The Tangled Politics Of Identity

Chris Owens’ run for his father’s House seat is fraught with ethnic complexity: What’s a black, Jewish, Puerto Rican candidate to do?

Sitting down at an Atlantic Avenue diner recently, Chris Owens was none too pleased about an interview the previous night on a Jewish radio program.

“I don’t like the way the media is focusing on the race issue,” the congressional candidate said of his appearance on Zev Brenner’s “Talkline,” which included questions about the one white candidate facing three black contenders who may split the black vote in a Brooklyn primary for the soon-to-be-vacant seat of Owens’ father, Rep. Major Owens. “Bluntly put, I think I made a mistake by allowing that to be the first topic.”

Owens noted that this is not the only contest in the country that has put the Voting Rights Act – and what it means today – in the spotlight. A contest in Tennessee to succeed Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is black, also includes a white candidate.

What makes the Brooklyn election unique, Owens insists, is money. Having raised almost $900,000 – more than all his rivals combined – Councilman David Yassky, the sole white contender, has amassed more money than any primary challenger in the nation.

But even in Yassky’s monetary advantage, there is a racial component not far below the surface.

“In 2001, according to one study, the average wealth of a black family was $19,500 in this country, while the average wealth of white family was $121,000,” Owens noted. “[Yassky] is a good fundraiser, but the pool from which he pulls is also going to be a pool that has more to give.”

Owens’ message is overtly populist. “People must come first,” is the motto on his Web site. In his campaign literature he claims to be “the true progressive” in the race, a slap at Yassky that comes in handy in Park Slope, a key district battleground. Owens is against the massive Ratner development at the Atlantic Rail Yards, whereas Yassky has a nuanced position.

“In the end, my agenda is decided far more based on class issues than anything else,” Owens told The Jewish Week while eating a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder during an hour-long interview on a recent Friday morning, between events at his two sons’ public schools. “I don’t care if you’re poor white, poor Jewish, poor Christian or Muslim, what I want to see is a better world for you and your children.”

But like it or not, identity politics is part and parcel of the battle for the 11th Congressional District. And among the four candidates Owens, 47, is uniquely situated on that battlefield. As the son of a Jewish mother and African American father, he has connections to two of the biggest ethnic voting blocs in the district. (He can also claim to be Puerto Rican, having been born in San Juan.)

Doesn’t Want To Pander

Given the context of the race, with numerous black leaders saying the seat should be reserved for a black representative – and Owens himself noting that blacks are proportionately underrepresented in Washington – it seems likely that Owens being black will matter to black voters more than his being Jewish will matter to Jews in the district. “Most people don’t know about it,” says Joel Schnur, a political consultant who has raised money for Yassky but is no longer involved in the campaign. While conceding that ethnic politics is still important in some areas, Schnur said in this race that Owens “having a Jewish mother isn’t any more significant than Geraldo Rivera having a Jewish mother.”

Still, Owens’ lineage has generated considerable discussion on political blogs, such as The Daily News’s Daily Politics site, where commenters have ruminated about whether he is still Jewish, given that he and his mother have, according to Owens’ site, joined the Quaker faith.

Owens himself has been quoted in the past discussing his background in public forums – he has been a successful candidate for community school board and an unsuccessful one for City Council – but has rarely done so in this congressional race.

“If I run around telling people, “‘Hi, I’m Chris Owens, I’m running for Congress, I’m half Jewish,’ that’s pandering,”? says Owens. But it depends on the audience, he says. “I made a presentation on behalf of my father at the East Midwood Jewish Center,” he recalled. “In the context of the presentation it made sense to discuss my affinity and my connection with Judaism, and that it’s a part of my heritage I’m very proud of.”

Owens’ campaign Web site features a biography of his 83-year-old mother, Ethel Werfel, a Brooklyn-born teacher, and discusses the fate of her eldest brother, Louis, a rabbi and Army chaplain who was killed in a World War II plane crash while en route to a Chanukah service for troops in Algeria.

“It was his tradition that my mother followed, his energy that my mother connects with and passed on to us,”? said Owens in the interview. “He was essentially a socialist Zionist in the truest sense of word.”

Owens claims a single tie to Jewish observance: “Passover is a very big deal, more so than any other holiday, including Christmas,” he says. “It was the most natural alignment of blacks and Jews sharing this common bond. We’ve been enslaved, had our culture attempted to be stripped from us – in the case of blacks our culture was stripped from us – but the reality is that through faith and teaching and belief in education and knowledge that is either written or oral you can endure even in the worst of times.”

Since declaring his candidacy, sensitivity about the perception of pandering has kept Owens from making a long-postponed first visit to Israel with his mother, who also hasn’t been there. “Who’s going to take that seriously?” he pondered. “I want to go because I want to go,” not as an election year stump stop.

Owens won’t be accused of pandering with his positions and opinions about the Middle East conflict, some of which are at odds with U.S. policy and with many Israel supporters. He praises Israel’s government for withdrawing from Gaza and the West Bank. But he also sees the Bush administration’s refusal to provide aid to the Palestinian Authority under Hamas leadership as a mistake.

“Hamas is still a democratically elected group and we are now in a box,” he says. “We pushed for an election, the observers said it was one of the fairest elections ever held and Hamas won. I’m not a fan of Hamas … But still, what are we saying to the Palestinian people who really are not anti-Israel but were angry and expressing their frustration with Fatah [leaders] that were so corrupt and lazy by voting for the other guy?”

He envisions greater peace through increasing regional economic ties. “Security comes from economic security, making sure people are fed and showing them that things are going to change. We should be saying to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, let’s talk about having a regional economy and find ways to build across the borders … We would also have a buffer against Iran.”

While no poll has been taken since a fifth candidate, Assemblyman Nick Perry, dropped out of the race last month, the most recent survey, by Brilliant Corners Research, had Councilwoman Yvette Clark in the lead with 29 percent, followed by state Sen. Carl Andrews at 17 percent and Owens at 14 percent. Yassky trailed at 9 percent, virtually tied with Perry’s 8, but more than 20 percent of the respondents were undecided, making the contest essentially wide open.

Owens, who lives in Prospect Heights with his wife, Sandra Dixon, and their two sons, has a history in politics, having worked as an aide to Andrew Stein when Stein was City Council president and serving on the local community school board for six years. His most recent job before becoming a full-time candidate was as director of market development for the Americhoice Health Plan. He went back to school in 1998 to earn a master’s degree in public affairs, 17 years after graduating from Harvard with a sociology degree, but says he considered running to succeed his father – a 24-year veteran with a solid record supporting Israel and Jewish causes – only within the last five years. The events of 9-11 were a catalyst.

“After 9-11, I knew that Democrats really need to be in elected office,” he said. “We had become a party of fearful individuals.” Too much focus on the red-state/blue-state map, he says, “rather than dealing with tough issues like how do we build a peace that lasts in this world.”

Owens says he’ll continue trying to identify issues that bring communities together, leaving it to others to read into candidates’ backgrounds. Ruth Messinger, the former city councilwoman and Manhattan borough president who has endorsed Owens, said his background should be seen as part of the overall picture.

“Who his parents are and how they raised him has a lot to do with the things he cares about and the positions he takes and the sensitivities of the issues he brings to the district,” said Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, as she boarded a plane en route to Sudan. “I certainly don’t expect him to dwell on it, but from his point of view it is a piece of who he is, and knowing people from different backgrounds makes better politics in general.”