Upstart Could Bring Hip-Hop To The Hill

Kevin Powell seeks to channel that Obama youth energy into a victory in Brooklyn's 10th District over incumbent Congressman Edolphus Towns.

By: Curtis Stephen

It’s just after 11 a.m. on a hazy Memorial Day in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Outside Tillie’s of Brooklyn, a trendy café near the corner of DeKalb and Vanderbilt avenues, a multiracial group of a dozen young men and women arrange themselves in a semicircle to be briefed on their itinerary for the afternoon.

Standing before them is the author and activist Kevin Powell, 42, who holds up a voter registration card. "You all have a working knowledge of local politics," Powell says. "You’re gonna hear people say, 'I don’t think my vote matters,' but you gotta have a quick response." Soon after, the lively group splits up and veers into different directions, hauling campaign literature, voter registration materials and bottles of water.

The plan is to canvass local parks and outdoor barbecues throughout Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant for the next several hours, as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual outdoor festival, DanceAfrica. While striding briskly along Clermont Avenue wearing a brown suit, sans tie, Powell is joined by a bodyguard, a cameraperson, a videographer, and three young volunteers, one of whom deliberately lags behind with a bullhorn. As the words "Kevin Powell for Congress" – though the prospective candidate prefers the slogan KP4C ("I’m a hip-hop head," he says) – pierces through the neighborhood’s quiet air, the campaign takes its first step in what some political observers contend will be a heavily-watched contest this summer.

For Powell, the Sept. 9 primary marks a fresh chance to challenge 13-term incumbent congressman Edolphus Towns, 73, for the Democratic nomination in the 10th House of Representatives district, which includes parts of Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene along with East New York and Canarsie. In 2006, the district’s Democratic congressional primary garnered headlines with a fiercely competitive race in which Rep. Towns fended off insurgent campaigns from City Councilman Charles Barron, a Democrat representing East New York, and Assemblyman Roger Green, who left his seat representing Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in the aftermath of a 2004 conviction on petty larceny charges to focus on the unsuccessful Congressional effort. Powell threw his hat into that race as well, but pulled out after realizing his campaign wasn't quite cranked up enough to win a seat in Congress.

Now Powell is Towns’ only declared challenger, capturing instant attention when he announced his entrance into the race April 27. In the midst of a historic presidential election in which U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign has effectively mobilized a new base of young voters, political scientists wonder whether the 18- to 35-year-old demographic in the city’s electorate also can be stirred by candidates who directly engage them.

This is one local race where that possibility will be played out. "Kevin Powell sort of has that Obama mystique with a vibe that makes him interesting to a lot of people in that district," says Jose Sanchez, chairman of urban studies at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus. "But Towns has been in Congress for a long time and has already achieved a certain kind of leadership. Whatever revolution that Powell is trying to represent has to be even more progressive than what Towns already offers."

From pop culture to politics

With no prior experience in public office, Powell relishes his role as a political outsider. It’s ironic, given that just a few years ago the New Jersey native was a consummate insider in a far different arena – the music industry. Powell first rose to prominence in 1992 when he appeared on the first season of the MTV series "The Real World."

The first season was filmed in Manhattan, and Powell lived with a diverse group of six other 20-somethings inside a SoHo loft and instantly became one of the most notorious cast members in the show’s history for his intense outbursts and arguments over race. Yet for Powell, the image of the brooding, angst-ridden young black man with the hi-top fade that the show captured has served as a double-edged sword. "Even today, a lot of people say, 'I only thought of you as that Real World guy – I didn’t know you could talk.' That’s funny," he says with a laugh. "That’s the nature of American society where people can only see fragments of your life."

By 1993, Powell was a senior writer at Vibe Magazine, where he wrote critically-acclaimed essays and interviewed everyone from General Colin Powell (no relation) to hip-hop notables Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Yet no subject proved more of a challenge for him to chronicle than the turbulent life and times of Tupac Shakur. In fact, the influential rapper, who was shot and killed in 1996, was so impressed by Powell’s articles about him that one year before his death, Shakur personally summoned the budding journalist to Rikers Island for an exclusive jailhouse interview. "If I get killed, I want people to get every drop. I want them to have the real story," Shakur famously told Powell in that session.

