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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Clyde Vanel is Challenging Leroy Comrie in Queens; CHANGE IS GOOD

A look at politics in Queens...file under those in power, stay in power.

Or, vote for Clyde Vanel. I endorse Mr. Vanel.

Dueling campaign signs above a Run-DMC mural symbolize the heated City Council race between Clyde Vanel and Leroy G. Comrie Jr., the Democratic incumbent, in Queens.

September 12, 2009
A Stirring in St. Albans
Running on Obama Fuel, Upstart Takes on the Old Guard in Queens


Clyde Vanel’s yard signs were surprisingly ubiquitous. His billboards were “in your face.” And his bus-shelter ads were “tacky, tacky, tacky.”

That was the buzz at the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club one night in August. Right outside the club, the headquarters of the local political power structure, Mr. Vanel’s face grinned out onto a busy street in southeast Queens and greeted Councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr.’s supporters as they filed in to plan their fight against Mr. Vanel, the upstart Democratic challenger.

“Takes a lot of heart,” said Richard Gibbs, a Comrie supporter and vice president of the United Black Men of Queens County, a civic group. He chuckled, adding, “Somebody’ll take a contract out on him if he keeps on going like that.”

Mr. Vanel, 35, said he knew the club would find the ads cheeky. Democratic Party leaders, he believed, viewed the very act of challenging their candidate as bad manners.

That is why Donnie Whitehead, the driving force behind Mr. Vanel’s campaign, says he is staking his reputation — built over decades as an unofficial neighborhood leader — on an inexperienced candidate he met just months ago. Traditionally, Mr. Whitehead says, just as the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, the only way into office in southeast Queens has been with the blessing of the Brewer club and the man who has run it for 39 years, the former councilman Archie Spigner.

“No more only getting elected through Archie,” Mr. Whitehead said.

Grass-roots campaigners like Mr. Whitehead helped Barack Obama break that barrier last year, giving him a decisive primary victory in southeast Queens, the heart of black middle-class New York, even though party leaders backed Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The local race — for the City Council seat representing a section of southeast Queens — tests a question that has tantalized Obama campaigners around the country: Can they use the momentum of 2008 to shift the balance of power in their hometowns?

To Brewer club veterans, loyalty is paramount, paying dues is required, and the club is the fabric of community. To them, Mr. Vanel — who is from the area but works as a lawyer in Manhattan — came out of nowhere. And recently, Mr. Vanel’s opponents have drawn attention to his past troubles: personal debts and allegations that he created a fraudulent job-placement company in 2005.

Mr. Comrie, a mild-mannered man, was shocked that Mr. Whitehead — who campaigned for him in 2001, whose community programs his office has financed, whose wife has tutored Mr. Comrie’s daughter — started running his opponent’s campaign without even a phone call.

Mr. Comrie delivers to District 27 a disproportionate share of city resources and says voters would be crazy to throw him out for a promise of new political openness that he does not believe is sincere.

“Donnie Whitehead is not to be trusted,” he said. “It’s not about engaging the Obama people. He wants to control things.”

Indeed, Mr. Comrie asserts that Mr. Whitehead sabotaged the club’s best chance to engage young people: The club joined with the Obama volunteers for the general election, but instead of encouraging his young allies to become members, Mr. Whitehead told them it stood for stagnation. Mr. Whitehead said they drew their own conclusions.

Mr. Whitehead, 63, does not deny he wants power — for people left out of politics.

“Democracy is like making a stew,” he said, sitting in his garage in St. Albans, refitted as a campaign headquarters. “It should be mixed in the community, not in the club.”

The Brewer club was once the upstart. In the 1950s, blacks flocked to southeast Queens’ spacious single-family homes. Founded in 1958, the club beat the white-dominated Democratic Party’s candidate in 1964 to elect Queens’ first black assemblyman. The courtly Mr. Spigner, a former bus driver, became district leader in 1970 and Queens’ first black councilman in 1974.

Now in their 80s, some pioneering district leaders are still in office. One leader, Dora Young, elected in 1974, makes six figures as deputy city clerk. Mr. Vanel likes to note that all his life, either Mr. Spigner, 81, or Mr. Spigner’s former chief of staff, Mr. Comrie, 51, has held the Council seat.

