Revisiting Brooklyn’s 42nd Assembly District: Can This 30 Year Incumbent Be Taken Down?
Rhoda Jacobs was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1978. Four years later the lines of her district were changed up a bit and it obviously became a minority-majority district. This meant that more than half the residents were non-white. This was when the demographics of Flatbush were changing with each passing day, as Caribbean-American moved in to these areas like nobody’s business.
That year (1982) she beat back the first of many spirited challenges by blacks who have run against her. The opponent was a Trinidad-born attorney named Anthony Agard. He was the first of three men born on that island to challenge Ms. Jacobs. They have all lost. Ten years later the demographics changed even more as piece of the district was carved out to create the 58th AD (Nick Perry). In 2002 it changed yet again but only slightly. The district is now over 85% non-white. About half the residents were born in the Caribbean. Strangely enough there is a significant Hispanic population here (about 15%) that hardly votes.
Given those racial numbers it is no surprise that Rhoda Jacobs lives for a challenge. She has had more challenges then Job from the Bible. I believe that every year of her tenure so far, someone has circulated petitions against her. She has knocked a few off the ballot, and she has won at least a dozen contests. I know very well; she whipped my ass in 1998; that year I ran against her in a three way race (with Haitian-American Samuel Nicolas also in the race). It was my first run for public office; needless to say I learned a lot and paid a big price for the lessons.
As time went by the district started attracting many Haitian-Americans as residents. They are now probably the largest of the Caribbean-American groups. Haitian-American candidates have been perennial challengers in this area for the past decade or so. As candidates go they have had challenges to overcome: including mastering the English language. You see their home-tongue is French.
Some of their candidates (in various parts of Brooklyn) left much to be desired, some were fair, and others like Jean Vernet, Rubain Durancy and Samuel Nicolas were pretty good in their articulation of issues affecting the various areas. Most -if not all- were very enthusiastic about their candidacies and chances, albeit somewhat unrealistically so.
One of the things that helped Rhoda Jacobs stay in office was the fact that there have been quite a few times when the field was crowded, with two or more blacks seeking to unseat in the same year. Four years ago, two Haitian-Americans showed up together (Michele Adolphe and Zacary LaReche); they were thrashed. Ms Jacobs got over 60% of the votes that year. Two years ago they both circulated petitions again: they were both knocked off the ballot. Then this year only one showed up: Michele Adolphe.
Last week the court ruled Ms. Adolphe on as a candidate, after the perfunctory challenge(s) from the Jacobs camp. District Leader Booker Ingram and one of Rhoda’s children (daughter) were the objectors who filed challenges to Ms. Adolphe’s petitions; they were unsuccessful. Trinidad-born attorney Danny Simonette -who has been building his reputation lately as a very good election lawyer- managed to beat back the challenge, after the Board of Elections gave Ms. Adolphe only 515 signatures -of the 500 needed- while ruling her on the ballot. During the line by line challenge, many objective observers at BOE felt that her candidacy was in mortal danger. Mr. Simonette has played Houdini with many a candidate, in his short tenure in the rough and tumble world of election-lawyering.
So now the stage is set for a straight up challenge to Ms. Jacobs; it is only the second time that Rhoda has gotten a black woman: one on one. The last time it happened was in 1990, when former school-board member Melissa Pressley was substituted for Ernie Foster. Ernie had collected signatures to run against Rhoda, while at the same time he was driving around the district in a car he owned: that carried Florida license plates. A simple check turned up that he owned property in both Florida and the 42nd District; but guess where he had last voted from? You got it: Florida. He didn’t change his registration in time to qualify as a candidate in the democratic primary; you need a year from the September before. USA-born Melissa ran a half-assed candidacy given her late entry, and this was unfortunate: she was stomped.
For years, many in the district have been saying that a Caribbean woman one on one against Rhoda Jacobs has a good shot of defeating her: we will see. With 32 days to the primary, Ms. Adolphe has an opportunity that very few of Rhoda’s challengers have had: a real chance to win this seat.
I say this because many voters are hungry for “change” and this may spike the turnout in Barack Obama’s year (so far); and any up tick in turnout in this district is sure to benefit Ms. Adolphe. I also say this because Ms. Adolphe has come a long way as a candidate since she first showed up six years ago. She called me on Father’s Day to wish me greetings, and we were engaged in an hour-long conversation where Ms. Adolphe showed a refreshing command of many issues facing us here in the city. It is obvious that she has been doing her home work and boning up on issues salient to the district. With a fairly sizeable Haitian-American voter-base as a start, and with the energy from the recent victory of fellow countryman Matthew Eugene (City Council/40), Michele Adolphe could pull off an upset. This is not a prediction, it is only an observation.
Rhoda Jacobs is still a strong favorite to win this race and retain her seat in the assembly; however, don’t be surprised if Ms. Adolphe does well here -once she is able to raise the money needed to execute the elements that guarantee a good performance. If she mails four or more times to a wide universe (beyond super-prime), and coalesces her home bases (Haitians and other Caribs), she may be able to give Rhoda a run for the money. If she doesn’t execute then she will be another scalp for Brooklyn’s number one political survivor: Rhoda Jacobs.
Ms. Adolphe faces an uphill task here. She needs to reach out to many who are beyond her natural base. She also needs to create some energy and excitement, in a district where the primaries are usually flat and listless. If she injects some life into this campaign it will benefit her tremendously. A thirty year incumbent is no easy target; Michelle Adolphe will need a little luck along the way.
Stay tuned-in folks.