THE ELECTIONS IN CROWN HEIGHTS
One of the things de Tocqueville admired about democracy in the United States was the extent to which Americans involved themselves in their own affairs. There were not just the three branches of government making laws, administering them, and interpreting them, but a mass of organizations and community groups influencing the process, mobilizing people for all sorts of endeavors. From these outside groups could come idealists, true believers entering the political arena with fixed beliefs, a reform agenda on which they would not compromise. Who they were coming up against were pragmatists, people who know that politics is compromise, balance and horse trading. The idealists tend to come from the left and right of the political spectrum, and sometimes they push back and forth on the same issues. The Abolitionists and John Brown pushed to end slavery. They succeeded in the Civil War but the Ku Klux Klan and their allies made sure the Emancipation Proclamation had only a limited meaning. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union temporarily banned alcoholic beverages, but a nation of drinkers went to speakeasies and soon ended the ban. The Tea Party entered the Republican Party and remade it in their own image, which perhaps led us to Donald Trump. However, now a counter movement has emerged of idealists, working to undo his works and get rid of him in 2020 if not before.
The current elections in Crown Heights, particularly the contest between Jesse Hamilton and Zellnor Myrie provide an example that shows the strengths and weaknesses of the two camps. Pragmatists want to make deals, they have connections and experience, they deal with the world as it is. Idealists don't particularly like deals – they want what's right, they tend to have less experience and they can make the mistakes of beginners. They don't want to deal with the world as it is; they are driven by a vision of a world remade. The Trump/Clinton election was a contest that showed the weakness of the pragmatist. Trump was an outrageous populist, brash, lying, playing at the edge of violence, calling on dark impulses among white Americans, particularly men, against people who are marginalized – immigrants, Blacks and other minorities, women, gays, people caught in the criminal justice system. In his view, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and Africa were all in different ways dangerous places that wanted to hurt us; whereas dictators in Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia were people with whom we could deal. How did Trump eke out a win against Clinton? It was because she was a pragmatist, a well-connected person who built the Clinton Foundation, did her time conscientiously with the Obama Administration had a set of centrist positions, which had a little something for everyone. One important factor that set her off by way of contrast was Bernie Sanders, a true idealist who made clear all of Clinton's weaknesses – that she used her connections to promote her foundation, that she used private e-mails as a hedge against revealing what she was doing, that she had a husband who had molested and otherwise used women, and she had never renounced him. She had left the Clinton presidency “penniless,” yet somehow had amassed over a hundred million dollars in wealth. If Trump was an out and out liar, Clinton was never quite honest. Sanders asked again and again what she told bankers and financiers during speeches for which she received astronomical fees. She would not tell. As often happens with people who compromise, they end up compromised. The two candidates in the 2016 election were the most disliked candidates of the two major parties in living memory. Many millions of people would have preferred to vote “neither of the above.” The lack of enthusiasm and cynicism opened the door to Trump, with help from Russian operatives, Julian Assange and a slew of people spreading disinformation on the internet. However, the advent of Trump set off a new cycle of resistance and organizing in which a wave of idealists rose up, and I would argue that the conflict between idealists and pragmatists that played out across the country was the determining factor in the election for State Senator in the 20th District taking in Crown Heights and other neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Jesse Hamilton was well-connected and liked to make deals. He was a protege of Eric Adams who held the seat before him. Adams contributed to his campaign. He also got Hamilton one million dollars to spend on Participatory Budgeting. As someone interested in Nostrand Avenue, I supported a proposal to fund a set of science carts for Medgar Evers High School. I was struck by how little Medgar Evers put into this project and how badly administered the vote was. When I went to the school right before the vote, I found the principal was on vacation and that the science teacher I spoke with knew little about the vote. I showed up at the Central Library to vote first myself and then to accompany others. I found interns who knew little, waiting for ballots to be delivered even though the “polls” were open. Despite asking to be told the result, I never was, and to this day don't know which proposals won nor what the vote count was. Hamilton was also pragmatic in joining the Independent Democratic Caucus, the group that turned over control of the State Senate to Republicans. When Cuomo, another consummate pragmatist, closed the IDC down, its members had a lot of explaining to do. Hamilton got a large amount of money from the IDC that a judge declared was illegal. Questions were raised about Hamilton's use of the Lincoln Block Civic Association as a place to hold political meetings. Common Cause called for the DA to investigate. In a debate with Myrie, Hamilton admitted that he took money from real estate interests, but he insisted taking that money had no effect on his positions. After he lost the primary, the New York Post ran a story about how Hamilton had paid to lease a Mercedes with money from his campaign account and used the car to visit a liquor store. As he was still officially a candidate, there was perhaps no violation if the car was used for the campaign, but as a lawyer in the Post story said, the optics were terrible. One of Hamilton's campaign workers made a scurrilous attack on Diana Richardson who was supporting Myrie. Hamilton issued an apology.
On the other hand, Myrie was accused of working for Fernando Cabrera who is homophobic. Myrie said that his beliefs are different. Hamilton has a lot of old friends – particularly unions, and he raised more money and outspent Myrie and judging by the phone calls and mailings I received, he had more people working for him spreading the word. However, the persistent questions stuck: Why the IDC? Why the connection to Adams? Why the real estate money? Why the shady deals? Against the young Myrie involved with all kinds of community groups, with less money but an army of committed volunteers, with his carefully crafted position papers, Hamilton came up short, about 17,000 to 20,000 in the primary. However, what may have been most important was Donald Trump in the White House. Myrie was just one a whole crew of upstarts who took out long time politicians. In New York City, five of the six supporters of the IDC went under, and the Democrats in the House are considering if they want to keep Nancy Pelosi, another long time pragmatist, and then there is Trump. They want to get him out in 2020 if Mueller doesn't do the job before.
So the pragmatist in Crown Heights is out, but we need to think about what happens next. Idealists sometimes become pragmatists themselves, and soon deals and compromises get them mired in the same mess they pledged to clean up. Politics works by money and there are always tempting ways to get it, and the easiest way possible is from those who have it and need favors. Or some idealists persist in making speeches, mapping out positions, getting covered in the media but not getting anything done. Whatever the case, idealists need to learn something about governing and figuring out how best to conduct the art of the possible. We have a whole new generation of people like Myrie in the State Legislature and the House of Representatives. It took droves of people coming out and taking an interest, and the fight has just begun. Those people need to stay out and make sure their representatives don't compromise until they are compromised. The stakes are very high.
- John DeWind