Now, the community is changing. The Brewer club has struggled to attract many young members and Latino, South Asian and Haitian arrivals.

Mr. Whitehead had long wanted to challenge the club, and decided in February to back Mr. Vanel’s campaign after his first choice dropped out. They are an unusual pair: The slender Mr. Vanel, part owner of the East Village restaurant Permanent Brunch, wears khaki suits and trolls Facebook for supporters. The portly Mr. Whitehead, a retired subway station manager, prefers books to the Internet and dresses up in a dashiki.

In March, Mr. Vanel introduced himself to a crowd in Mr. Whitehead’s basement. He is one of 10 children of Haitian immigrants, he told them, a porter and a taxi driver who, in an enthusiastic but ill-informed burst of patriotism, named him Kleindinst Clyde Vanel after Richard Kleindienst, the Watergate-era attorney general.

Mr. Comrie can run again, Mr. Vanel reminded the crowd, only because he and fellow council members voted to change the term limits law to allow the mayor — and themselves — to run for third terms, overriding two voter referendums.

“How is it, if you represent a district that is 70 percent African-American, that you can take away their right to vote?” Mr. Vanel said.

“Mmm hmm!” the crowd responded.

Mr. Vanel reasoned that if he attracted some of the district’s 8,400 new Democratic voters who first cast ballots in November, he could win. The last time Mr. Comrie faced a primary, in 2001, just 16,000 of the district’s 160,000 residents voted.

In the spring, 12 Vanel volunteers worked 14-hour days to deliver letters to all 52,000 district Democrats who voted in 2008. They collected signatures to get Mr. Vanel on the ballot and asked people to put up yard signs. The team included Obama volunteers like Yvonne Belizario, 27, and local Howard University students recruited on Facebook.

Hugh Byfield, 81, a neighbor who first urged Mr. Whitehead to back Mr. Obama, had never campaigned before the presidential race. Now, he knocked on doors in a velour sweat suit and Nascar baseball cap. One June afternoon, Ruth Champen opened her door, and in his pillowy voice Mr. Byfield persuaded her to sign a petition and donate $10.

Mr. Vanel was impressed. “We don’t just have the grass roots,” he said. “We have the grass seed!”

Stumping in the Summer

As summer began, a confident Mr. Comrie reminded people he was running. In Jamaica, he visited a new mosque run by Guyanese immigrants who wanted street lights placed nearby, where a worshiper had been mugged. Mr. Comrie said tasks like this drew him into public service. “I like to show people how government can help them,” he said.

Mr. Comrie raked in union endorsements. Though he had raised $260,000, he had few ads on the streets. He slowed spending as he neared expense limits on candidates who take public financing; the $193,000 he had spent included tens of thousands on a run for borough president that was aborted after the term limits change. But in speeches, he emphasized his effectiveness, rattling off statistics on aid he had brought to the elderly, foreclosure victims and laborers.

Mr. Vanel focused on door-to-door talks. He ended up raising $107,071 and had $67,633 left in late summer. He was often short on specifics; at one forum he was stumped when asked to list the district’s police commanders.

His response to detractors was that after nearly 40 years of the same leadership, schools and neighborhoods were still struggling. “If you think it’s all good, vote for them,” he said.

By August, Mr. Vanel’s bald image smiled out from nearly 2,000 signs on supporters’ lawns. At the Brewer club, there was new urgency, and an article in The New York Times on Mr. Whitehead’s efforts prompted greater scrutiny of Mr. Vanel’s background.

Mr. Vanel acknowledges that creditors have sued him over debts totaling tens of thousands of dollars — not unusual, he said, for a restaurateur. In 2005, a lawsuit accused Mr. Vanel of having formed a sham company to win a city subcontract to help job seekers.

He never responded in court, and a judge ruled he had to return payments from the contract. The case was settled privately. Mr. Vanel said he did nothing wrong and ultimately paid $1,000.

