Candidacy Fosters A Debate On Race

David Yassky, second from left, campaigns in the predominantly black Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for a seat in the U.S. House.
David Yassky, second from left, campaigns in the predominantly black Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for a seat in the U.S. House. "You talk to voters about what's important," said Yassky, a member of the New York City Council. (By Julienne Schaer)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

David Yassky has a solid résumé, lots of campaign cash and plenty of ideas for improving the slice of Brooklyn he wants to represent in Congress. In another Democratic stronghold, he might be the runaway favorite.

But in New York's 11th District, Yassky's candidacy has touched off a controversy about race and turned a sleepy primary contest into an emotionally charged debate over minority political representation. The 11th District is one of the dozens of majority-black seats created in the aftermath of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. And Yassky, unlike his three primary opponents, is white.

The City Council member's bid has not been well received by the district's black establishment. Rep. Major R. Owens (D), the retiring 12-term incumbent, labeled Yassky a "colonizer." Local black leaders have staged events to pressure the 42-year-old Brooklyn Democrat out of the race. A Web site was launched. Al Sharpton is calling on prominent white politicians, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), to take a stand against Yassky.

In the past 3 1/2 decades, the number of black-held House seats has increased fourfold, from 10 in 1970 to 40 today, a byproduct of the Voting Rights Act's intent to improve black participation in politics. Black House members hold senior status on committees including the tax-writing Ways and Means, the Judiciary and the Homeland Security committees. And the Congressional Black Caucus is an influential force within the Democratic Party.

But some Democrats have come to recognize the downside of these majority-black districts. For instance, they can spark racially polarized politics, pitting blacks against other minorities and whites, particularly as the districts become more gentrified and ethnically mixed.

In a black district of Memphis, a white candidate who is among 15 Democrats vying for the seat being vacated by Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) has encountered racial hostility similar to that experienced by Yassky. Stephen I. Cohen, a Tennessee state senator, said in an interview with a Jewish newspaper, the Forward, that he is entitled to the same treatment Ford, who is black, has sought as he campaigns statewide for the Senate. "Don't judge me by my race but by my record," Cohen said.

Elsewhere, the "majority-minority" phenomenon has increased Republican strength by packing the Democrats' most loyal constituency inside fewer districts, allowing surrounding districts to become more white and Republican.

When Virginia's Republican-dominated legislature redrew its congressional boundaries in 2001, blacks were shifted from GOP Rep. J. Randy Forbes's Chesapeake area district to Democratic Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott's majority-black district, which follows the James River from the Norfolk area to suburban Richmond.

In a 2001 special election before redistricting, Forbes narrowly defeated a black state senator, L. Louise Lucas, 52 percent to 48 percent. In 2002, after the boundaries were redrawn, Forbes won his seat with 98 percent of the vote. This year, when Democrats are positioned to possibly take back control of the House, Forbes is running unopposed.

Provisions of the Voting Rights Act, including a section related to legislative districts, are due to expire and are being debated in Congress. Some Southern lawmakers have protested extending special safeguards that apply to their states, but civil rights advocates assert that allowing the provisions to expire would be highly risky in light of recent cases of voting rights violations.

In fact, some want more protections for minority communities. In a February speech, Owens endorsed an idea called "power sharing," which recognizes "the necessity of minority participation in the decision making process," a step beyond the current laws that protect minority rights.

But some Democratic strategists have begun to question whether strict adherence to a 40-year-old model of minority-dominated districts could be hurting the party in the long term. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that at one time it made sense for the courts and state legislatures to carve out majority-black districts to break racially discriminatory practices, primarily in the South.

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