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Hakeem Jeffries rides a wave of (mostly deserved) praise, which happens to ignore his caution on Atlantic Yards; what kind of AY governance compromise is coming?

January 2012 photo by Tracy Collins
Brooklyn Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries was anointed yesterday by the New York Times as one of the city's ten "rising" power players, a nod to his record of accomplishment and his role as the clear front-runner in the race to succeed Rep. Ed Towns, who chose to retire rather than face Jeffries and Council Member Charles Barron:
Mr. Jeffries, 41, a former lawyer at the Paul Weiss firm, is politically moderate and untouched by scandal, and can talk to the gentrifiers in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene and to the Hasidim in Crown Heights. “He has the potential to swing a much larger bat in the power game than any of the black leaders in Brooklyn,” said Norman Adler, a Democratic political consultant.
Indeed, Jeffries has real accomplishments in his record, notably, as the Times put it, sponsoring a bill that "prohibited the police from collecting data on people stopped and frisked but not charged with a crime." I'd add that he got another bill passed that ensures that prisoners upstate are counted as part of the population of their home counties.

Jeffries surely would be more effective than the somnolent Towns in challenging the Republican agenda, as he's argued along the campaign trail, and he surely would be more effective than Barron, who mixes valid critiques with wacky foreign policies

In the national arena, Jeffries could not only back a Democratic president's agenda but also, for example, push for understanding of what scholar Michelle Alexander calls "The New Jim Crow," a correctional system that creates a racial caste system through disenfranchisement.

Jeffries and Atlantic Yards

For all the reasons to admire Jeffries, his not-so-forthright stance on the most controversial issue in his district, Atlantic Yards, should not be ignored.
 Jeffries has been close to the fence, sometimes a supporter, more often a critic, but generally not standing with the activists out front nor with Council Member Letitia James, the clear political opponent of the project. He doesn't mention Atlantic Yards on his campaign web site.

It's sometimes been difficult to know exactly where he stands. And that's important because Jeffries may wind up playing a key role establishing some sort of community advisory council for Atlantic Yards, as the state agency in charge of the project now supports.

There's no sign yet that the council would be attached to a dedicated governance body that includes board members appointed in consultation with local legislators. And that governance entity, not merely a community council, was key to the governance concept promoted by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition and which Jeffries has pushed. So the devil's in the details.

Rope-a-dope and caution

Some of Jeffries' posturing on Atlantic Yards, especially in his first campaign, has been political rope-a-dope. But his caution may also be a recognition of what Jeffries perceives as his own divided constituency, compounded by the challenge of not wishing to alienate Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Atlantic Yards supporter who could make Jeffries' legislative work rather difficult.

When he ran in 2006 against anti-Atlantic Yards candidate Bill Batson and clear project supporter Freddie Hamilton, Jeffries expressed support for the inclusion of affordable housing, but called the project too dense. And while he said he did not "support the use of eminent domain by a private developer to build a basketball arena," he also allowed--questionably--that the arena might be "necessary to create the jobs and housing."

He told the Times he was "more inclined to support it than not," then, before the primary vote, came out with a highly critical mailer (right).

Little political capital

Since then, Jeffries has paid relatively little attention to Atlantic Yards and spent relatively little political capital on the issue.

He has (mostlynot brought it up at his State of the District addresses and has not attended--nor, in most cases, sent his staff--to Atlantic Yards District Service cabinet meetings. (He did attend a community meeting last September with Empire State Development CEO Kenneth Adams and pressed him on governance, but not a second meeting last week.)

In another political environment, Jeffries, perhaps, could have been very effective. At a May 2009 state Senate oversight hearing, organized thanks to the short-lived Democratic Party control of the Senate, Jeffries was the toughest questioner, even though he did not take full advantage of his time nor had truly mastered the issues.

Laster in 2009, Jeffries signed but backed away from a pro-project letter, saying, "I continue to believe that the extraordinary measure of eminent domain should not be used for the purpose of building a basketball arena." But he never stood with those suing to stop the use of eminent domain.

Jeffries neither attended the March 2010 groundbreaking of the arena nor did he issue any public statement pro or con. (Council Member James did issue a critical statement.)