Mr. Whitehead said he learned of the lawsuits from a reporter. He never checked Mr. Vanel’s background, he said, but judged him by talking and working with him.

“Whatever he says he’s going to do, he does,” Mr. Whitehead said, adding that young people attract disputes when they are “independent and aggressive.”

Mr. Comrie’s supporters have certainly been aggressive about criticizing Mr. Vanel. At the club in August, Mr. Spigner and others told supporters not to get “caught up into the hype” about the “empty suit” challenger.

One passionate speaker, Brian Simon, had been like a son to Mr. Whitehead — and was his first choice to challenge Mr. Comrie. Mr. Simon, 27, a senior aide to the local congressman, had planned to run, but after the term limits change could not bring himself to challenge an incumbent he respected. Now, he and his mentor were on opposite sides.

“Signs don’t vote,” he said, plugging Mr. Comrie’s clout. “We can’t let that go for a neophyte who may not know how to introduce a bill.”

Ms. Young, the longtime district leader, watched approvingly. Mr. Comrie could count on the club, she said, pointing to poll inspectors — picked by district leaders for $200 Election Day jobs — who were encouraged to take home Comrie lawn signs.

“They know if they don’t do this,” she confided, “they don’t work.” (Mr. Spigner denied this.)

Battle Lines Are Drawn

Mr. Vanel’s phone buzzed, and he whizzed off to Hollis Avenue in Mr. Whitehead’s minivan. There, Mr. Comrie was dedicating a street sign honoring Run-DMC, sharing a stage with two of the hip-hop pioneers. Above a Run-DMC mural, Mr. Vanel had rented a billboard — but now his face was covered with Run-DMC fliers and a Comrie sign.

When Comrie supporters refused to remove them, Ms. Belizario hoisted a Vanel sign above her head, shimmying to a DMC track. Soon, Natalie Cruz, 23, was dancing nearby with a Comrie sign.

“I stand behind him,” Ms. Cruz said. Mr. Comrie had financed her husband’s after-school program, Project Hope. Going door to door, she said, she found many young voters attracted to Mr. Vanel, wanting “fresh blood” or angry over term limits. But when she explained that Mr. Comrie had supported programs for their younger siblings, they changed their minds.

As for term limits, she said: “Undemocratic. If we don’t want him, we’ll vote him out.”

Mr. Vanel’s phone rang again. More hardball: The bus ad at the Brewer club had disappeared.

It was two weeks before Tuesday’s primary. With Mr. Obama embroiled in a battle over health care, Mr. Whitehead was tickled to have kicked up a fight of his own. “It’s heating up,” he murmured.

September 4, 2009
A Stirring in St. Albans
Emboldened by ’08 Race to Roil Waters at Home


The political reverberations still rumbling through southeast Queens — the heart of middle-class black New York — can be traced to a humble beginning. One afternoon in 2006, Hugh Byfield crossed the street to tell the most politically savvy person he knew, his neighbor Donnie Whitehead, about a black man he had seen on television.

This man, a politician, waded into adoring white crowds in rural Illinois, where Mr. Byfield, 81, thought a black man ought not go without security guards. “This man is going to be president,” Mr. Byfield said. “We have to support him.”

Mr. Whitehead, a retired subway station manager, rubbed his head, confused by the man’s name. “Barack Alabama?” he asked.
Donnie Whitehead, front, canvassing in St. Albans, Queens, with Clyde Vanel, who is challenging a two-term city councilman. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

Two years later, Mr. Whitehead and a band of Queens campaign volunteers he had helped organize exulted in Barack Obama’s presidential victory. They had helped deliver a resounding upset win in southeast Queens in the Democratic primary, defying local political leaders, who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then they had sent hundreds of campaigners to swing states to help clinch the presidency.

Mr. Whitehead, 63, had a lifelong aptitude for organizing people, but he had never so directly grasped the levers that put people in power. And many of the volunteers, like Mr. Byfield, a Jamaican immigrant, had never before worked for a political cause.

The confetti was still falling at the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club, a fluorescent-lit hall on a street with neat two-story houses and sandwich shops protected by bulletproof glass, but the Queens volunteers were looking ahead. They wanted to turn their amorphous sense of newfound power into tangible change close to home — better schools, fewer foreclosures, new blood in local government — and now they felt strong enough to try.

