The New York Times

October 2, 2005


Democratic Leader's Demise Followed His Organization's Slide




"Let me just make a confession," Clarence Norman Jr. declared two years ago, as he, while under investigation, celebrated his birthday with campaign contributors at a catering hall in Brooklyn. "Clarence Norman and the Democratic Party, we are involved in politics. And if there is a crime in being involved in politics, then we are indeed guilty!"


Last week, a racially mixed Brooklyn jury convicted Mr. Norman, the county's first black Democratic chairman, of violating campaign finance laws - concluding, in effect, that politics, at least as practiced in this case, indeed constituted a crime.


The conviction abruptly terminated the political career of the 54-year-old street-smart son and namesake of a minister. He automatically forfeited the Assembly seat he has held since 1983 and, with it, the post of deputy speaker in Albany. He also lost the chairmanship of Brooklyn's fractured and flagging Democrats, who had all but dominated city and state politics for much of the 20th century and whose ranks produced a number of black luminaries, including Representative Shirley Chisholm.


The developments, then, invited verdicts on the nature and impact of Mr. Norman's more than two decades in state and local politics. Interviews with an array of current and former elected officials produced the following judgments:


As an assemblyman, Mr. Norman was a presence in his Crown Heights district, but was never considered very influential in Albany.


As one of several fledgling black politicians who rebelled in the 1980's against the iron-fisted leadership of Brooklyn's last real boss, Meade H. Esposito, he opted to be no firebrand, but rather an organization man himself.


And as the county chairman, he presided over a largely vestigial structure that, starved of political appointments from City Hall, has grown weaker and become increasingly dependent on, and desperate for, judicial patronage.


In 1990, when his organizational skills finally paid off with the county Democratic chairmanship, Mr. Norman inherited a dysfunctional, fragmented party apparatus that no one would dignify by describing as a machine.


And no formal trial was needed to conclude that - despite his charm, the fierce loyalty he commanded and returned, and the multiple titles he held - Mr. Norman in 15 years as county chairman and apparently armed with power enough to abuse never delivered on Brooklyn's unique political potential as home to 929,459 enrolled Democrats, more than in any other urban county in the country.


The party organization's decline was not unique to Brooklyn, of course. But it was compounded there by infighting and scandal and by wistful comparisons to its storied past and to the promise of enlightened leadership.


Whether his successor as county chairman does any better may depend, in part, on what Mr. Norman does next. Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, hopes that Mr. Norman, facing a prison term and trials on other pending charges, will agree to cooperate with prosecutors investigating the sale of judgeships, which might prompt a wholesale political housecleaning.


"What has to be crystal clear to those people in the Democratic organization," Mr. Hynes said, "is that business as usual has come to an end."


Influence Far and Wide


The chairmanship that Mr. Norman won in 1990 was a mere shadow even of the smoke-and-mirrors mirage of political power perpetrated by his recent predecessors.


Brooklyn was rarely politically monolithic, but for much of the 20th century it produced party leaders worthy of the sobriquet, or epithet, Boss. When one of those legendary leaders, John H. McCooey, died in 1934, 30,000 mourners thronged his funeral.


In 1974, Meade Esposito was considered so powerful that his sudden disappearance from the hall during a state political convention roll call derailed the nomination of a candidate for lieutenant governor. (Mr. Esposito, as it happened, was merely returning from the men's room at the time.)


The Brooklyn machine's power was also reflected in Albany, and often in the city. With rare interruptions, the Democratic leadership of the State Assembly belonged to Brooklyn - to Irwin Steingut, Anthony J. Travia, Stanley Steingut, Stanley Fink and Mel Miller.


In the City Council, Brooklyn's Thomas J. Cuite dominated as majority leader for nearly two decades until 1985. In the last half-century, the only mayor who hailed from outside Manhattan was a Brooklynite, Abraham D. Beame.


But even in the mid 1970's, when Mr. Beame served, the Democratic organizations - they were still organized in those days, if not always democratic - were already beginning to crumble.


They fractured between regulars and reformers and along ethnic and then racial lines. Their power was diluted by the abolition of the Board of Estimate, on which borough presidents voted, and by the imposition of term limits, public campaign financing and conflict-of-interest rules prompted by corruption scandals.


One of those rules, which prohibited a borough president from also serving as the county's political chairman, created the opening for Mr. Norman in 1990, when he was only 39 years old but was already well known as the son of Clarence Norman Sr., a prominent Baptist minister in Brooklyn.


"I was raised in the church," Mr. Norman said then, "and were it not for the religious environment in which I was raised, I would not be sitting behind this desk; I could be sitting behind bars."


