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Best Congressional Race in New York City

There's almost no such thing as a good congressional race in the city anymore. The congressional districts of all the boroughs have been drawn with consummate artistry to protect incumbents and avoid races. Just look at the map! Every political observer has his favorite Rorschach patterns. There's the 8th, which runs down the west side like a Christmas stocking, crosses the East River (whether by bridge or subway is unclear) and then breaks up into a bizarre shape that looks like an angel, a shrub and a gun, all of them connected by block-wide corridors of Brooklyn. There's the 7th, which is a hopping kangaroo in Queens and a stalk of broccoli in the Bronx. This is not to slight the 12th, which connects a small potbellied stove in Brooklyn to a huge upside-down Vietnamese rice worker (note the conical hat) in Queens, with a couple of pieces of the east side of Manhattan thrown in for good measure. Even the 13th (Staten Island) leaps across the Narrows to form a bizarre camel-shaped pattern in Brooklyn.

Doug Allen

Una Clarke and Susan Cleary have
Congressman Owens on the run.

To speak of the best congressional race in New York is like naming the best Irish opera, or the best sushi bar in South Dakota. But Brooklyn's 11th District, represented for the past 18 years by Major Owens, has been particularly lively this year. According to the 1990 census, the district is 67 percent black and has therefore been considered safe for Owens. But those who know the neighborhood know that that 67 percent masks a real diversity. Roughly two-thirds of the district's blacks come from various islands in the Caribbean. This year Una Clarke, a city councilwoman of Jamaican descent, ran against Owens in the Democratic primary and gave him the scare of his life. It was Owens who paved the way for Clarke's political career; the two have been friends for decades. But familiarity breeds contempt. A big selling point for Clarke was Owens' negligible Washington presence, something any Washingtonian will attest to. Owens is known in town as an affable, honest politician who's good at rhyming. Also as something of a throwback to down-the-line leftism of the American Labor Party of the 1950s. He's a fairly junior member of two rinky-dink committees (Education and the Workforce, and Government Reform), and has been rated "lowest in clout" of New York state's 31 representatives by the Almanac of American Politics 2000.

Clarke's second strategy was to talk about issues of interest to her island base, like visas and work permits. In so doing, she almost took Owens' district away from him, losing by a mere 54-46. That's not supposed to happen in districts like this one, where Owens generally runs unopposed. FEC reports aren't out yet, but Owens is rumored to have spent $300,000 on his primary alone, as against the $120,000 he spent in the whole of his 1998 race. The result of this pain in the neck may be that the district becomes more integrated than most of the ones drawn explicitly to elect minorities under the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. If Owens has his way in the 2000 redistricting, he'll be able to jettison some of those troublesome Caribbean voters and bring in more reliable white liberals from contiguous Park Slope.

What's nifty about the 11th District this year is that Clarke is not going away. She's secured the Liberal line, so she gets a second crack at Owens. On top of that, there's an interesting Republican in the race, Susan Cleary, whom I talked to last week. Cleary is a transplanted Detroit native, a vocal supporter of gay adoption (not a big-ticket GOP issue, last I looked) and a McCain delegate. (She herself gathered practically all of McCain's ballot-access signatures in the 11th and hopes McCain will campaign for her before the season is out.)

Granted, running GOP in a district that is 7 percent Republican is like running for president of India as the Prime Rib Party nominee. But Cleary also has the School Choice party line, and hopes to become a contender that way. School Choice is a new party since this summer; they're running two state Senate candidates and one Assembly candidate (Michael Sanchez of Park Slope). Cleary is candid. As for how she's going to find the money to run against Owens and Clarke, she says: "There's a lot of well-financed people who are interested in school choice. They may blow me off, I don't know. But Brooklyn is where it would work. You can't go to the suburbs, where people don't think the schools are bad."

The schools in her part of Brooklyn are so bad, Cleary says, that she won't send her own kids to them. And for the city's abysmal public-education system she blames the "special interests," by which she means (and good for her) the local UFT. She points out that at many schools in the 11th, 65 to 80 percent of kids are reading below grade level. So what she found most risible in the Owens-Clarke primary was that neither of them talked about education at all, except for programs urged by Al Gore and others to wire local schools to the Internet. "Great!" she says. "Bragging about sending computers to kids who can't read."