“A lot of these local politicians need to watch out,” Marvin Griffin, 28, a school administrator, shouted over the cheers. “This has brought a whole new crowd into politics.”

It is too soon to tell whether newly minted activists like these will change politics across the country. But it is clear that in southeast Queens, the campaign unleashed forces that have begun to shift the landscape.

Within weeks, Mr. Whitehead was wondering if he should dare to spend this precious capital — the momentum of a unique moment in history — on a new, perhaps more challenging mission. He was contemplating a frontal assault on the powerful local Democratic Party establishment. Critics and even some of its leaders call it the machine.

The Obama campaign resonated in southeast Queens, an overwhelmingly black and Democratic district where many voters felt they had made a difference in a national election for the first time. Neighborhoods like Hollis and St. Albans look like archetypal small-town America, with sidewalks, gardens and friendly neighbors. It is a bastion of black homeownership but has pockets of poverty and has been hit hard by foreclosures.

Like countless others from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean, Donald M. Whitehead moved to St. Albans for “a house you can walk around.”

Mr. Whitehead was born in Ahoskie, N.C., to a logger and a factory worker. A schoolteacher took him to civil rights marches; the soaring metaphors of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to read about history.

In 1964, he moved to Harlem, calling himself Donald 23X. He absorbed street politics from Malcolm X and insider politics from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But he was too independent — some might say bullheaded — to sign on with any one group.

He and his wife, Jo-Ann Floyd-Whitehead — a math teacher he met at a dude ranch — moved to St. Albans in 1976. In the 1980s, they protested a racially charged killing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Mr. Whitehead ran for the school board on a United African Party ticket.

But mainly, they became neighborhood troubleshooters. As activist public school parents, they tutored local children in their garage, refitted as a sunlit meeting place. If a favorite principal was fired or an after-school program closed, people went there to plan a response.

The Whiteheads and Mr. Byfield worked in 2007 to get Mr. Obama on the ballot. When a Queens campaign office opened in January 2008, the Whiteheads pulled in all their neighborhood contacts, as volunteers converging from around Queens tapped their own networks.

The effect was electric, said Joyce Johnson, the campaign’s New York State field director.

“When you don’t know politics, you’re not scared of it,” Ms. Johnson said. “They were not intimidated by the political establishment. They simply said, ‘They’re wrong.’ They tapped into community like I have never seen.”

Mr. Obama won 56 percent of the primary vote in the Sixth Congressional District, which covers most of southeast Queens. It was one of two districts in the state that gave him a majority, and thus three of the district’s five delegates in a race in which every one counted. It was a shock, Ms. Johnson said, because the pro-Clinton power structure was so strong. In southeast Queens, she said, the machine usually works.

The day after Mr. Obama won the presidency, Mr. Byfield took out an American flag he had found in his house when he moved in 1970. A citizen for 35 years, he had sent his four children to Ivy League colleges, but never felt moved to unfurl the flag. That night he hung it on his door; it had only 48 stars.

“For the first time,” he said, “I felt really part of America.”

But as the bunting was cleared from the Brewer Club — the power center of the local party establishment, which backed Mr. Obama in the general election — a new conflict was brewing.

Mr. Whitehead wanted new candidates to challenge the club-endorsed officials, elected year after year by the handful of party faithful who bother to vote and who populate the civic groups he had worked with over the years.

“Anytime you’re in a group where everybody’s over 60, it’s time for me to leave,” he said. “Most of these groups, every year they do a big, fancy dinner dance, and that’s it.” He chuckled. “Electric slide.”

Someone who won office by going door to door — really listening to people who had never been part of the political circuit — would be better at solving neighborhood problems, he believed.

The person he had in mind was Brian Simon, 27, another Obama campaigner. Mr. Simon was a senior aide to the local congressman, Gregory W. Meeks, but for several years Mr. Whitehead had been his mentor and a father figure. The two often talked politics at a diner late into the night. Mr. Simon wanted elected office so badly he had prayed for it at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He was eyeing a City Council seat.

