Mayor's Race: Brownsville Voters Waiting, Watching, Wary

Photo by: Adi Talwar
Joe Petty says he usually waits until the last week before the election to pick his candidate, and this year is no different.

Many residents say they'll vote, but won’t pick a candidate until September. They're skeptical of promises, concerned about character and doubtful that identity politics will carry Primary Day.

By: Jarrett Murphy

This article is an installment in The Five Borough Ballot, a collaboration between City Limits, City & State and WNET's MetroFocus. In each edition of the print and video series, we return to a location in each of the five boroughs to ask real New Yorkers their take on the 2013 election as it unfolds. For a complete overview of the series, go here

Brownsville came home last Friday to a broad, sunny stretch of Linden Boulevard between the local recreation center and the railyards. The annual Reunion Night, celebrating its 50th year, brought former neighborhood residents from as near as Queens or Harlem and as far as Virginia, Florida and Texas. There was a fish fry, and music by acts like Harold Melvin's Blue Notes. Linden Boulevard was ceremonially re-named for Greg "Jocko" Jackson, a beloved community leader who died last year.

And unsurprisingly—with a good crowd on hand and only 46 days to go until the primary election—local politics made an appearance as well. District Attorney Charles Hynes worked the dinner line as his opponent, Ken Thompson, arrived to do the same. Friendly teenagers sought names and numbers of potential volunteers for Bill Thompson's mayoral campaign.

In the line for dinner, which snaked slowly but patiently around the side of the rec center, some residents said the mayor's race wasn't on their mind. "I can't give any information about that," one woman in her 30s, who declined to give her name, said politely. "I don't know who's running now."

Shaundel, a 35-year-old father of four, said he couldn't vote because he's "in the [criminal justice] system," but made it clear that even if he could, he wasn't sure that the ballot box is what matters. Shaking his head at a few people trying to cut into the dinner line, he said, "When we start caring about each other, something will change."

But Joe Petty, wearing a broad smile and a biker jacket, said that while he was undecided about whom he'd support—he usually doesn't choose until the final week before an election—he was sure he would vote.

"I always vote," said Petty, for whom public safety issues loom large. "I just look to anyone who leans that way—quality of life, holding it together. Then I make my choice."

An unscientific sampling of the crowd on reunion night found Petty's position to be the most common: committed to voting, but not yet to a candidate.

"When September comes," said Ann Murrell, seated in a lawn chair eyeing campaign literature as she waited for the music to start, "then I'll make up my mind."

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Some of those who'd traveled from different states said reunion night was an event they attended every single year. In the middle of the action, lashed to a ballfield fence, were pictures of Brownsville back in the day—not the 1920s, when it was a hotbed of Jewish socialism, but the 1960s, when black-owned businesses like Ebony Sporting Goods and Floogie's bar anchored the neighborhood.

"Nobody came to Brownsville unless you were invited," James "Mo" Johnson recalled, pointed with pride to photos of local guys whose toughness, he says, was legendary. But as cold as Brownsville was to outsiders, within the neighborhood, blacks, Jews, Irish and Italians intersected as family. "Racism was probably there, but we didn't know it," Johnson insisted.

Nearby, Jackie Trevino sold T-shirts denouncing racial profiling. Between sales, Trevino said she plans to vote ("I vote every year.") but is undecided. She evaluates candidates based on what they say they will do, not what they have or haven't done. "They can have negative things about them, it don't matter to me."

She even has praise for Bloomberg. "He's pretty cool, I think," she says. While she does feel he "gets in people's business," she notes: "The city is calm."

Pro-Bloomberg sentiment is rare in Brownsville, where only 15 percent of voters supported the mayor in 2009. Bill Thompson took 84 percent of that year's vote, roughly in line with the district's 82 percent Democratic registration.

In 2013, Thompson's ability to capture a majority of the black vote will be tested in places like Brownsville. Pundits insist the former comptroller, who has amassed a solid string of endorsements, will eventually benefit from identity politics. But polls show Thompson more or less splitting the black vote with former Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The latest Marist survey also shows that black voters feel much more strongly about their preferred candidate than other groups, with 50 percent of blacks saying they "strongly support" their pick, compared to 41 percent of Latinos and only 31 percent of whites.

Over the past six months, no one interviewed for this series in Brownsville—which is 75 percent black, the highest proportion of any community board in the city—has expressed any more enthusiasm about Thompson than about any other candidate.

"Does it make a difference?" said Brother Ceville, eyeing reunion night through sunglasses, repeating a reporter's question about whether race will matter in the voting booth. "Yes and no," answered the 58-year Brownsville resident. Speaking not about Thompson, but generally, he added: "Because you have some people who look like me who don’t care about our people. You feel me? If you're talking it but you ain't walking it, what's it mean?"

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Denise Williams, who has lived at the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville for 30 years, agreed with Ceville. Reached by phone, she said her neighbors aren't going to vote for Thompson because he's black. "I don't think race has anything to do with it," she concluded.

Her personal feeling on Thompson? "He's OK," is all Williams would say. She's not made up her mind who to vote for, but won't publicize her choice even when she has made one. It's not unusual for her to be undecided this late in the game, she noted. "I like to hear everything and see what each candidate offers."

(However, one candidate she's decided she won' t be voting for is Weiner. Citing the need for a mayor to be a role model, she said: "One time is fine, but I mean, come on." Asked why she thinks polls show Weiner with substantial support in the black community, Williams said, "I guess he's open. And he's not afraid to tell what he did, to apologize." But in the end, she believes, "I don't think they'll vote for him.")

Turnout in the 55th Assembly District, which includes Brownsville, was 21 percent in the 2009 general mayoral election, below the 29 percent citywide turnout. Williams insisted that her neighbors are tuned in to this year's race. "Of course. Yes, yes. We vote out here. They do turn out." There might be little buzz in late July, but come 4:30 p.m. on Primary Day, she promised, the voting site at the Van Dyke Senior Center will be jammed.

Williams has been involved in efforts by East Brooklyn Congregations to elevate the needs of NYCHA residents—who comprise a city within New York City of some 500,000 people—in the mayoral race.

"I hope that whoever becomes the next mayor does the right thing in terms of using that money they have for repairs," Williams said. Her refrigerator is broken and the electrical system struggles to feed appliances on hot days. "The grounds used to be kept. Now there's garbage and everything. The elevators—we have urine in them, and garbage." Until a recent repair, she added, "When it rained heavily, it rained in the elevator." She likes the fact that four of the mayoral candidates (Thompson, Weiner, Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio) recently spent a night at NYCHA's Lincoln Houses "because they can see what it's like to live in NYCHA housing. Maybe they'd see roaches. Maybe they'd hear gunshots."

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Beyond addressing NYCHA's needs, Williams is evaluating the mayoral hopefuls with an emphasis on the person more than policy. "Their character," she said. "As long as they're a family man. Their religion. As long as they're going to be for the people and not for themselves." What can the next mayor do to help Brownsville? "What the people are asking for," Williams said. "They need to come out here and look and see."

At reunion night, some voters had more specific ideas. Stephen Taylor, a registered independent, young people desperately need employment options—and not just so kids have money in their pockets." We've got to get them into the mainstream of thinking, of language," he said. "This community has been so alienated. Unless we do something to let people—literally—communicate," he sees little chance for progress.

For his part, Ceville is looking to hear language on the campaign trail that includes people like him. "I always hear people talk about the middle class, never about the poor," he said. For Brownsville, he added, "We need programs other than basketball and football. Classes for the family, to teach them to love themselves."