Unlike James, state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Jeffries did not join the petitioners organized by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition. 

So Jeffries might respond to my query last July about the impact of a court decision on the Atlantic Yards environmental review, but when community petitioners won an appeal last month he didn't issue a press release, despite having a very savvy press shop.

In January, Jeffries joined a press conference organized by his friend and ally state Senator Eric Adams, a belated project critic who's running for Borough President (and at the time was facing presumed Marty Markowitz heir Carlo Scissura).

"I've expressed a great deal of skepticism from the very beginning," Jeffries said. Well, he'd expressed periodic skepticism, but certainly didn't push too hard.

Governance history

An initial effort to establish an Atlantic Yards Development Trust, which prescribed how members would be appointed, failed in the legislature. In 2010, the Empire State Development Corporation seemed supportive of a vague bill that would merely authorize the establishment of a governance entity.

Last year, Forest City Ratner opposed such a bill, with rather specious reasoning. It passed the Democratic-dominated Assembly, but stalled in the Republican-dominated Senate. 

More on Jeffries

The Times's praise for Jeffries came in the wake of longer, more incisive profiles that made many of the same points, and more.

Wrote the Observer's David Freedlander, in a 3/2/11 profile How Hakeem Jeffries Became the Barack of Brooklyn:
The parishioners and many far beyond central Brooklyn have been expecting bigger and better things from Hakeem Jeffries since before he was even a candidate for the Assembly. His funky first name, his appeal to both black churchgoers and earnest reform types and his academic pedigree-graduate degree from Georgetown University, law degree from N.Y.U.-have earned him the label “Brooklyn’s Barack.”
“He’s got charisma, he’s personable, he’s bright, he’s good-looking, he’s got a great family,” said a local lawmaker who has served alongside him. “I think if most of his colleagues were being honest, they would tell you that they wouldn’t mind being him. It’s a good thing he’s a nice guy, because it overlooks the fact that people are jealous as hell of him.”
Jeffries "is more acceptable to the establishment," commented the flamethrowing Barron to the Observer, and that is surely true.

One dissenting note, attributed to "Hackshaw," presumably (or purportedly) commentator/consultant Rock Hackshaw (who has called Jeffries "something of a disappointment" but later said he'd endorse Jeffries):
Jeffries is the Scott Stringer of Brooklyn: overly ambitious, opportunist and talks out of both sides of his mouth.
The Booker reference

In a 10/21/11 profile, Hakeem Jeffries muster a Bookeresque coalition for Congress: Reformers, machine and all, Capital New York's Reid Pillifant described how Jeffries had found support from both charter-school advocates and charter-school opponents, and good government activists as well as Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Assemblyman Vito Lopez.

Jeffries has "been meaningfully involved in passing laws affecting key issues close to home, focusing on affordable housing, education, policing, and the counting of prisoners in their home districts," Pillifant wrote, adding that Jeffries is also operating in a local political environment with "no Cory Booker-like figure in New York at the moment."

Pillifant observed that Jeffries' "would-be political opponents, in fact, would say that Jeffries is accommodating to a fault,"

The charter school issue

Despite aforementioned portrayals of Jeffries as gaining support from all sides on the education issue, Liza Featherstone (who couldn't get an interview with Jeffries) writes more critically in the May 2012 Brooklyn Rail, On Hakeem Jeffries:
Jeffries is a champion on housing issues—a big deal in a city so thoroughly whipped by real estate interests—passing legislation to turn empty luxury apartments in Brooklyn into affordable housing, fighting foreclosures, and pushing to strengthen rent regulation. He’s fought stop-and-frisk, as well as the Rockefeller drug laws. He has also pushed for higher minimum wages, Glass-Steagall, green jobs, a financial transactions tax, and many other decent things. It almost makes sense that the Working Families Party has dubbed Jeffries the “clear choice for the 99%.”
Jeffries is progressive. Yet on education, he’s deeply in thrall to the hedge fund reformers.

Sure, he did sue the city to challenge the hiring of Cathie Black, the insultingly unqualified schools chancellor. He’s also pushed for more funding for public education. But Jeffries is close to the financiers lobbying for ever more school privatization, and that relationship has deepened in the last couple of years.


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