By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006; A01
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.
Looking at the map of congressional districts today, Emanuel asked: "Are we at the point in the political process where you don't need a 70 percent district, but a 50 to 45 district, with the political capacity to be more competitive in surrounding areas, so that more Democrats can win?"
The rapid transformation of urban areas could force Democratic and civil rights leaders to rethink minority districts, voting rights experts say. A combination of gentrification, immigration, intermarriage and a migrating black middle class "means that race just doesn't have the power that it once did, in these kinds of settings," said Edward Blum, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has written extensively about minority districts.
Just over half of the 40 black House members represent majority-black districts, while three of the four California black members represent larger Hispanic populations, said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on minority issues.
But they are all serving in the Democratic minority. "Remember, the [Voting Rights Act] is about black voters, not black elected officials," Bositis said. "And black voters are not having their interests represented, although there are more black members of Congress."
That is the point Yassky made recently as he greeted voters on a corner of Eastern Parkway at the edge of Brooklyn's predominantly black Crown Heights neighborhood. Some people looked away when he approached, but others paused to shake his hand and express concerns about affordable housing, President Bush and the war in Iraq.
"You talk to voters about what's important," Yassky said. "You run your race. Voters are pretty thoughtful and will listen to the arguments. They want to see someone effective in Congress, and I think I have a really good case to make."
The 11th District was drawn in 1968 as a result of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit and was first occupied by Shirley Chisholm, who gained national prominence as an advocate of women and minority rights, and who ran for president in 1972. She was succeeded by Owens, a former librarian and state senator with liberal views and a penchant for passionate floor speeches, often delivered in rap style.
The district has evolved in recent years into a demographic melange, blending long-standing African American and Caribbean American populations with newer arrivals, including Arab, Asian and Hispanic immigrants and affluent white voters. The four candidates in the race to succeed Owens represent this new demographic reality: Yassky lives in wealthy Brooklyn Heights; City Council Member Yvette D. Clarke is of Caribbean descent; state Sen. Carl Andrews is an African American from Crown Heights; and Owens's son, Chris Owens, is biracial, having a white Jewish mother.
Attending an elementary school graduation last week, Yassky recalled that, not long ago, most of the students there were of Italian heritage.
Then he pointed to the program for this year's ceremony. Among the graduates' surnames were Wu, Ramos, Imran and Zapolsky, with one DeBenedetto and one Salerno.
Perhaps more dramatic has been the change in the district's income levels, which have skyrocketed along with property values. The imbalance is reflected in the candidates' campaign accounts. As of March 31, the end of the most recent campaign reporting period, Yassky had $750,000 cash on hand, compared with $450,000 combined for his three competitors.
"It's class, class, class," said Chris Owens, a Harvard and Princeton graduate who has managed his father's campaigns for 12 years. "Class is defining the face of Brooklyn. And as it defines Brooklyn, it will define its political representation."
One feature that has not changed is the district's deeply liberal bent. Regardless of class or color, Yassky and Owens said, voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the war in Iraq and want better schools and better health coverage. Anna Acosta, 21 and black, stopped to chat with Yassky along Eastern Parkway. Acosta said she is looking for a candidate who is willing to aggressively stand up to Republicans.
"It shouldn't be like that," she said of the racially motivated campaign against Yassky. "All that matters is that you're doing your job."