But there was a catch. The Council had just approved Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s bid to revise term limits. Now, if Mr. Simon ran, he would be challenging a kindly man, an insider who was expert at delivering city money to his district: the two-term councilman, Leroy Comrie, who had voted to free Mr. Bloomberg, and himself, to run again.

In effect, Mr. Simon would be taking on the whole Queens Democratic organization. To party veterans, it is a well-oiled mechanism to turn out voters; detractors contend that the officials it helps elect reward loyalty with jobs and financing for favorite organizations, stifling debate.

Mr. Whitehead recalls Mr. Simon worrying that if he challenged the incumbent, the party could sabotage his career. Mr. Simon strongly denies this.

The obstacles only tantalized Mr. Whitehead. Overturning term limits approved twice in voter referendums was tantamount to stripping New Yorkers of the right to vote, he said. But he would not pressure Mr. Simon.

So in December, when dozens of volunteers fired up for the next mission met in the Whiteheads’ basement — they no longer fit in the garage — Mr. Whitehead and Mr. Simon proposed something much less confrontational. The volunteers would create the Frederick Douglass Institute, a grass-roots research center, to study issues — policing, education, political accountability — and promote policies they liked.

Deep down, Mr. Whitehead still wanted to try the impossible. “You have to believe in a dream world,” he said.

In Washington for the inauguration, Mr. Whitehead surveyed the crowds.

“All the people in power” thought Mr. Obama should wait his turn, Mr. Whitehead remarked. But Mr. Obama “understood the zeitgeist,” he said, and picked the right moment.

The wheels in Mr. Whitehead’s mind were turning.

Back home, he found a neighborhood in crisis. A judge had upheld the term-limits change, and people were angry. On his block, several people had lost jobs, and foreclosures had crowded three generations into a single house.

Now he pushed Mr. Simon hard. “He read to me about ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ ” Mr. Simon recalled. Mr. Obama too had quoted the phrase of Dr. King.

Mr. Whitehead recalls saying, “If they could tell you to sit down for four years and be quiet, then you’re finished. If you’re not a warrior at 27, when are you going to be a warrior?”

Mr. Simon would not budge. He says he never feared retaliation, but thought running would be “toxic” and divisive and could deprive the district of an effective legislator. “I put my community first,” he says.

Mr. Whitehead reminded him that he had nothing against Mr. Comrie, saying, “It’s not the individual, it’s the principle.”

In February, City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., running for mayor, spoke in the Whiteheads’ basement. The volunteers noted their new clout, and the visit attracted newcomers. One was Clyde Vanel, 35. He wanted to run for City Council.

Mr. Vanel was the son of Haitian immigrants. A lawyer in Manhattan and an owner of an East Village restaurant, Permanent Brunch, he was not an obvious partner for Donald 23X.

But they talked for hours. Both saw a one-time chance to attract new voters, and Mr. Vanel won Mr. Whitehead’s highest praise: “A hard worker.”

Mr. Simon pleaded with Mr. Whitehead not to deploy his network for Mr. Vanel. He wanted to run in 2013. Mr. Whitehead realized he might have to abandon the man he had nurtured.

“It’s like if you’re sitting on a nail,” said Ronald Summers Sr., a transit employee and an Obama volunteer. “You see an opportunity to get up off that nail, and someone says, I want you to sit back down and wait four years.”

The deciding moment came when people walked into the Whiteheads’ basement with a message from the Democratic club. Mr. Whitehead will not say who the people were, and club leaders deny sending anyone. The visitors delivered this request: Stay neutral.

Mr. Whitehead says the club could offer him nothing: “We want a free, fair and democratic society. In other words, we don’t want anything.”

The next day, he called Mr. Vanel and said, “Look, let’s start work.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed reporting.

Leroy Comrie:
A ‘Son’ And Successor Speaks Out

About His Political Mentor
By MICHELLE SELLERS, Southeast Queens Press

Come Jan. 1 2002, Southeast Queens’ District 27 will have a new Councilman – his name is Leroy Comrie.

