1984. Even before he became county-leader.

Only one time did he ever caution me about my political activities, it was when we were both candidates in 1998. We accidentally happened to be sitting together, while waiting for an endorsement interview with the Amsterdam News. He told me that people in this “game” called politics, had very long memories. I remember that conversation quite well. He also offered me some serious advice as to how to go about getting elected. Regrettably, I didn’t listen to him on both counts. Maybe I should have, but then…………………….…..well life goes on.

Now, some people will say that 2002 was the beginning of the end for Clarence, and they may be correct. That was the year when two non-white judicial candidates won Brooklyn-wide races. They were not supported by the county- machine. Their last names were Thomas and Lopez-Torres. Of the two, Margarita Lopez-Torres has made the most noise. She is now one, of only two Surrogate Court judges in Brooklyn. She is also the only one that was elected to the position.

In that meeting with Clarence, the idea of minority candidates waging county-wide judicial challenges came up. This was because in 1996, I had coordinated an insurgent challenge to county’s surrogate-judge candidate. I didn’t like the way we were treated that year. I also brought up the idea of him fighting for a new Assembly seat, running through the Caribbean-American areas of Carnarsie and East Flatbush. It was less than a year after the census. Many other Caribbean-American activists like me, were arguing for more representation in these “coconut” areas / lol. Clarence and I also discussed the upcoming Boro Prez race; he tried to recruit my help in supporting his candidate Jeanette Gadson.

About the potential new seat, he informed that it was probably going to be drawn with Staten Island in mind. About the Boro Prez race, I informed him that I was probably going to support Ken Fisher. What I remembered most about the meeting however, was his insistence that running minority candidates for judicial offices countywide-without the backing of the party-was a losing proposition. He suggested that it was a waste of time and money. He said that the white registration and turnout, trumped that of blacks and Hispanics. His position was totally refuted the following year, when both Thomas and Lopez-Torres won.

I must say that I do believe that the insurgent victories of 2002 came about because of the element of luck. When Andrew Cuomo ducked out of the gubernatorial primary, it created a void. Nothing “up-ballot” was driving high turnout, and in the white areas of Brooklyn, there were no primaries. Truth be told, they are hardly ever primary races in white-Brooklyn anymore. In the black areas (much more so than even the Hispanic areas), you can usually count on a few primary races annually. Over the past four years, quite a few minority candidates have won judicial positions in boro-wide races, and I attribute this directly to the lack of primaries in the white areas (for the most part).

I said all this to say this: before Margarita there was a guy named Desmond Greene. And although it is true that her candidacies do epitomize the insurgent-struggle, it didn’t all happen in a vacuum. There is “context” to her successes.

Desmond Greene was born in Jamaica, and came to New York at an early age. After graduating from high school here, he attended college and later became a lawyer. He worked for the Brooklyn DA, before opening his private practice on Nostrand Avenue, in Crown Heights.

Today, the name Margarita Lopes Torres symbolizes the fight for judicial reform in King’s county. And suddenly, (s)elected officials, wannabee (s)electeds, community activists, and the like, are all scurrying to touch the hem of Margarita’s robes. Over the last four years, I have seen many a campaign flyer, where candidates professed to having been part of this reform fight and then claiming some attachment to the resurging insurgency movement. What a bunch of liars! I know, because I was there. So to counteract revisionist history, let me drop a few things on you.

When Desmond Greene’s 1996 challenge was envisioned, the idea was to put as many candidates “up and down ballot” as possible-all attached to him- in order to generate more activity in the lower races, and as such spur higher voter turnout. This was not an original concept. I had seen it tried before in 1986, 1988 and again in 1994. The object is to have the lead candidate placed on as many nominating petitions as you could, so that he/she would end up with an overflow of signatures from all over the jurisdiction. The aim of course was to withstand the inevitable court challenges, from the county lawyers who are really political hacks (like Tish James was, for example). In unity there is strength. When all these candidacies are united, it makes it a bit easier to withstand the county juggernaut. It makes it a lil more comforting, knowing that you are not alone.

So a team of candidates was assembled to support Greene’s effort. There were people like Robert Hunter, James Davis, Richard Taylor, Reginald Bowman, Numan Subree, Bill Philpotts, Maureen Outcault, Abel Rosario, Sheila Foster-Wai, Joan Gill, and others. The challenges stretched from Fort Greene to East New York, including Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville and East-Flatbush. It also supported (in solidarity) the challenges of Ken Evans and John Sampson in the Carnarsie area; and also the efforts of James Connolly and Leolin Schliffer, in Midwood/ Kensington. Not a bad year as insurgent-challenges goes. The omnibus-petition sheets were colorful to say the least.

