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City Council Primary Marks Change in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights

By Paul DeBenedetto | September 10, 2013 8:03am
 Al Vann will leave politics after almost 40 years, and residents now have to choose his successor.
Al Vann is Leaving Politics After Almost 40 Years.
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BROOKLYN — When voters in Bed-Stuy and northern Crown Heights cast their ballot for the next city councilman in the 36th district on Tuesday, it will mark the end of an almost-40-year era for Al Vann.

Vann, a central Brooklyn politician since becoming an assemblyman in 1974, was elected to the City Council in 2001, and is one of the most iconic figures in central Brooklyn, having fought through the years for civil rights and other challenges in his district.

Now Vann is term-limited out of office, and voters are charged with selecting the man who will take central Brooklyn into a new era with new issues, including rising housing costsgentrification, stop and frisk and more.

Opponent Turned Protege

Robert Cornegy, the 56th Assembly District leader and a legislative policy analyst for the City Council, Cornegy has been one of the most vocal activists in support of Interfaith Medical Center, a bankrupt Bed-Stuy hospital in danger of closing. He is also the parent of six children in different stages of public education, including three children in charter schools, and has advocated for diversity of school choice in debates across the district.

But Cornegy is also the president of the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association, a central Brooklyn political club started by Vann, and has received the support of central Brooklyn's political establishment, which has led his opponents to accuse him of being a "machine candidate."

That description paints an unfair picture, the candidate said. In the last election, Cornegy challenged Vann's third term, eventually dropping out of the race and endorsing the incumbent.

"The reality was I was really busting my hump in the streets trying to improve the quality of life for homeowners like myself and my family," Cornegy told DNAinfo New York in March.

Independent Expenditures

One of the most well-known names in the race is Kirsten John Foy, the head of the National Action Network's Brooklyn chapter and a former aide to public advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio.

Foy has raked in the support of local unions, including the 1199 SEIU healthcare workers union and the United Federation of Teachers. He's also been endorsed by the City Council's progressive caucus, and came to prominence as an anti-police harassment advocate in 2011 after being arrested alongside Jumaane Williams at the West Indian Day Parade.

The candidate has also been the target of criticism from his opponents after the outside spending group Jobs For New York spent more than $300,000 on the race in support of his campaign, according to filings with the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

The group, a political action committee dedicated to electing candidates they see as pro-development, sent out mailers attacking Foy's opponents. The candidate eventually commissioned robocalls to denounce the mailers, he admitted at a recent candidates' forum.

“Jobs for New York does not represent me or my campaign," a statement from Foy read, adding that he has "no responsibility, no approval, nor any consultation or participation in any of their activities or materials."

The Ministers

Two of those candidates criticized in the mailers are Robert Waterman and Conrad Tillard, ministers at local Bed-Stuy churches.

Waterman, senior pastor at Antioch Baptist Church, is, like Cornegy, a member of Brooklyn's Community Board 3, and like Cornegy, ran against Vann in the last election. He touts his success with community outreach as a reason he would also be a successful councilman.

As councilman, Waterman said he would focus on addressing problems affecting the youth in the community, including creating new programs to keep kids off the street, and would work to bring more social service offerings to Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights.

Tillard, a former member of the Nation of Islam, has since given up being a minister at Harlem's famous Mosque No. 7 and converted to Christianity, where he is now the senior minister at Nazarene Congregational Church, as well as an advisory board member of the Boys and Girls and Bedford Academy high schools.

His positions on those two boards have led Tillard to focus mainly on education in the election, arguing against mayoral control of schools and for shifting away from test scores as an indicator of success in schools.

Tillard has said he's the one candidate who can replace an important figure like Vann.

"In the absence of an important figure like Al Vann, the tendency can be for a community to flounder," Tillard said in May. "You need to replace leadership and gravitas with leadership and gravitas."