By Linda Villarosa
Imagine this lopsided contest: The Brooklyn Nets vs the Brooklyn Technical High School basketball team — the J.V. squad.
That’s what the match-up between Eric Adams and John Gangemi looks like in the race for Brooklyn borough president. Since he announced his candidacy in March, Adams, 52, a four-term Democratic state senator, has been endorsed by mayoral hopefuls Christine Quinn, Bill de Blasio, John Liu and Bill Thompson. Adams has also gotten the thumbs up from outgoing Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, former Borough President Howard Golden and several large unions, including the 350,000-member 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East. His campaign war chest is edging toward half a million dollars.
Gangemi, meanwhile, has been officially endorsed by exactly no one since he announced his intention to run. He’s registered with the campaign finance board, but has recorded zero dollars and zero cents at this writing. A former city council member, Gangemi last held public office when Jimmy Carter was president. He has no campaign headquarters outside of his Bay Ridge law office and no website or Facebook page. He has said he prefers letter writing to Twitter.
Last week, Adams experienced a bump in the road when he showed up on a list of elected officials secretly wiretapped by state senator Shirley Huntley at the request of FBI investigators. But insiders believe this strange hiccough won’t slow Adams’s momentum. Most speculate that he was simply collateral damage in Huntley’s attempt to gain leniency in her own corruption scandal.
Adams has been adamant that he did nothing wrong. “I have not been contacted about any investigation,” he said in a statement. “I believe deeply in transparency and the pursuit of justice — and that is why I committed 20 years of my life to law enforcement. I am more than willing to help with any investigation.”
Gangemi, seeing an opening, spoke out earlier this week. “Eric Adams doesn’t have a shot,” the 74-year-old lawyer told The Nabe. “I’m gonna whip his fanny.”
That seems unlikely.
“I don’t want to say that he’s not a real candidate,” says Robert Carroll, president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID), who struggled to pronounce Gan-gem-mee. “But is Eric Adams the heavy favorite? Yes. Do I expect him to win? Yes.”
CBID hasn’t endorsed Adams — yet, Carroll points out.
The bigger question, however, remains: Why the shortage of serious candidates for a major office?
The Brooklyn borough president race was also more interesting a few months ago before City Council Member Dominec Recchia of Coney Island dropped out to run for a seat in the U.S. congress. But some observers believe that Adams had already sealed the deal even before Recchia began eyeing Borough Hall.
“Eric started talking to people and locked it down early,” says Chris Owens, a Brooklyn community activist and political consultant. “By the time Domenic got around to telling people he was thinking of running, they were saying ‘that’s nice, but we’ve already committed to Eric.’ He got frozen out.”
Adams’ political savvy may have scared others away, like City Council Members Letitia James and Brad Lander, who have both been mentioned as potential borough president candidates. “Eric has worked hard to cultivate all kinds of relationships, not just in the black community,” says Owens, who first met the candidate in 1994, when Adams unsuccessfully campaigned to unseat Owens’s father, now-retired U.S. congressman Major Owens. Both Adams and the Owenses are black.
Others may have backed off because they believe Adams is the right guy for the job. He’s an outspoken, home-grown former police officer, and would be the first African-American president of Brooklyn.
Although the borough is more than one-third black, an African-American has never risen above deputy borough president, as was the case with Howard Golden and Bill Thompson in the eighties and, more recently, Markowitz and both Sandra Chapman and Yvonne Graham.
“For us it’s huge,” says Owens. “It continues a wave of visible empowerment.”
Empowerment maybe, but not power. Some of the more ambitious politicians may see the borough presidency as a dead end. It has been more of a PR gig than a position of real influence since the charter revisions of 1989 stripped the office of the power to control land use and budget decisions.
“Before the charter changes, the job had great power; you could oppose the mayor,” says Dr. Jerome Krase, author of the books “Seeing Cities Change” and “Ethnicity and Machine Politics.” “Knowing the limitations, now people often think twice about running.”
Larger (and louder)-than-life Marty Markowitz, sometimes called “party Marty,” understood the lack of power the position held when he was elected in 2002. But that didn’t stop him from working to transform the borough — by sheer force of his sometimes over-the-top personality. During his tenure, Brooklyn blossomed with increased tourism, a creative and culinary renaissance, and, of course, the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn is now New York City’s fastest growing borough.
Markowitz’s relentless cheerleading definitely helped. “Marty is a tough act to follow,” says Carroll. “He has been a driving force in a position without many defined responsibilities or specific duties.”
Krase believes that Brooklyn now needs strong, focused leadership to match its re-shaped population. “We need more than boosterism,” he says. “Brooklyn has changed. We have people with more education, money and influence. I don’t think they are going to be content with not having political power.”
And, he adds, “neither should the borough president.”