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Challengers For the 36th CD Take Aim at Al Vann’s Seat

There is an entire stable in the horse race this year to replace two-term New York City Councilman Al Vann in the 36th District, which comprises a majority of Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights.
“I don’t remember people talking this much about a local election in quite some time,” says Frantz Cayo, president of the Stuyvesant Heights Parents Association, which is sponsoring the first candidates’ debate on Saturday, June 6 at Brownstone Books.  “The field of candidates is fearless.  They truly believe that they have the opportunity to unseat Vann.”
Considered a neighborhood institution by many, Vann has represented central Brooklyn, first as Assemblyman, for 34 years—just as long, or, longer than a couple of the other eight contenders have been alive.
History favors him.  Incumbent council members have been re-elected 97 per cent of the time over the past 20 years, a recent City Limits article reports.  Plus, with a candidate list longer than the line for roti at Trinidad Ali’s, November’s victor would only need a slim plurality.
But changing demographics and the ‘Barack Obama effect,’ the belief that youth and change is preferable to the establishment, could throw the race to a nimble horse. For those who did not grow up in the district and homegrown residents taking stock of what has been done for them lately, Vann is just as new as the new guy.
It’s a development that lead challenger Mark Winston Griffith, 46, recently endorsed by the Working Families Party, is counting on.
“In the case of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, you have so much political leadership that’s been entrenched for generations, it should be a part of your platform to identify new folks and bring them in,” says Griffith, who opposed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s extension of term limits that also allowed 35 of 51 City Council members, including Vann, to run again.  Back in the 1990s, voters twice supported referenda to impose term limits.
Griffith, executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a think tank that advocates for the working and middle class, has so far, out-fundraised everyone.  He has $35,000 in his war chest, according to public campaign finance records, much of it drawing from citywide and national progressive political circles.  But he also has establishment approval.
Griffith is one of two candidates to receive highest marks from a panel of community leaders convened at Vann’s suggestion in early fall of 2008, according to coordinator Esmeralda Simmons, to identify his possible successor.
Since Vann’s idea for the panel occurred around the same time that talk publicly surfaced of Bloomberg’s interest in extending term limits and Vann subsequently deciding to run, charges have been leveled that the panel was convened to identify his competitors—which Simmons, director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, refutes.
The other candidate with highest marks, attorney Mark Pollard, is now Vann’s campaign manager.
Despite his lengthy tenure in office however, some new small business owners, like Serena and Patrick Icart-Pierre and Nikima Frenche, are hard-pressed to say how Vann has helped them.
The Icart-Pierre’s three-year-old Exotic Homes & Gardens is the only lifestyle and design store to brave the gritty, noisy Atlantic Avenue thoroughfare.  Foot traffic is spotty, unlike around the corner on Nostrand Avenue, and largely drawn from pleasantly surprised passers-by trudging to the post office.  Developing and beautifying this border area is a prime concern for the Icart-Pierre’s.
“If this was Park Slope, it would be beautiful,” Serena says, pointing to where blackened bricks from the mouth of the Long Island Rail Road tunnel fall off into the street.  Serena says that she doubles as the street’s cleaner and beautifier.  She and her husband wonder why there are no trees for as far as the eye can see in either direction, unlike a friend’s store, also on Atlantic Avenue, but further west in Boerum Hill.
“If I haven’t met you, I don’t know how I’m supposed to vote for you,” says Frenche who owns the eponymous day spa and private tea room on the tree-lined Tompkins Avenue corridor, a haven for small businesses which have sprung up in the last five years to cater to residents with discretionary income.
Frenche wants her councilmember to be a strong voice for “the right sort” of small businesses in the area. Read: no more bodegas.
For that reason, she plans to vote in the council elections for the first time. Her choice is Tremaine Wright, 36, owner of nearby Common Grounds coffee house.  Wright, an attorney and small business advocate, has raised about $5,000, which places her near the bottom of the field.
The Icart-Pierre’s store bears evidence of a recent visit from David Grinage, a former police officer, whose $33,000 haul puts him a close second behind Griffith.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen these guys going around,” says Patrick, who seems impressed.  He has also met the youngest candidate, Saquan Jones, 33, whose $10,000 puts him just behind Al Vann—a closeness that Jones is not expected to maintain.
The appeal of Vann’s experience and seniority cannot be dismissed, particularly when viewed against a city dominated by a strong mayor and speaker of the city council.
“If you walk around the Albany chambers with him you’ll see the respect he’s amassed in his career,” says Colvin Grannum, president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation on Fulton Avenue, who believes that term limits weaken the council.  He says that Vann’s longstanding personal relationships give him access to power.
“Vann can bring home the bacon to central Brooklyn,” says campaign manager, Pollard.
Indeed, with joblessness on the rise and Bedford-Stuyvesant having the highest foreclosure rate in the city, with north Crown Heights not far behind, an ability to coax federal stimulus dollars out of Albany’s hands is one of the major themes coming out of the Vann camp.
It has gotten the attention of Cayo who attended State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s Small Business Empowerment Forum on President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
“No other candidate was there but everyone knew Vann and wanted to speak with him afterwards about how to take part in it,” says Cayo, who plans to vote for Vann.
“Other candidates look like they’re trying to run uphill while he’s not having those same issues,” he says.
Frenche holds a slightly different take on the incumbent. “It’s time to bring in new blood.”

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