But Powell’s flourishing career came to a crashing halt in 1996 when he was fired after a verbal and physical confrontation with several staff members at Vibe. "That was very painful at the time," says Powell, who writes in one of his books that he had contemplated suicide. "But it was the best thing to happen to me because it started my journey back to the activities I engaged in as a student activist at Rutgers." In fact, he'd been expelled from Rutgers too for pulling a knife on a fellow student. But in the 1980s, Powell joined Lisa Williamson, who later gained fame as the rapper and author Sister Souljah, along with a group of fellow Rutgers students in launching a series of campaigns protesting against apartheid in South Africa and a string of bias attacks in the New York City area. More recently, Powell has worked as an organizer on a range of community-based initiatives nationwide, from conferences on hip-hop activism and mental wellness to Katrina On The Ground, a nonprofit group that dispatched some 700 college students to help relief organizations throughout the Gulf region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As he traveled around the country in support of those causes over the past decade, Powell was not only rediscovering his activism, but was contemplating a future in politics. "Being in places like Indiana, New Orleans, South Dakota, and New Hampshire really brought me back to what I always felt was my true calling as a public servant," he says. But the decision to run for Congress did not come easily. "I was terrified about stepping out there as a leader because I didn’t forget what happened to Sister Souljah," recalls Powell on the withering criticism she received during the 1992 presidential race over comments she made about that year’s violent racial disturbance in Los Angeles. "But I always prided myself on being a leader and it just felt right to make that move."
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Then in 2006, Powell entered the highly-charged primary race against Towns, but soon dropped out. "I don’t regret doing it, but it was a mistake," he reflects. "I underestimated how much working on Katrina relief drained me. You shouldn’t run for office if you don’t have the money or the proper infrastructure in place." As detrimental to a campaign that had barely gotten underway was a March 2006 column by New York Daily News writer Errol Louis that assailed Powell for his history of violent incidents. "I’ve always been honest about it," says Powell, who wrote about several altercations in outlets like Essence magazine and his 2003 book, "Who’s Gonna Take The Weight: Manhood, Race and Power In America."

"But that story in the Daily News applied what happened in the past, to the present, when that is completely inaccurate. No one would have known about my past as a fatherless child, as someone who experienced abuse and grew up to become violent toward males and females, if I hadn’t been talking about it." Asked whether his opinion had changed at all, Louis said this week that it hadn't – adding that he thinks Powell has a "propensity for violence" that makes him "unfit to serve."

Powell says that therapy, along with his Christian faith, has helped to stimulate both his current outlook and activism. "I’m an anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, pro-feminist male," he says. "I’d have never said that, much less believed it, fifteen years ago."

Today Powell, who is single, lives in a Fort Greene condo. He’s just as likely to be found riding his bicycle on the George Washington Bridge or playing basketball on a Brooklyn court as he would be on a CNN or MSNBC broadcast providing analysis on various sociopolitical issues. With a broad array of influences that span from Robert F. Kennedy to longtime writer friends bell hooks and poet Sonia Sanchez, Powell is a prolific writer and will publish his ninth book in September, "The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life." Having built a lucrative career as a public lecturer, Powell has toured nearly every state in the nation, where he has tweaked audiences with his progressive views on interpersonal relationships, the plight of young black men and the state of hip-hop. On the last topic, Powell makes a distinction between a culture that he proudly celebrates and an industry that he argues has lost its creative balance by promoting those artists whose music and images are steeped in violence and misogyny.
   
Yet as his candidacy receives the support of both the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats – a political club headed by Chris Owens, son of former U.S. Rep. Major Owens of Brooklyn – and the advocacy group Democracy for New York City, Powell is fully aware of the symbolism. If elected, he would become the first and the most identifiable member of the hip-hop generation ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. On national issues, both Powell and Towns oppose the war in Iraq and support a single-payer healthcare system. But while campaigning on Memorial Day, Powell told practically every resident he encountered about the catalyst for his candidacy: The incumbent’s "absent and ineffective advocacy" on a host of local needs. "What we need in Congress from this district, as we enter a new presidential administration and a new decade, is active leadership that deals with the concerns of regular working-class people," he says.