The problem for Greene that year was simply this: Clarence Norman and the county machine were supporting Michael Feinberg (“birds of a feather?”) and today we know why. Surrogate positions are a 14-year term, and that’s a long time for looters to operate. Clarence had lined up all the black elected officials in support of this enterprise. The hope was probably to line some pockets too. The last thing they wanted was a black Caribbean-American in the race, to upset their best laid plans. After all, Tony Genovese was running Lila Gold for the same seat, and Tony was to politics what H. Jerkens is to horseracing: giant-killers. Back in those days, Tony’s Jefferson Club wasn’t one to sneeze at whenever they ran a candidate. Clarence and company ( which included Carl Andrews who managed Fienberg’s campaign), were taking no chances; so Desmond Greene and his homeboys and homegirls were in court before petitions were even submitted to the Board if Elections.

Let me digress slightly. The concept of “omnibus-candidacies” is an old one. The object is to pool limited resources in order to be more viable. When left alone, insurgents are usually undermanned/ understaffed, and eventually outspent. In Brooklyn on election night, it is not unusual to find insurgents whipped and beaten like runaway-slaves.

I have been in campaigns where the light and phone-bills weren’t paid in a timely manner, and people were functioning in the semi-dark, without telephones (long before cell-phones of the contemporary era). Back in those days mailings were done “in-house”. Mailing-houses were for the rich and famous. Those were the days when people volunteered their time to campaigns. People licked envelopes and stamps before taking another licking later. Nowadays everyone wants to get paid. So yes, we had to put this “team-thing” together in 1996, even though rumors were that Desmond’s daddy had deep pockets, and probably could have isolated his son’s candidacy if needed.

To make a long story short, let me just say that the motley crew of insurgents that we assembled that year, were tied up in court until a week or so before the primary (the one where many machines never showed up / another time with that story), and many of them –including Greene-were eventually knocked off the ballot. Only the Federal Courts provided a lil relief to some of the others.

Greene eventually succeeded in winning a Court seat recently, after at least half-dozen tries. So you see, sometimes tenacity is rewarded in this game. Word is that he will attempt a run for Supreme Court soon. I will support him in a heart beat. Of the other insurgents that year, only James Davis (deceased) eventually got elected (District leader and City Council-member). The others are now languishing in the garbage–pile of history. Their stories make good conversation at political fundraisers; their anecdotes add color to any event. The miseries of Brooklyn’s black-insurgents however, are also piled in heaps. Clarence knows this. So fast-forward to 2002.

When the whole Lopez-Torres “thing” hit the grapevines in 2002, one of my mentors (Maurice Gumbs) was temporarily riding shotgun for James O’Hara (we all know him). They made an interesting odd-couple. They are so different. I like John. He is fun. I love “Big Mo” like a brother. Fact is, Gumbs has been something of an “older–brother” to me for over 32 years. We were born in the same country (Trinidad), we even attended the same high school, after winning a similar government scholarship. Maurice however, is serious like a heart-attack, especially when politics is involved. He does possess a sense of humor, but not when it’s about Brooklyn politics.

That year, they were putting together another insurgency challenge, with Wellington Sharpe and Sandra Roper as lead candidates. There were some judges involved (McCall/ another), and also some technicians, community-activists and lawyers. Gumbs happened to have been a teacher when Margarita was in high school. He was one of many who had inspired her to public service. He was high on her candidacy. He was very excited, especially for a man who operates like “Cool-Hand Luke”. He did positive things for her that even today she probably doesn’t know. He spent a lot of money out of his pockets trying to facilitate things. I doubt he got back the sums he expended on all the lunches, dinners, cab fares, etc., for people coming through that Nostrand Avenue campaign office, claiming they wanted to help. People are so full of shit sometimes. In this game they break your heart over and over.

In the middle of the petition process, I was recruited to run for a District Leader position (outside my normal district), in order to help the ticket. My candidacy was created in order to help increase the number of petition-signers coming out of the Flatbush/Midwood/East Flatbush areas. One of my many tasks was to develop voter-contact for the overall ticket. I recruited Earlene King, who was already circulating petitions.

Maurice had built a network of candidates stretching all the way to Coney Island. There was a lot of support for Maurice’s outpost. Haitian-American activists like Yvon Alexis were part of this effort. Muslims like Abdur Farrakhan, educators like Stanley Kinnard, and other candidates like Zachary Lareche, Colin Moore, Kenneth Evans, Rev. Blumfeld, and others still. Technicians also supported the effort. People like David and Karen Miller showed up. Attorney Ed. Roberts was also recruited to run for the leadership against Clarence Norman. There was a lot of energy that year in the insurgent-camps.

When the filings came, Earlene and I submitted/ contributed around two thousand signatures to the Lopez-Torres effort. Unfortunately, that was the year that the term “District Leader” failed to withstand the court-challenges; many candidates went down for the count in the Brooklyn courts. After all the blood was spilt, Margarita was on the ballot and looking good. The rest is history.

So whenever someone claims to have been around Margarita’s initial challenge, be sure to ask how, why, when and whereabouts, cause if you don’t, you will probably get snookered by those trying to hang on to her multi-colored coattails. There are many liars in Brooklyn’s politics, don’t let them fool you again, before you vote. Margarita may have won two battles, but a bigger war is still taking place.

Stay tuned.