Underfunded Owens Fears Primary

Posted April 23, 2004 at 6:00pm

Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), who has already announced his intention to retire in 2006, now says he fears the voters could wind up sending him home two years earlier than he planned.

Two aggressive young New York City councilwomen are gearing up to run against him in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, and both have banked far more money than the 11-term incumbent.

“This is serious,” Owens conceded.

Owens’ latest quarterly fundraising report showed him with an anemic $2,600 in the bank as of March 31. But Owens said that figure is erroneous and his campaign will soon file an amended report with the Federal Election Commission showing him with slightly more on hand.

“Things are bad, but they are not that bad,” Owens said.

Still, whatever Owens shows is likely to be significantly less than the $97,000 Councilwoman Tracy Boyland (D) has in her Congressional account, or Councilwoman Yvette Clarke’s (D) $62,000.

Owens, 67, has acknowledged that he has had trouble raising money this cycle — a possible consequence of his decision to make himself a lame duck early. Moreover, ongoing rumors in New York that the Congressman is searching for a way to pass his seat to his son, former local school board member Chris Owens, has drawn the two councilwomen into the race — and others could follow.

“There’s still at least a fear among some ambitious politicians that he might drop out at the last minute,” said Jerry Skurnik, a New York-based political consultant.

Clarke said word that Chris Owens was soliciting support for a Congressional run last summer first piqued her interest in the race.

“The situation is quite fluid right now,” she said.

It has happened in New York before. In 1998, then-Rep. Tom Manton (D) announced his retirement after the filing deadline for his seat passed. That meant a local party convention — which he controlled — would select the Democratic nominee. Manton’s handpicked choice, then-Assemblyman Joseph Crowley (D), won the prize.

By entering the primary contest, Boyland and Clarke are at least ensuring that the Democratic nomination does not go to Chris Owens by default if the Congressman chooses to retire this year.

But Owens insisted that won’t happen.

“I’m definitely running again,” he said.

Owens said he will try to jump-start his fundraising with a major Washington, D.C., event on May 5. He said he is also going to kick into high gear his fundraising efforts at home.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the CBC will do whatever it takes to ensure Owens stays in Congress for another term. Cummings said he vowed when he became the chairman of the CBC that he would pull out all the stops to re-elect its incumbent Members.

“In being consistent with that, we will do every single thing in our power to make Major Owens come back,” Cummings said, adding that he is going to max out to his colleague and urge others to do so as well.

“I’m not worried about him raising the money,” Cummings said.

But even Owens calls Boyland and Clarke potentially formidable foes, and both come from well-known political families. Neither has to sacrifice her Council seat to run for Congress.

Boyland — a seven-year council veteran who once worked as an aide to Owens and is also a former legislative assistant to the CBC — is the sister of a state Assemblyman and the daughter and niece of former state legislators. A main thoroughfare in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood is named for her uncle.

Clarke succeeded her mother Una Clarke in the City Council in 2001. Una Clarke gave Owens a scare in the 2000 Democratic primary, taking 46 percent of the vote.

Although she does not expect to formally announce her plans for another four to six weeks, Yvette Clarke has already signed on Josh Isay, a former chief of staff to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), as a campaign consultant. And Boyland has been particularly aggressive about raising money — so much so that her campaign has already violated campaign finance laws on contribution limits, a problem Boyland blamed on an overzealous treasurer.

But how a three-way primary pans out is hard to predict. A split opposition to Owens — an iconic figure who was one of the first successful black politicians in Brooklyn — undoubtedly helps the incumbent.

“I think you’d have to say he’d still be a favorite, but it wouldn’t be a slam dunk,” Skurnik predicted.

What’s more, many voters may be inclined to give Owens his final term on Capitol Hill.

“This campaign could be a classic version of ‘The Last Hurrah,’” said one Brooklyn Democratic insider.

Still, Boyland and Clarke have plenty to gain by making a strong showing in the primary, even if they do fall short. That would give them a leg up on what is certain to be a very crowded field in 2006, when Owens does retire.

“Both Boyland and Clarke are looking to build name recognition,” the Democratic insider said. “The only way the son wins is if there’s some backroom deal.”

But Boyland, 35, rejected the idea that she was mounting a two-year campaign and said 11th district voters are ready for new leadership now.

“We don’t do trial runs in the Boyland family,” she said.

Clarke, 39, said a vacant Congressional seat in the district “is an opportunity that only comes along once or twice in a lifetime.”

In addition to the councilwomen and Chris Owens, state Sens. Carl Andrews (D) and John Sampson (D) and state Assemblyman Nick Perry (D) are considered likely to run in 2006, assuming Major Owens wins a 12th term this year. In a district with a 21 percent white population, a full slate of black candidates could tempt a white politician, like former City Councilmen Noach Dear (D) and Steven DiBrienza (D), to enter the fray.

Predicting the frontrunner in a multiple-candidate race is also difficult. And in the 11th district, where one-quarter of the residents are of West Indian ancestry, there is the added question of whether a candidate of Caribbean heritage — like Clarke and Perry — will enjoy any kind of advantage.

“While the West Indians are growing in the district,” said Skurnik, whose company maintains sophisticated voter lists, “what percentage of the vote they have, nobody is prepared to say.”