Personal Bests

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Best of Manhattan, Posts.

Best Congressional
Race in New York City

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.


Una Clarke and Susan
Cleary have
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

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.

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

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

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."