Replacing Al Vann: the Race in Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights

This election will see significant change in Bed-Stuyvesant, where Al Vann has been in one office or another for over 40 years, most recently as Council Member for the 36th CD.

CM Vann was at one time the lion of black politics in New York, and there were high hopes for him when he entered the Assembly in the mid 1970s.   Known for a time in Brooklyn as “the Mwalimu” (“great teacher” in Swahili), Vann was the moving force behind a landmark 1982 Federal case that led to the expansion of minority representation in New York at the state and federal levels. 

Since that time, however, Al Vann has become a classic career politician, content to go along with the status quo.  In 2001 he switched places with Annette Robinson and moved to the Council, and his time there has been practically somnambulistic.  Voting to extend terms limits in 2009, Vann faced a vigorous primary battle that year, but he won his third term with less than 30% of the vote. 

Legislatively, Vann did demonstrate a return to form in 2010 when he pushed a bill restricting the sale of tax liens, a concern of his dating back to at least the early 1980s.  But basically he has been asleep at the wheel while his community has stagnated.  A measure of his inactivity is the fact that after twelve years in the Council, CM Vann wound up chairing the Committee on Community Development.  Senior Council Members typically jockey for powerful committee chairs, where they can help steer important legislation and run oversight hearings.  Community Development oversees no City agencies and in this current 4-year session has had two bills referred to it.

There are four serious candidates vying for Vann’s seat this year, and befitting their place in the City of Churches, each of them is either a minister himself, or the son of a minister.

District Leader Robert Cornegy Jr. is Al Vann’s chosen successor.  Son of a minister, the almost 7-foot tall Cornegy had a brief and unspectacular pro-basketball career and ran against Vann in 2009, endorsing him in the general after losing in the primary.  Cornegy then joined the Vann-controlled Vanguard Independent Democratic Association and succeeded him as president of the club in 2012.  

His official bio is sketchy on his experience, but in the last few years Cornegy has been working as a legislative analyst for the Council.  It is not a big stretch to imagine his rabbi, Vann, thinking the job would look good on Cornegy's resume and familiarize him with the not-quite Byzantine workings of 250 Broadway.  Cornegy is the favorite candidate of the Major Owens-Yvette Clarke faction of the Brooklyn Dems, and will surely offer a formidable fight.

Kirsten Foy, former de Blasio staffer, is the favorite of the unions and the “progressive” side of the Democratic Party.  Foy won a great deal of press attention and street credibility when he and Council Member Jumaane Williams were detained following a scuffle with police at the 2011 West Indian Day Parade.  He has since filed suit against the NYPD for injuries he sustained after he supposedly entered a “frozen zone” and was tripped and manhandled by the police.

Foy has a long history of organizing against police brutality and for economic justice in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.  He worked with Al Sharpton and honed his rhetorical chops as a spokesman for the National Action Network.  Foy worked for the de Blasio campaign for Public Advocate and was awarded with posts as head of Intergovernmental and Community Affairs.

At some point in the recent past Kirsten Foy, perhaps on the advice of his mentor the Rev. Sharpton, became a “licensed Pentecostal minister.”  I looked into what it takes to achieve such licensure, and it appears to vary, but typically involves submitting a questionnaire and a check to the licensing authority.  Well, just remember, Napoleon was self-anointed Emperor of France after all.

Reverend Robert Waterman is the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church and the owner of Canticles Lounge, which is an alcohol-free Christian nightclub/cabaret.  Rev. Waterman has raised a significant amount of money, most of it apparently from his parishioners.  Unlike his main opponents Rev. Waterman does not seem to have much support outside the district, but when turnout is only 6000 voters, it is hard to predict what could happen.

Our last subject in the race for the 36th Council District seat is the Rev. Conrad Tillard, formerly known as Conrad Muhammad, formerly known as Conrad X.  Reverend Tillard first came to public attention as the chief youth minister of the Nation of Islam, and then the minister of Harlem’s famed Mosque No. 7, the former seat of Malcolm X.  Reverend Tillard made some conventionally controversial remarks against white devils and Jewish slave masters, etc. from that esteemed perch, was later stripped of his ministry under a cloud of suspicion, and then underwent a second Damascene moment when he left the NOI and returned to the faith of his fathers, receiving baptism by the Reverend Calvin Butts.

I suppose in another place we could speculate at length about the Rev. Tillard’s search among famous spiritual leaders for a father figure to take the place of the jazz musician who deserted his family when Conrad was young…but who cares really?  In 2002 Tillard weighed a run for Congress as a Republican against Charles Rangel, but he never got on the ballot.  Today Rev. Tillard has a pulpit in Brooklyn and is, along with Elizabeth Wurtzel, facing a lawsuit from Penguin Books for failure to deliver after receiving a substantial advance for his memoir.

In closing, based on recent pictures of Rev. Tillard, we can say that, though you may take the man out of the Nation of Islam,  you can’t take the bowtie off the man.