Chief among those concerns, Powell maintains, is Forest City Ratner’s $4 billion Atlantic Yards redevelopment project that has won Towns’ backing. "We still don’t know what is going to happen there," says Powell, who is skeptical about how many of the plan’s 6,430 rental apartment units will be retained for low- to moderate-income households in the future. "Building $300,000 condos on Flatbush and Myrtle doesn’t factor in people in the $20,000 to $30,000 annual salary bracket who are being priced out," he adds. He argues that future development projects in the borough should be more inclusive, citing the housing initiatives provided by the Park Slope-based Fifth Avenue Committee to lower-income folks in south Brooklyn.

Despite donations from celebrity pals, including actors Hill Harper (from the television show "CSI: NY") and Anthony Mackie (who starred in the Spike Lee movie "She Hate Me") and support from a coalition dubbed "Women For Kevin Powell," featuring everyone from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to former Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor, Powell sees his campaign as a grassroots effort.

As Powell launches an aggressive drive to register anywhere between 5,000 to 10,000 first-time voters between now and August 15, he’s decided to focus on a demographic that political pundits have long considered to be an elusive voting bloc – younger voters. "Young people haven’t been politically active because no one has been talking to them,” explains Erica Perkins, who serves as Powell’s campaign manager. "Now we’re at a point where we can leverage modern technology and build a new base."

In that effort, Powell’s campaign embraces an Internet-savvy and youth-friendly strategy that includes MySpace and Facebook pages, and of course a website, plus music CDs titled "Powell For The People," intended to blanket the district this summer and spotlight his speeches blended with politically-themed hip-hop songs. "We realize that we need these new voters to win this seat," explains Powell. "But violence and AIDS is out of control in Brooklyn. This isn’t about me. Whatever happens in this campaign, we need to start engaging young people because the future of this borough, this city and this nation rests on their shoulders."

Seniority matters

Congressman Towns – with whom an interview could not be secured, despite multiple requests – maintains that his district still needs him. November's prospect of either electing a Democrat to the White House, or of producing a larger Democratic majority in Congress, makes his re-election vital, says the campaign. Supporters of Towns, who is New York’s second-longest-serving incumbent in the House (after Rep. Charles Rangel, the Harlem Democrat) and has the backing of both the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a Brooklyn-based political club, and local City Councilwoman Leticia James, also tout his legislative support in the fight to preserve affordable housing in Starrett City.

But critics charge that Towns has become increasingly disconnected in recent years from the constituents he has represented since 1983, citing everything from his apparent failure to follow through on a once-promised effort to help enact a federal empowerment zone for the borough, to his endorsement of U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary in a district that heavily favors Obama. "Two years ago, there was already a great deal of dissatisfaction" with Towns, says former Assemblyman Green, who now teaches education policy at Medgar Evers College and plans to withhold his endorsement until the petition signing process concludes July 10. "I don’t think that he’s made up any ground toward improving his relations with the overall community."

In 1998, Towns withstood a strong primary challenge from attorney Barry Ford. Yet no race proved more taxing to Rep. Towns than the last one, in 2006. Garnering 19,469 votes in that primary, Towns eventually went on to victory in the general election. But it was the surprise showing made by Councilman Barron, who received 15,345 votes in that primary (and is now running for Brooklyn borough president) that makes Towns seem more vulnerable in his upcoming contest with Powell. “We ran an historic race and would have won if Roger Green wasn’t thrown in there to offset some of the anti-Towns votes that would have gone to me,” Barron says of the more than 6,000 votes Green received. "I’m supporting Kevin Powell 1,000 percent. He represents change even more than Barack Obama because he's even more progressive and has a whole crew of young people. Ed’s been there for 25 years and has lost whatever fire in the belly that he had."

Aside from "change," however, the issue that could reverberate most in this campaign is affordable housing – not necessarily because it's a focus of Congress, but because it's a worry of so many New Yorkers. That was made clear in mid-May during the annual convention of the grassroots advocacy group Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), held in downtown Brooklyn. In an area experiencing rapid gentrification, concern about high-end development and its impact on low-income families was on the agenda for the nearly 200 group members and community residents who attended.

