By Nicole Brydson
“It was not a given, it was not an automatic kind of thing – I had to actually think about it for a while,” said City Council candidate Mark Winston Griffith of his third party challenge to 36th district incumbent Al Vann, citing the sacrifices his wife and two small children made during the primary.
Mr. Griffith, 45, a native New Yorker and long time resident of Bedford Stuyvesant, ran against Mr. Vann along with seven democratic party challengers during the primary season, losing to the incumbent by 735 votes. Only 9,525 votes were cast in primary and the campaign has been virtually ignored by major media outlets, as the New York Times
even failed to make an endorsement in the race. On Tuesday, Mr. Griffith received the endorsement of Al Sharpton and Councilmember Charles Barron.
“The second open question was could we win, and on that front we knew two very important things,” he continued. “One, we knew that 70% of the electorate did not vote for Al Vann, which is almost unprecedented when you’re talking about an election that so few people would have voted for not just an incumbent but someone who’s been there for 35 years and is in some ways a legend.”
While the rest of Mr. Griffith’s peers – who received the remaining 45% of votes on primary day – ended their campaigns on September 15, he sought the endorsement of the union-backed Working Families Party and will appear on the ballot on November 3. His third party candidacy has built momentum in a race that has historically been settled on primary day.
“While I feel like I’m a compelling candidate and that we ran a compelling campaign,” said Mr. Griffith during a recent interview at his campaign office. “I know it’s as much, if not more, about people’s dissatisfaction with Al Vann then it is with me, because they know Al Vann.”
Known best for his role as executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a public policy think tank geared towards middle class issues, Mr. Griffith was listed on Crain’s 40 Under 40
in 1994 for work he did on the Central Brooklyn Federal Credit Union and the Central Brooklyn Partnership. Mr. Griffith has a progressive agenda and his organization has worked with the Working Families Party. Despite his spot on the union line come November 3, it has not guaranteed crucial union support.
“There are a lot of unions, prominent ones – UFT and 1199 in particular – who are supporters of Al Vann,” he said, “And you know, Al Vann is not perceived as being criminally corrupt, and he is not like a Kendall Stewart who people felt like was voting in the very worst way against progressive issues, so he didn’t have a bulls eye on his forehead, which made it more difficult for someone like me to get the support because incumbents get the benefit of the doubt.”
Mr. Vann seems to be riding that benefit as far as he can. In recent days, the incumbent has littered the district’s subways stations with campaign flyers and even sent volunteers door to door to remind registered democrats to vote for him, signaling that he believes Mr. Griffith’s campaign is a viable challenge.
“We’d be making history if we do this,” Mr. Griffith added, “Because no one in my recollection has beat an incumbent – particularly in this neighborhood on any other line but a democratic line, in the general election I haven’t seen it happen.”
In a city where registered democrats outnumber republicans five to one, party primaries have meant that democrats who win primary elections are virtually guaranteed to win subsequent general elections. Third party challenges have not produced successful candidates on their own, though the Working Families Party and Independence Party have bolstered the voting blocks of republican and democratic candidates alike.
“For years I’ve seen us in Central Brooklyn have a very low standard for our elected officials,” said Mr. Griffith. “That is you look at folks like Al Vann and you say, ‘He’s been there for 35 years he’s a legend, well then that’s all we need’ and have not said, ‘But wait a minute, what is he doing now? Is he a leader not just in the community but citywide, what kind of voice is he championing on a city wide level?’”
Mr. Griffith argues that Mr. Vann has not been a loud enough voice in the debate about the future of New York City, especially after it was expected that the incumbent would seek the speaker’s seat upon entering the council.
“It’s what happens to anyone who holds on too long,” he continued, “They went from the fighters of the status quo to the defenders of the status quo pretty quickly actually, that troubled me.”
“I literally left Brown University [in the 1980s] and came to this neighborhood so I could work for Al Vann – that was what I wanted to do – because he represented what I thought was progressive grassroots social change, and the more I got involved in politics here, the more disillusioned I became, the more I felt like this ‘vanguard,’ wasn’t as progressive and independent minded as it was originally touted to be.”
The vanguard the candidate referred to was the ascendance of elected officials sent to Albany from Central Brooklyn including Clarence Norman, Roger Green, Carl Andrews and Velmanette Montgomery – the last of which is the only politician listed who has not tarnished her name with scandal.
The 36th district is a study in what ills currently face city residents, especially in Brooklyn. The shifting demographics of Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights have created anxiety about the future affordability of Central Brooklyn. Public safety, foreclosure, food options and the disengagement of young people who lack safe havens afterschool are among the biggest issues in the area, where change was imminent during the boom and now, during the bust, seems to been unraveling with a smattering of recent homicides
“There’s no way to deal with crime unless you deal with some of the deeper social issues,” said the candidate, “And I think that one of the things that is really important is finding a way to connect with young people.”
Healthy food is also a big issue for Mr. Griffith, who hopes to bring together his progressive network to engage with the borough’s food movement and bring healthier options to an area brimming with poor quality food establishments like bodegas that do not sell fresh produce and “bulletproof Chinese” restaurants.
Mr. Griffith opposes the Atlantic Yards project, and told Brooklyn The Borough he favors “responsible development,” and views foreclosure as the most pressing issue in the district, which has a significant population of homeowners.
“What I would start with is being more aggressive about addressing the foreclosure crisis in the neighborhood, making sure that homeowners are protected and are not being driven out. Second thing I would do is, as developers are coming in, is really trying to create a carve out for affordable housing, and an acknowledgement that affordable housing needs to be preserved in this neighborhood,” he said.
With the tides turning as they have for the economy and especially the housing market, Mr. Griffith said he sees the present as an opportunity for community reinvestment and hopes that voters will join him in his cause on election day.
“Individuals are going to have to become stakeholders, they’re not going to be able to sit back and say I don’t like what’s happening in my neighborhood, they’re going to have to get more involved with their block associations, they’re going to have to go to police precinct meetings they have to make the decision not to move but to fight back.”
And that’s exactly what Mr. Griffith says is on his agenda.
“I think that there’s an old guard in central Brooklyn, quite honestly that Al Vann is a part of, to which innovation does not come naturally anymore and I think that a new elected generation can bring some innovation, some new energy, some hope for dramatic change in a way that we haven’t seen. I think the energy is there, I just don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of good leadership there.”
UPDATE: The New York Times decided to start covering this race on November 1, two days before the general election.