Stepping out the door of his Nostrand Avenue campaign office on Tuesday, state Sen. Carl Andrews took a minute to express pride in the diverse coalition backing his congressional bid.
“Who else can bring together Eliot Spitzer on the left and Dov Hikind on the right, and Tom Duane on the left and Rhoda Jacobs on the right, and David Dinkins on the left and Carl Kruger on the right?” asked Andrews as he stepped out into a light drizzle.
He ticked off a few more current and former elected officials as he embarked for a morning of campaigning in the hottest race in town, the Democratic primary for the open 11th Congressional District seat, which has attracted national attention as a well-funded white candidate is challenging three African Americans for a seat rich in symbolism.
Andrews, who turns 50 a few days before the election, has a long history of ties to the district, having grown up in Crown Heights, where he says was inspired by Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first person elected to the seat when it was created in 1965. He also worked for Rep. Major Owens, whose retirement after 24 years created the vacancy. The Medgar Evers College graduate has served on his local community school board and as well as a Democratic state committee member in his district.
Ninety-nine percent of his Senate district is within the congressional district, which is 58 percent black. But Andrews might need all the help he can get from his broad coalition of supporters to broaden his base outside Crown Heights and stand out from the other three candidates in the race.
The support of the AFL-CIO may boost turnout of his supporters, and the backing in particular of Spitzer — the attorney general and frontrunner for governor — may serve him well in the Jewish community. Andrews was director of intergovernmental relations or Spitzer until his election to the Senate in 2002.
“He has a good working relationship with the Jewish community and his access to Eliot Spitzer is another attraction for members of the Jewish communal leadership,” says political consultant Ezra Friedlander.
But it’s another affiliation that keeps dogging Andrews in this election: His close ties to former Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the ex-chairman of the Kings County Democratic organization who was convicted for violating election law.
Known to be close friend of Norman, Andrews admitted in an interview with The Village Voice that the party chief helped get him on the payroll of the state Senate in the minority leader’s office in the ‘90s, and although he is not a lawyer, he has been awarded more than $137,000 by Brooklyn judges in receivership fees for securing assets for creditors in mortgage foreclosures. Andrews held a series of positions with Brooklyn elected officials until 2002, when he ran with Norman’s backing for the vacant senate seat of Marty Markowitz, who was elected borough president.
The relationship has dominated the race to such an extent that Andrews has grown accustomed to saying “My name is Carl Andrews, not Clarence Norman.”
In an interview Tuesday, Andrews insists the voters aren’t interested. “When I do subways, knock on doors and visit senior citizens and go to church, the only thing I hear about is where’s the victory party, how’s your sister, I remember you when you were a little boy and all that,” said Andrews. “People know that I’ve been living and working in this district all my life and that my name is Carl Andrews. Clarence Norman is Clarence Norman. They know the difference.”
Of the cloud hanging over the Brooklyn Democratic machine after Norman, Andrews says, “they have a suspect reputation, but in time and under evaluation people will come to their own conclusion about the level of corruption. Like most companies and political organizations there are high points and low points.”
Andrews has served for the last four years in the minority party of the Senate, where Democrats can’t get much done legislatively. But he presents that experience as an asset.
“If the Democrats don’t take back the House in this election, I have had four years of experience fighting the Republicans and being able to bring results to my district in that capacity,” he says. “Hopefully I’ll be able to do that when I go to Washington.”
The larger issue looming over the primary has been race, and whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which led to the creation of the 11th District, was intended to guarantee a black representative. The candidates include three African Americans — Andrews, Councilwoman Yvette D. Clarke and Owens’s son, Chris Owens — and Councilman David Yassky, who moved his home a few blocks on the same street in order to live in the district. Yassky picked up the valuable endorsement of The New York Times Wednesday.
Andrews has not argued that Yassky shouldn’t represent the district.
“From the very beginning I have said that David Yassky has every right to run,” he said. “There are other issues that people in this district and others around the state should look at.” He notes that Markowitz, who is also white and Jewish, long represented the heavily black neighborhoods Andrews now serves. “People are not uncomfortable voting for people who are not of the majority race of the district,” he says.
When campaigning among Jews, Andrews says he most often hears about the need for more affordable housing and high education costs.
“I don’t support vouchers at the moment because I feel we should make sure we strengthen our public schools and don’t take away resources,” says Andrews, who is endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers — ardent foes of private school tuition vouchers. “I’m more in favor of the approach we took in the Assembly, tax credits for everyone who has children.”
On the subject of Israel, Andrews, who made his first visit there about 18 months ago, said he approves of the Bush administration’s handling of the Middle East. While he would like to see more diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, he said the time did not appear to be right to press for more talks.
“If you have a situation where both countries feel the existence of each other is proper, then you have the basic grounds to establish [talks],” he said. “It’s hard to sit down with someone who doesn’t believe you have a right to exist … The Palestinians have to understand and the Hamas government has to understand that Israel has a right to exist.”
While opposing the Iraq war, Andrews said it was unrealistic to expect a quick timetable for bringing the U.S. troops home.
“It took two years to get to the maximum military strength, it should take us two years or less to withdraw those same troops,” he said.
After an interview Andrews, with his Orthodox campaign aide Michael Cohen, heads for Midwood’s Avenue J shopping strip to campaign with Dov Hikind, the Orthodox assemblyman who represents Borough Park and part of Flatbush.
Comfortably exchanging banter, Hikind and Andrews appear to have a friendship honed over many years. Andrews, however, says he’s not enthusiastic about a recent idea by Hikind to allow law enforcement officers to use racial or ethnic profiling in security screenings.
“Having been profiled myself on several occasions, I’m one that is not ready to use that as the main instrument of protecting ourselves. I wouldn’t think it’s something we need to legislate,” says Andrews, who recalled being pulled over by a highway patrolman on his way home from Albany. Due to an error, his state-government license plate was mistaken for one that was reported stolen, and the matter was quickly cleared up.
“But you have to wonder why, of all the cars on the highway that night, you would just roll up behind me and punch my license plate into your computer,” he says.
On Avenue J, it’s pouring, but that doesn’t stop Hikind and Andrews from popping into shops and restaurants to talk to mostly Orthodox voters.
When an Orthodox woman extends her hand to be courteous, contrary to strict custom, he holds his own up in the air. “I don’t want to get in trouble,” he jokes.
Later, he reminds another voter “I’m not running against Joe Lieberman,” before explaining, “You know Major Owens? I’ll be replacing him.”
When Andrews and Hikind sit down for coffee at Jerusalem II Pizza, Hikind extols the virtues of Andrews not making an issue of Yassky’s race.
“The most important issue is to have someone you feel comfortable with,” says Hikind. “He’s been a part of the Crown Heights community all his life. He’s been the official Shabbos goy for a lot of people. He’s someone you can talk to and relate to.”
True to Andrews’ assertions, the name of Clarence Norman never comes up in half an hour of campaigning and numerous conversations with voters. But many of them aren’t up to speed on the race and who the candidates are.
When asked if she’ll vote for Andrews, one woman said her family had to study the issues.“We’ll do our due diligence,” she said.