Elected officials fielding questions from the audience included Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Prospect Heights, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol from Williamsburg, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery of Fort Greene. Towns was slated to attend, but canceled, citing a scheduling conflict. His absence, which FUREE leaders told the assembled was par for the course for the past five conventions, elicited two separate rounds of loud boos. Then a Towns aide arrived just before the meeting concluded. FUREE board secretary Diana Smith summed up the concerns of many attendees, saying, "We’re seeing all those luxury buildings going up that people here can’t afford. Elderly and working-class people in public housing are being left out and forgotten."

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Government, Management and Procurement, which oversees federal agencies, Towns likes to remind constituents that he's well positioned to make sure his constituents are not forgotten. He underscored the point before more than 100 neighborhood residents who attended a town hall meeting that he organized along with fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke – whose central Brooklyn district abuts that of Towns – at Berean Missionary Baptist Church in Crown Heights on June 16. "Seniority makes a difference," Towns said at the meeting. “I thought it was the dumbest thing when I got [to Congress], but it makes sense now that I’ve been there awhile."

Prior to being elected to Congress in the early 1980s, Towns, a North Carolina native, worked as a New York City public school teacher and an administrator at Beth Israel Medical Center. After launching a new website and printing pamphlets for distribution in support of his re-election, he's now making the shift to campaign mode. In addition to the recent appearance with Clarke concerning affordable housing, Towns also hosted a predatory lending seminar in downtown Brooklyn.
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A new wheel in the Brooklyn machine?

Though housing issues could fuel the primary race, political observers note, the results – as usual – will hinge on the number of people each candidate can get to the polls on primary day. In 2006, 41,059 votes were counted in the 10th District primary. And while primaries traditionally draw far fewer voters than the general election, many experts predict a higher volume given the interest sparked by this year’s presidential election. "If Towns is able to keep his turnout high, then what Powell does won’t matter," says Jose Sanchez, the Long Island University political scientist. “But if Towns’ people lag behind because they think he’s a shoo-in, then Powell might be able to pull off a surprise with the young people, African-Americans and white urbanites that he’s mobilizing."

Long dominated by the once-powerful former State Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. – who received a prison sentence last April after being convicted on a slew of larceny charges – the political scene in the borough of Kings, and particularly in Central Brooklyn, is in a state of transition with the emergence of new players and spheres of influence. To some observers, the era of change bodes well for Powell. "Ed still enjoys a major advantage with the people who are used to voting for him and that includes the political clubs,” says Basil Smikle, a political strategist who advised Powell in 2006 and is not affiliated with either candidate in the current primary race. “But those clubs are not as strong as they were 10 years ago. We’re seeing a generational shift in Brooklyn. What Kevin needs to do is knock on every single door and go after the people who have never been touched by the Brooklyn machine."

Other political hands think that no matter how many doors Powell knocks on, Towns' longevity and track record will win the day. "Notoriety and famous friends do not a Congressman make," says Kevin Wardally, a veteran advisor and senior vice president at Bill Lynch Associates, a Harlem-based political consulting firm which is affiliated with neither campaign. "Kevin should definitely pay his dues with the City Council or in the Assembly like everybody else. People want experience, and we’re going to see just how much in September when Ed wins by a convincing margin."

With his eyes set on a major star-studded fund-raising event in Manhattan on July 9, hosted by comedian Dave Chappelle, and having just opened his campaign’s office in a building on 54 Greene Avenue, which is also headquarters for the independent group Brooklyn For Barack, Powell – an early Obama supporter – hopes to duplicate the campaign apparatus that proved successful for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. In that effort, Powell has also recruited as finance director Arthur Leopold, a 20-year-old New York-based fundraiser for Obama, who previously worked on the campaigns of Assemblyman Jonathan Bing and City Councilman David Weprin, Democrats of Manhattan and Queens, respectively.

"A lot of people who wanted to support us were stuck in Obama-Clinton mode. With that part of the election settled, it leaves an opening for us to fundraise," reasons Powell, who reports having nearly $100,000 on hand and estimates that he needs anywhere between $300,000 to $400,000 for the primary race.

"We’re from a generation that uses technology in a way that Mr. Towns could never imagine, and that’s cool," says Powell.

"But I know where this race will ultimately be won, and that’s on the streets of Brooklyn."

- Curtis Stephen

This story has been corrected to reflect that Powell did not graduate from Rutgers, but rather was expelled. The date of the Dave Chappelle event and the location of DanceAfrica also have been corrected. We regret the errors.