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Brooklyn’s Barack? Batson declares for Assembly, could block AY project

Bill Batson’s campaign kickoff, during a sunny-turned-cloudy (and back) afternoon on the steps of City Hall yesterday, was a rainbow coalition of Brooklyn’s ethnic groups. Add to them representatives from the Civil Services Employees Association (citing Batson’s work on the Lifespire agreement), the Green Party, the United African Congress (UAC, who helped Batson meet his birth parents), and ACRES—American Civil Rights Education Services, a nonprofit Batson cofounded that takes students on tours of civil rights landmarks.

A duo offered a graceful South African song. Civil liberties stalwart (and unsuccessful Public Advocate candidate) Norman Siegel wore a Brooklyn Dodgers jacket, a sartorial rebuke to those, like Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who invoke the departed team to justify the Atlantic Yards project.

And then there was the candidate, aiming to succeed (or is that defeat?) Roger Green in the 57th Assembly District, encompassing Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Fort Greene. There’s a whiff of the Barack Obama phenomenon about Batson: the biracial “son of an immigrant from Kenya” (in the words of UAC’s Sidique Wai), who grew up in the 'burbs (Teaneck and Nyack) but has lived in Brooklyn (mostly) since he began studying art at the Pratt Institute in 1979. (He's been in the district for five years.) Behind him, his adoptive mother (black) stood proudly and, off to the side, his girlfriend (white) beamed.

“Bill will build bridges across the racial divide that unfortunately still exist in subtle and sophisticated ways,” declared Siegel, who was referring to Batson's broad civic experience, most recently as head of community relations for Senate Democratic Leader David Paterson. (Batson later cited the need to bridge the gulf between Africans and African-Americans, as well.)

There was no one representing developers and Batson’s candidacy—however broad the issues he addresses—will be seen by some as a referendum on the Atlantic Yards project, which he opposes. That’s why a good handful of the three dozen or so supporters in attendance were from the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn coalition. The issue has salience: Siegel lost big to incumbent Betsy Gotbaum in last year's election, but he won the 57th AD.

Replacing Green's voice on AY?

Batson may be hardly a one-issue candidate, but he's an excellent candidate for one-issue (Atlantic Yards) voters. The officeholder has enormous sway regarding the state’s $100 million contribution to the project. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who controls one of three votes on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB; aka "three men in a room")--the agency that shot down the West Side Stadium--generally follows the lead of the local lawmaker. That Assembly member is now Green, a staunch supporter of the project.

Green may be leaving office; he has stated his interest in challenging incumbent Congressional Rep. Ed Towns. Though Green hasn’t formally declared for the Congressional race, Batson said he wasn’t expected Green to run for reelection. “It’s not about the names,” he added, thus avoiding mention of the other declared candidate, attorney Hakeem Jeffries, who ran a strong race against Green in the past and, as of February, had already raised nearly $60,000. (There was no talk yesterday of Batson's war chest.) Jeffries has called for a “principled compromise” regarding the Atlantic Yards plan. Batson’s unequivocally opposed.

Should the PACB have failed to vote by primary day, September 12--and there’s a strong case that a vote at this time, given the lack of a revised project plan, much less a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, is premature--the winner, if Green doesn't gain reelection, could steer Silver's vote. (In this district, as in much of Brooklyn, a win in the Democratic primary is tantamount to election.)

The candidate speaks

The Obama comparison isn't quite fair--the Illinois Senator-to-be was a far more polished speaker when thrust upon the national stage--but Batson took pains to come off as a candidate who was a bit unusual (an artist invoking artists) and, yes, a bridge-builder.

In his speech, Batson invoked a range of examples, each a “tough act to follow”: Joan Maynard, founder of the Weeksville Society; Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn Congresswoman and first black female presidential candidate; the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Walt Whitman. Later he cited as inspiring Brooklyn artist-activists Maynard, Whitman, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Spike Lee.

He recalled walking the district as a freshman art student at the Pratt Institute, when he arrived in 1979. “The communities of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights and Crown Heights once held the moral as well as physical high ground,” he said, citing the principles of public space, public participation, and public service.

“Today our community has become brownstone gold in a modern-day land rush," he said, saying our neighborhoods are desirable "not just because of the human scale but because of cultural institutions.”

Equity vs. livability?

In the crude equity vs. livability debate, Batson might seem to favor the latter: “While we welcome anyone who would like to live in Brooklyn, we also will proudly defend the rights of those who made these communities great, so they could stay on, as our neighborhoods get even greater.”

However, he added, “We need to use the power of public subsidies that virtually all these developers seek to ensure that decent affordable housing is built, and that the current housing stock is protected.”

Development on steroids

"Over 40 million square feet of new… development has been approved in Downtown Brooklyn in the absence of a master plan," Batson declared. "As cochair of the special [Community Board 8] subcommittee on Brooklyn Atlantic Yards EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], I have been a student of this wave of development on steroids. Out of context, out of scale development threatens to clog the arteries of the heart of our borough. If you combine the opportunity costs and the funds used in this development bonanza that could be used for schools or keeping hospitals open, with the public costs to mitigate negative impacts, and the ongoing perpetual costs associated with the resulting congestion and clogged traffic arteries, and the public subsidies, we have more development than we can afford.”

Batson then delivered a line that will be a stake in the ground against Jeffries, Green, or any other candidate: "Forest City Ratner's development is only nine million square feet of the problem. I say nine million square feet too much."

“They call it blighted, and then they give away to somebody to come in and build a massive private development because it’s going to help us, to work as service workers there—I don’t think so,” he said, in an ad lib apparently directed at Green, who told the New York Observer, in light of Ratner's shrinking jobs claims, that there would be spinoff jobs not initially touted in the developer's projections.

Fire and other issues

Batson, cochair of Community Board 8’s Fire Safety Committee, cited 18 suspicious fires on Pacific Street in the last 14 months; he has organized block watches and fundraisers. “How do you address the conditions that have left one half our district overdeveloped, while the other half is being burnt down to the ground?” he asked rhetorically.

Arson, he said, was the most pressing issue now, and--though it may seem to be more a city issue than a state one--he said, "There are things the state can be doing, in creating a more stable housing market."

Otherwise, Batson hedged on specifics beyond his stump speech, saying it was premature and that he wanted to talk to the community to build his platform. Not unlike a street photographer snapping shots of unsuspecting passers-by, Batson has made a practice of sketching people he notices on the subway. He'll be spending the next few months getting used to more attention on himself.