Professor Predicts He’ll Upset 11-Term Incumbent

Posted July 19, 2004 at 6:07pm

The Democratic primary involving Rep. Major Owens (N.Y.) promises to be one of the most intriguing of the year. [IMGCAP(1)]

It features Owens, the beleaguered 11-term incumbent, and two New York City councilwomen from prominent Brooklyn political families, Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke. To spice things up even further, Clarke is the daughter of Una Clarke, a former city councilwoman who gave Owens the scare of his political career in the primary four years ago.

So how does the fourth Democratic candidate, college professor and community activist Gabriel Toks Pearse, plan to get any attention at all?

“Even though I’m not an elected official, I do much more than elected officials,” he says, speaking with the lilt of his native Nigeria. “And I’m not as unknown as you would think.”

Certainly if the length of one’s résumé and the breadth of one’s good works were the chief qualifications for public office, Pearse would win hands down.

“I have serious credibility, a record of good work and a plan for the community,” he says.

Pearse’s résumé spans three pages — and mostly lists volunteer jobs on political campaigns and community service. If all the politicians he has purported to help — Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, New York Comptroller Alan Hevesi (D) and former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger (D), just to name a few — returned the favor, Pearse would be a shoo-in.

“Virtually everyone in politics is well-known to me, and I’m well-known as well,” he says.

Pearse got his undergraduate degree in Nigeria, and received a master’s and doctorate from Sheffield University in England. He also did some doctoral work at the University of Wisconsin. He lived in Chicago from 1986 to 1992 before moving to New York.

In his day job(s), Pearse teaches English at Mercy College and black studies at Brooklyn College. This too, should help him with the voters, he reckons.

“I’m a professional educator, and this is one of the largest areas of need in the community, and that puts me in good stead with a lot of the community.”

And it may be a community looking for a change.

Other than his 2000 primary with Una Clarke, Owens has glided to re-election in his heavily Democratic, majority-black district. But he made himself vulnerable this year by declaring that he would retire after serving one more term.

This political miscalculation made Owens seem like an early lame duck — and aroused suspicions among ambitious central Brooklyn pols that he was trying to figure out a way to hand the seat over to his son, Chris Owens, a former local school board official. Given the fact that Boyland and Clarke are the daughters of politicians, Pearse is contemptuous of the whole lot.

“It seems that they want to perpetuate a system of the monarchy,” he says, adding that his opponents have been afraid, so far, to debate him.

And he has individual barbs for each.

Of Owens, Pearse asks, “He’s already a lame-duck Congressman. What’s he going to do in the next two years besides sleep away the time?”

Of Boyland: “She’s running on her family name.”

Of Clarke: “She just got into the City Council.” And he grumbles that it is Una Clarke, not the candidate herself, who is calling community leaders on behalf of Yvette’s campaign. (Una Clarke did recently compare herself to a “stage mom” in an interview with a local columnist.)

Pearse contrasts the politicians’ performance with his own recent work with a church group, collecting and sending humanitarian aid to Haiti.

“They’re naming streets [in New York] after Haitian leaders,” he says. “I’m raising money for Haiti.”

But if Pearse has a talent for fundraising, his campaign hasn’t shown it yet. He hasn’t even reached the $5,000 threshold that requires him to file with the Federal Election Commission. Owens, who was almost entirely broke after the first quarter of the year, had $169,000 in the bank on June 30. Boyland had $95,000, and Clarke had $59,000.

Still, Pearse says he has enough commitments for contributions to remain competitive. And he says the fact that last week he turned in 2,700 petition signatures, when only 1,250 were required to get on the primary ballot, was a good first step in proving his viability. (The state Board of Elections has yet to validate the signatures, however.)

“I’m glad that people like you are talking to me now,” he tells a reporter. “I think people will be shocked when I win.”

Then, Dr. Gabriel Toks Pearse pauses.

“Well,” he says, “Major won’t be shocked when I beat him.”