Two other developments hobbled New York City's political leaders.


Jobs are the lifeblood of political organizations, and these have been 12 relatively lean years, at least for Democrats.


The ascendancy of a black as county chairman at the same time a black candidate, David N. Dinkins, became mayor, raised hopes among the party faithful in Brooklyn, but Mr. Norman complained of being shortchanged. (In Albany, as an assemblyman, Mr. Norman won millions of dollars for projects in his district, including grants for Medgar Evers College and the Jewish Children's Museum, but as the deputy speaker, he had little real power.)


One fight that spoke to Mr. Norman's hold, or lack of it, on the politics of Brooklyn was the one he had to wage for his own job. In 2000, he was afraid of losing his Assembly seat to a candidate who had come within 200 votes in the primary two years earlier.


According to the criminal case against him, that fear prompted Mr. Norman to bend the rules. He was convicted last week of soliciting $7,400 in 2000 and $5,400 in 2002 from a lobbyist, knowing that the money exceeded state limits, and then trying to hide the contributions.


In a way, he became a victim of his own reputation. Henry Stern, a former city official, wrote in his blog, New York Civic, after the verdict: "Even though his alleged sins were relatively trivial for a politician, his plea of ignorance of the law was not credible. He was considered too smart not to have known what he was doing, the jury felt that his testimony was not credible. Essentially, he was convicted for personally lying to them, which made the case a contest between his intelligence and theirs."


The verdict dispelled any presumption that blacks, who constituted a majority of the jurors, would be unwilling to convict a black political leader.


"It blows that myth apart," said Mr. Hynes.


The conviction also challenged the apparent paradox that a county chairman was being charged with abusing power he does not have.


"That premise is wrong," Mr. Hynes said. "Clarence Norman Jr., while under indictment, picked a group of people for the State Supreme Court last year, picked the surrogate who will run without any serious opposition. He has enormous power, and the misuse was in the manipulation. He manipulated the system."


Neither Reformer Nor Boss


Meade Esposito used to grouse that when he dispensed a judgeship (a politician who ascended to the bench was said to have gone to his final reward), he made five jealous enemies and one ingrate.


Mr. Esposito's strong hold on Brooklyn politics was eventually challenged by several black assemblymen, Mr. Norman among them. But in his role of party chairman, Mr. Norman was neither a reformer nor much of a boss.


"When you're on the outside, you're a reformer;" he once said. "When you're on the inside, you're a regular. Let's be for real."


In 1996, then, he engineered the defeat of a protégé of his archrival and installed Michael H. Feinberg on the Surrogate's Court.


Judge Feinberg was removed from the bench earlier this year for awarding $8.6 million in legal fees to a longtime friend for handling the affairs of people who died with no wills. Acts like that hardly pleased those eager to open, and perhaps cleanse, the political system.


But Mr. Norman did not like the word boss, preferring "coordinator/mediator." "My approach has been to be, not a dictator, but a facilitator, bringing people together and building consensus," he said in an interview. "In the old days, they made a decision and they whipped everybody into line. That style doesn't work any more."


Mr. Norman knew that firsthand. In 2001, another candidate, Marty Markowitz, defeated his candidate for borough president. Last month, an insurgent appeared to have squeaked past the organization's candidate to succeed Judge Feinberg.


Mr. Norman's choice for mayor, Gifford Miller, ran fourth in Brooklyn with a mere 10 percent of the vote. Mr. Norman's nemesis, Mr. Hynes, was re-elected - if narrowly.


Still, before his conviction, Mr. Norman was actually sanguine about the party's future, predicting that the City Council speakership might go to a Brooklynite - not necessarily an organization man, though - and looking ahead to other successes next year, including electing a successor to Representative Major Owens, who is retiring


"The truth is," Mr. Norman said philosophically then, "life goes on."


Others, though, are convinced the life of even the creaky Brooklyn machine is about fully ended.


According to Grassroots Initiative, a civic group, nearly half the 10,000 Democratic County Committee seats in Brooklyn are unfilled.


"Party politics have been in a long and steady decline for years, but the current disarray in Brooklyn merely makes it more visible," said Kenneth Fisher, a former city councilman.


"I don't know that the county organization, as it's been known historically, will ever really exist again," said Councilwoman Yvette D. Clarke. "In terms of what has been demonstrated politically this year and in past years, I'm not sure what it is accomplishing."


Lewis A. Fidler, another Brooklyn councilman, agreed. "Brooklyn organization is an oxymoron."


And in Mr. Norman, it had something of an enigma to breathe its last breaths.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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