Heated Race to Replace James Davis

Letitia James, on Working Family line, takes on Geoffrey Davis, James’ brother

The contest also has strong emotional resonance––it will fill the vacancy created by the assassination of James Davis—the older brother of the Democratic candidate—in the balcony of the City Council chambers on July 23.

In response to a questionnaire from the Lambda Independent Democrats, a Brooklyn club representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) voters, Davis and James uniformly voiced support for a wide range of queer issues, including same-sex marriage rights, reform of immigration laws governing naturalization of foreign partners, civil rights protections for gender-variant New Yorkers, and expanded sex education and condom distribution in the public schools.

But James has established a clear edge in organized support within the LGBT community. This past Monday, she won LID’s nod “by a wide margin” according to Dan Tietz, the group’s president. LID has been an increasingly powerful force in borough politics during the past three decades, and in making its endorsement, the club joins the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s gay rights lobby, and the Out People of Color Political Action Club in supporting James.

“First and almost foremost, [James] is well known to us,” Tietz explained. “She has been coming around to the club for years. She knows our issues. She has a work history that proves that she has the skills set, knowledge, and temperament to be a good city councilmember.”

James most recently has been chief of staff to Democratic state Assemblymember Roger L. Green, whose 57th Assembly District overlaps with the 35th City Council District. James, a graduate of Howard University Law School with a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University, has also worked for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and City Councilmember Al Vann, when the Brooklyn Democrat served in the state Assembly. Early in her career, James worked as a Legal Aid attorney.

Beyond the queer political clubs, James also enjoys the support of one of the three out gay and lesbian members of the City Council––Christine Quinn, who represents the council district that runs from the West Village through Chelsea into Clinton.

Margarita Lopez, from the Lower East Side, and Philip Reed, who represents Upper Manhattan and a small portion of the South Bronx—the Council’s other two out members—both told Gay City News they are sitting the race out.

For his part, Davis has the support on one major LGBT club—the citywide Stonewall Democratic Club.

“Both candidates are qualified,” said Tom Smith, Stonewall’s president. “Mr. Davis came to the club and he won the endorsement on September 24.”

Smith went on to explain that James was scheduled to appear before the club the same evening, but never arrived.

Davis, who most recently worked as the director of a youth services program at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College, dropped out of high school but earned a GED and later went on to graduate from Staten Island College and get a master’s degree in business administration from Long Island University in Brooklyn. He was involved for more than a decade with Love Yourself/ Stop the Violence, a high profile non-profit Brooklyn community group founded by his late brother.

The fierce scramble for endorsements and the support for James by LID and Quinn, both of whom typically support candidates on the Democratic Party line, are testament to the extraordinary history of this election contest.

On the day that James Davis was murdered, he seemed headed for easy re-election. His Democratic primary opponents were Anthony Herbert, a local political activist later thrown off the Democratic ballot and now the Republican candidate for the seat, and Othniel Boaz Askew, a young gay man who had already been disqualified for the race. Askew, who accompanied Davis to City Hall on July 23 only to turn around and kill him, was shot to death as he stood over Davis’ body.

The deadline for filing to run in the September primary had passed by July 23, but under state law, a Committee on Vacancies, named by the dead man at the time he filed for the primary and chaired by his mother, Thelma Davis, had the right to replace James Davis on the ballot. The committee chose Geoffrey Davis. When Herbert was later ruled off the primary ballot, the younger Davis won the Democratic nomination without a contest.

Despite widespread sympathy for the Davis family, the choice of Geoffrey to replace his brother was controversial, with two issues coming to the forefront.

In the immediate aftermath of his brother’s death, Geoffrey Davis, speaking to reporters, said, “Who did it? You all did it. Every white racist person who’s standing in front of me did it. Every black racist person standing in front of me did it. This ain’t that coincidental… Who killed Malcolm?” The comments were widely viewed as inflammatory.

Questions also surfaced about the younger Davis’ past. He has two criminal convictions on his record––one for possession of marijuana in 1982 and another for loitering with the aim of soliciting prostitution in 1995. On August 8, Deborah Batts filed a complaint in Brooklyn Family Court de-manding child support for her 10-year-old son whom she says Davis fathered.