Best Dark-Horse Democratic Candidate for Governor, 2002

Has it occurred to anybody that if Hillary Clinton wins her Senate race, the carpetbagger issue won't even come up for the next outsider who wants to run statewide? Right now the Democratic field for the next governor's race?H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo and a bunch of other guys?looks decidedly weak, but a Hillary victory could bring national talent into it.

Why has no one considered the possibility that President Clinton might run? McCall's credentials for running the state are dubious. So are those of Cuomo, who is getting all sorts of loser cliches pasted to him, like, "He has all of his father's enemies and none of his father's friends," and "He has all of his father's vices and none of his father's virtues."

Why have a housing secretary when you can have the president who appointed him? Why not the best? It has been assumed that President Clinton will want to spend at least part of his postpresidency in public life. When you get down to it, this doesn't give him that many options. Running a company would be a constricting experience for Clinton in a way that it wouldn't be for, say, Al Gore. Besides, Clinton has never shown the slightest inclination to work in the private sector. A seat on the Supreme Court is out, due to the legal fallout from the Monica scandal, which still might see him disbarred. The presidency of a university?particularly a fancy one, like Harvard, which is coming open with the retirement of Neil Rudenstine?is out. First because of Monica, second because universities have become so fixated on endowment-building that no responsible board of trustees would take on a controversial president who would risk drying up contributions from Republican alumni.

That leaves elective office. John Quincy Adams served in the House after his term as president, and some have seen that as an option for Clinton, who ran for Congress himself in his late 20s. But Clinton has never been a legislator, and it's likely he'd find rookie-congressman status just as constricting as private industry. The Senate is out, since he's registered in New York, which has a young Chuck Schumer in one seat and his wife running for the other. If Hillary wins, that seat is closed off to Bill; if she loses, it's unlikely he'd run in 2006, for fear of embarrassing her with a victory. So that leaves...

You heard it here first.

Best On-the-Wagon Drinks

I was about to round this out with observations on favorite bars of New York City. But I called to mind a great friend of mine, an English editor who's been off the sauce for decades now, who once said to me: "Much as I love my present life, I do wish I had discovered New York before I gave up drinking." But he shouldn't despair. New York, while one of the best places in the world to drink, is the best place in the world to not drink. In a generous moment, I could even draw up for my friend a whole nonalcoholic-beverage tour of the five boroughs.

It would start at a Haitian restaurant, since Haitians, here as in Haiti, serve the world's most consistently excellent coffee. (Colombians in Colombia, by bizarre contrast, serve some of the weakest and most tepid.) There'd be a stop in a Puerto Rican bodega for a bottle of parcha, that superb orange passion-fruit nectar that everyone drinks in San Juan. Then one could go into a Colombian variety store for a tin of guanabana juice (although, this being New York, guanabana is available in practically every grocery store). And the culmination would be an afternoon spent in Brighton Beach eating hard sausage and swilling kvas, that dark brown nonalcoholic brew served out of barrels for 50 cents a Dixie cup.

Best (Decidedly Not-on- the-Wagon) Expatriate Reading of Manhattan

I've just finished The Collected Letters of Kingsley Amis (as of now, available only in England), for a review I'm doing. One of the most curious things about Amis is that, for all his anti-Americanism, he came very close to settling here. A teaching visit to Princeton for the 1958-'59 year convinced him that the average American hostess would put a martini in your hand before you got your coat off (and perhaps sleep with you into the bargain), and he absolutely pined for the place for months on end after he got back to England. It took a second visit?to benighted Vanderbilt?to reassure Amis that the States actually weren't worth expatriating to. Years later, though, he would write of New York: "Anyone who makes a business of hating it or being superior to it, and there were plenty then, home-grown and foreign, is a creep, and anyone who walks up Fifth Avenue (say) on a sunny morning without feeling his spirits lift is an asshole."

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