Whether it is on the sidelines, in the background or right up front; Leroy Comrie has been Archie Spigner’s right-hand man

Few people know Archie Spigner
like he does – Comrie has worked closely with him since 1983.

"You get to know a person after 18-plus years. I am a frequent guest in his home, a car-pool companion to many meetings and events, a confidant, a student, a third son and now his successor," Comrie said.

When speaking of his political mentor, Comrie said "He shared with me how to be affective and is sharing with me how to be affective [in the City Council]. He is a
person that has a keen sense of the dynamic of a situation. He
does his homework and is never unprepared. He’s willing to listen to reason. He loves to debate. He likes to write and truly loves the City. He believes in the essence and beauty of New York and is working hard to represent this district."

According to Comrie, Spigner never takes anything at face value — he always queries.

"He has worked hard for equality
to ensure all are given equal treatment and that the district would have as much as or more than other districts," Comrie said. "He worked hard to be respected. He made sure he understood protocol in government. He is a prolific reader who liked to challenge people intellectually and is never afraid to enter into new areas. Archie is a lot tougher, smarter and hardworking than his detractors would have the world believe. He has never backed away from an issue in which he has believed.

"In the end," Comrie said, "[Spigner’s] legacy is enormous. We will not let him go quietly ino that good night, though. His knowledge and passion for government will be utilized by many of us seeking to make this a better city."

Looking ahead Comrie said "I anticipate that it is going to be a lot of work. We are in a changed world. There are budget deficits. It’s almost like going back to the 1970’s when there was a time of extreme need in the city, the government and the country. Throughout this my goal is to make effective change to protect the district."

Deputy Majority Leader Archie Spigner
Southeast Queens Press

Councilman Archie Spigner has been a member of the City Council since 1974 and has risen to the post of deputy majority leader, the second highest position in the council. His legislative responsibilities have included chairmanships of the committees on the Legislative Office of Budget Review, Economic Development and, presently, Housing and Buildings. He also serves on the council’s budget negotiating team and is liaison for the council’s 14-member Queens delegation. He was elected to the board of the National League of Cities, the major advocacy group for America’s urban areas, and now serves on its advisory board.
deputymajorityleader.gif (25726 bytes)

He has introduced a wide range of legislation: creation of the Environmental Control Board, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Economic Development Zones; increased penalties against non-conforming uses and illegal conversions of residential areas;
tax abatements for residential housing; unit pricing in drug stores; increased participation of minority- and women-owned businesses for city contracts and tougher fire, construction and lead paint safety requirements.

In the community, he was a leader in the efforts that led to the construction of York College in Jamaica, the Addabbo Federal Office Building, the Archer Avenue subway, the Jamaica Multi-Service Center and health clinics in Southeast Queens. His actions as chair of the council’s Housing and Buildings Committee resulted in the building of a large number of new housing units in Southeast Queens and throughout the city. In fact, under his chairmanship, the city’s $5 billion housing program was started. He has also affected funding for street and sewer construction in Southeast Queens, as well as new public libraries.

He was past chair of the Queens United Negro College Fund and the Boy Scouts Campaign. He is a board member of the United Black Men of Queens and of Jamaica Hospital, and is a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in St. Albans.

Before his election to the City Council, Spigner was active in Local 1056 A.T.U. and also worked closely with A. Philip Randolph in forming the Negro American Labor Council, which fought to open up trade unions and apprenticeship opportunities for African-Americans.

As executive member of the Guy R. Brewer United Democratic Club, he was instrumental in electing the first African-American Supreme Court justice, assembly member, state senator and congress member in the borough of Queens. Also, Spigner played key roles in the campaigns of David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, Carl McCall, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Floyd Flake and numerous others.

He believes in a strong public education system and has funded capital improvements for a significant number of schools. Spigner is a graduate of Queens College, where he also did post-grad work. He represents the communities of Hollis, Jamaica, Queens Village, St. Albans, Addisleigh Park, Rosedale and Cambria Heights in Southeast Queens.

He is married to Christine Spigner, who was formerly chair of the board of trustees of the Queens Borough Public Library. They have a son, a grandson and two great-granddaughters.

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