Major Dilemma In Crown Heights

Major Dilemma In Crown Heights

A congressional race that is nearly two years away already is making waves in the Crown Heights Jewish community, as two of its political allies head for a 2000 showdown.

Rep. Major Owens, who has represented District 11 in central Brooklyn for 16 years, is likely to face a Democratic primary challenge next year from his former protege, Councilwoman Una Clarke. Both have been strong supporters of Jewish causes, leaving activists wondering whom to support, or in a third option, whether to run a Jewish candidate.

"It’s going to be a tough call," said Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the Crown Heights-based National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, who says he’s been approached by Clarke to discuss a congressional run. "Both these individuals from my perspective have a good performance record within the Jewish community."

The district is predominantly black, with an increasing Caribbean immigrant presence. But the Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Flatbush and parts of Park Slope, though comprising less than 20 percent of the electorate, are seen as a reliable voting bloc.

"Both Owens and Clarke are actively courting support in the Jewish community based on their past records," said the chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein.

Adds the former director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Rabbi Joseph Spielman: "The race would be interesting because Una Clarke has the interests of her community in mind."

Clarke, who was elected in 1990, will be forced by city term limits to leave the Council in 2001. Although she has yet to announce her candidacy, she was seen recently working the crowd at breakfasts sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush. At the latter Clarke told a reporter that she is known among the chasidic children of Crown Heights as "Morah Una" for her support of Jewish education and day care. Morah is Hebrew for teacher. Clarke is a former Head Start teacher and consultant for the Agency for Child Development.

Clarke also cited her efforts with Martin Begun, a former JCRC president, to preserve the Gibraltar Settlement on her native Jamaica, where Jews fled during the Holocaust. She is working with the University of the West Indies to organize a reunion of survivors, and would like to see an exhibit at New Yorkís Holocaust museum on the largely unknown settlement.

She said she has made no decision about a congressional run. "I have been approached by many people, but that certainly doesn’t mean it will happen," said Clarke. "There are many options and this is one of them."

But Owens said he was already viewing Clarke as his opponent. "She’s all but announced," he said. Asked if he felt compelled to defend his Jewish ties, Owens said, "You never take any constituency for granted. I’m not resting on my laurels."

Owens has not faced a serious challenge since his election in 1983. Last year he raised $151,000, but still outspent his opponent more than 10 to 1. But Owens believes Clarke may be his most formidable opponent yet. "This is someone with a record of representing much of the same district," he said.

A remote possibility is that a Jewish candidate would enter the fray, such as activist Devorah Halberstam. The wedding of Halberstam’s daughter in Crown Heights last week was attended by Democratic leaders such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Kings County Chairman Clarence Norman.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s approval rating is slipping among all the city’s ethnic groups, including Jews. He is down to 64 percent among Jews, according to the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, from 76 percent in 1997.

The drop was about the same among white Catholics, down 13 points from 84 to 71 percent. Among Latinos, Giuliani fell to 47 percent from 55. The largest decline was with blacks, from 34 to 18 percent.

A Quinnipiac College poll found similar Jewish numbers, with 61 percent approving of the mayor’s performance.

The good news for Giuliani is that he is edging ahead of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton among Jews in their still-hypothetical U.S. Senate match. A statewide New York Times/CBS poll gives Giuliani a six-point lead, 45 to 39 percent. The Quinnipiac poll showed the mayor with a more sizable advantage among Jews, 50-39 percent. The numbers represent a strong rise from February, when 63 percent of Jews supported the Democrat Clinton to only 36 percent for the Republican Giuliani in a Marist poll.

"The bloom is a little off the rose," said Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll of Clinton’s popularity. He noted, however, that the first lady still commands a double-digit lead in overall polls.

Jews continue to be a prime campaign constituency for the mayor. Two fund-raisers were scheduled this week at Jewish homes in Brooklyn and on Long Island, and another across the Hudson. Following an address to the Kushner Academy, a yeshiva in Livingston, N.J., Giuliani was to attend a reception at the real estate offices of founder Charles Kushner, who has hosted previous fund-raisers for the Clinton-Gore campaigns.

On Friday, Giuliani met with visiting former Israeli Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai at City Hall. Mordechai is the leader of the centrist Mercaz party and a candidate for prime minister.

Hillary Clinton’s view on Palestinian statehood was on the agenda last week when city Comptroller Alan Hevesi visited the White House, the latest New York Democrat to have his brain picked on local politics by the Senate hopeful.

"I spoke frankly to her, reflecting what I perceived to be the consensus of the Jewish community," said Hevesi.

When asked what he felt that consensus was, Hevesi amended his statement to say that he had relayed the position of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: that "there be no unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, and that the character of the Palestinian entity at the end of the peace process should be determined by negotiations between the parties."

As head of the B’nai Zion fraternal organization, Hevesi is a member of the Presidents Conference.

Of Clinton’s candidacy, the comptroller said he "came away with the impression that there is a 60-40 chance that she will run."

Sen. Charles Schumer and his political heir, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn/Queens), have hit some turbulence with American Airlines. The two fired off letters to CEO Donald Carty last week blasting the carrier’s granting of a frequent flier arrangement with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a charity "believed to be a fund-raising front for Hamas, the terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel."

According to Weiner, "the foundation is known to give monthly stipends to the families of Hamas suicide bombers." Weiner urged the airline to end its dealings with the foundation.

Carty responded in a letter to Schumer, obtained by The Jewish Week, that "we generally assume that an organization that receives tax-exempt status from the U.S. government and operates openly under our federal and state laws is one with whom we can properly do business."

However, he wrote from the airline’s corporate office in Dallas, the airline has sought the guidance of the Justice and Treasury departments on the matter.

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