Beyond saying, “Negative obstacles, positive achievements. And that’s how I look at that,” and insisting that he is committed to moving beyond his past, Davis has declined comment on his arrest record and Batts’ claim.

These issues led the media to question whether Davis, not widely known for community involvement prior to his brother’s death, was ready to move to the City Council.

James, in her appearance before LID, said that Davis’ appointment to fill the ballot vacancy left by his brother’s death, stirred “an outcry in the community.” She stated that more than 600 people called the Working Families Party and another 100 phoned Green’s assembly office, all urging her to jump into the race.

Letitia James has run for the council seat against a Davis before, in 2001. Then she was the endorsed candidate of the Brooklyn County Democratic Party, but lost the primary to James Davis, who ran an aggressive campaign based on his anti-violence work and a stint of a couple of years on the police force. When Davis lost the primary, she stayed in the race on the Working Families line. With the endorsement of LID, Quinn, and many other local Democrats, she polled 42 percent against Democrat James Davis.

This year again, many local Democrats are again lining up with James, who has won nods from U.S. Representatives Major Owens and Ed Towns, state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblymembers Green, and Councilmember Vann, all prominent African American leaders from central Brooklyn.

According to Geoffrey Davis, the same forces that stood against his brother are now trying to block him. Asked by LID member Alan Fleishman, who is also a Democratic district leader in Park Slope, why he did not have more local Democratic endorsements, Davis responded, “These were the same officials who endorsed my opponent against my brother. But my brother won the endorsement of the community.”

But Davis has managed to get some high profile endorsements of his own, including Rev. Al Sharpton, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and Brooklyn Councilmembers Charles Barron, Tracy Boyland, and Yvette Clarke.

Fleishman argued that, despite those endorsements, the Democratic organization in Brooklyn is unlikely to flex its muscle on Davis’ behalf on election day.

“I don’t think there will be much of an effort [for Davis],” he said. “They have a long standing relationship with Tish [James] and a history of an adversarial relationship with James Davis.”

The election will be a major test for the Working Families Party, which often endorses progressive Democrats, but has never had a winner not co-endorsed by another party.

The impact of the two other candidates in the race––Herbert, now a Republican, and the Conservative candidate, Abraham Wasserman, who says he is the first member of the Lubavitch Hasidim community to run for the City Council––is unclear.

Wasserman will clearly poll well within Crown Heights’ Orthodox enclave, despite the high profile work that the Davis brothers and Stop the Violence have done in the past decade to promote dialogue between blacks and Jews in that neighborhood. According to gothamgazette.com, the district is more than 60 percent black, less than 20 percent white, with most of the remaining residents Latino.

Wasserman has done an impressive job of raising money, garnering more than $12,000 from individual contributors and winning matching public funds of nearly $47,000 from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, according to the latest figures on that agency’s website. In the contest, only James has done better, raising nearly $41,000 in contributions and getting the maximum city match of $82,500. Davis lags far behind with $13,000 in contributions and no matching funds to date.

With Wasserman focused on the Orthodox vote, James and Davis are clearly calculating that lesbian and gay voters, concentrated in the Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights portions of the district, can make the difference in the race. Both have made a number of appearances at LGBT clubs and events this year, and James sat down for an interview with Gay City News, in which she showed a ready familiarity with key issues.

Asked about the efforts to pass the Dignity for All Schools Act, an anti-bullying measure before the City Council, James said she is a strong supporter of education committee chair Eva Moskowitz (D-East Side), who is working to pass the law. James termed the lawsuit by state Senator Ruben Diaz, a Bronx Pentecostal minister, that aims to strip the Harvey Milk High School of public funding “homophobic… insensitive… [and] not Christian.”

“The lawsuit is frivolous,” she said. “The lawsuit is without merit. I believe that it will be dismissed.”

James also talked about the work she has done on Green’s staff on the issues of supportive housing for people living with AIDS and to target public HIV prevention funds toward communities of color in need.

Despite repeated phone calls to Davis’ campaign office, the Democratic candidate did not make himself available for an interview.

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