OTP: You=re a 27-year veteran of the Assembly. Why would you give up that kind of seniority for a freshman seat on the city council?
Al Vann: Because of my long-range view of what=s best for the community, not what is in the best interest of Al Vann. I think Annette Robinson has shown great leadership as an elected official and community leader. I would not like for her leadership to be lost because of term limits. We have a strategy, not a backroom strategy, but a strategy that must be approved by the voters. That if successful, will allow her to be in leadership in Albany in the Assembly, and for me to serve in the City Council. Thereby this community can retain its leadership.
Being a freshman councilman does not disturb me. Because there will be 35 members of the council who will be Afreshmen@. Indeed the majority will be freshmen. I will not be a fresh person, I=ll be a new Councilman. I have 27 years of elected experience, which I think will be very valuable in what will be brought together next year. I don=t see it as giving up anything, if your view is how can you serve you community and not just yourself. So I disagree with those who use that as a reason why I should not run.
OTP: People in the community are asking about the kinds of things the City Council concerns itself with. They ask about gentrification and Co-oping of public housing. Gentrification first. How can we keep our black folks in these areas?
AV: well my focus has been on my work as a State Assemblyman in the state legislature. I have not tried to be a City Councilman up till now, but I would say this. From what I know of the City Council and what the charter actually provided for is for the council to be co-partners with the mayor. So there is a lot of power within the City Council that I believe has not been used. I think the city council can be the legislative body for the city. And I think almost co-equal to the mayor. So a lot of the issues that we feel may not have been addressed to the benefit of the people, can be addressed by a very active and very viable City Council.
OTP: Speaking about the Assembly for a moment, how did you vote on the repeal of the commuter tax?
AV: I wasn=t there when the commuter tax came up. I was in West Africa, Ghana at the African, African-American summit. I was flabbergasted that it actually passed. I knew it was going to be an issue, I had no idea it was going to be fast-balled. I thought it would be something discussed over a period of time, and as I say, I was flabbergasted that it passed. I would have vote against it.
OTP: Clarence Norman had voted for it and when I had asked him about it he said it was for reasons of collegiality with upstate legislators, but it was $360 million of collegiality. That=s one vote and $360 million lost. What kinds of income streams do you deal with? As Chairman of the CorporationsCC CC Committee, what role do you play in bring money into the community?
AV: The committee that I chair has authority over the public authority commissions. Obviously the public authorities get most They do most of the financing for the construction of major projects from bonding, but we do have some jurisdiction in how they function. What my role has been is to sensitize and even demand that WMBE=s get a fair share of the contracts.
AV: Women and Minority Business Enterprises. If there is a mark I have made as chair of the committee, I think that would be it. Whether it is the School Construction Authority, the Dormitory Authority, the Port Authority or the MTA, that has been the thrust of what I have done from the position that I hold. As matter of fact we have recently completed a survey, and will be putting out a report card in the next few weeks on how well they have done in the last few years in awarding contracts to women and minority businesses. People will be able to see how well they have done or not done.
OTP: While you=ve been in Albany, you=ve brought in millions of dollars for social agencies in the community. One of the criticisms is that the kinds of institutions that are built are dependent upon funding from the state, as opposed to independent businesses. How do you fund institutions that are independent corporate entities? Supermarkets, that kind of thing.
AV: If I understand your question correctly, you can lead a horse to water, but you can=t make him drink. What do you expect one legislator to do? We bring in resources that our community can benefit from. Some of it is directly, some is indirectly. You try and create an environment and atmosphere where people will choose to go into business, but you can=t make people to go into business.
Economic development has a lot of definitions and interpretations. Different people have different frames of reference. I like to think that all of the efforts we have made to maintain institutions and organizations, is economic development. The fact that I created for the first time in this state, foster care/adoption programs for African American and Latino agencies in this city and state that never existed before. Those are multimillion dollar programs. They employ thousands of people. That=s economic development. The fact that I was able to maintain Interfaith Hospital for instance. The fact that I brought in the Bishop Hugley=s Nursing Home on Herkimer between Buffalo and Rochester among others. This is economic development. Not just in terms of providing jobs for people, but also at the same time providing quality service for local people working in those institutions. Those are a few examples. Bedford-Stuyvesant particularly does not lend itself to certain kinds of economic development. It is basically a residential community. The economic development has to take various forms. We need to further develop our economic strips, and there is some progress being made along those lines. But unfortunately we don=t own that real estate. Through the years we were not as aggressive in ownership as we should have been. So now we are dealing with people who own it and our people are coming in and leasing the space and going into business. That=s what you do until you own, but we=re at a tremendous disadvantage. What I advocated years ago, after we had the incident with the Koreans on Nostrand and Fulton, we established the Bedford Stuyvesant Community Trust. We set in motion an ability to organize the businesses on Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue. In fact we also organized the Koreans, but that was not our intent. But they came together in order to respond to our organization. They probably stayed together. Basic to that Trust was to have all the businesses support a trust that would use resources to provide technical assistance to Black and Latino small businesses. To set up a training program for young people who wanted to go into business. To create a program, say at Boys & Girls High School and others to begin to bring awareness to young people that you don=t have to just aspire for a job.
OTP: You were trying to show the horse that he was in fact thirsty.
AV: That=s right. You don=t have to want to be a cop, you don=t have to want to be a teacher. You can go into business. This is what America=s all about. We set it in motion, but it really wasn=t carried through with the people who were involved. This is often the case. We respond to various community needs, but if the people themselves don=t carry these things forward, you can=t expect elected officials to do everything. Expect them to create the program, make it happen, and then run it. There is the need to generate more leadership from our community who understand that there is only so much that can happen from the top. There is a dependency with people expecting everything to happen from government. But there are things that happen because it comes from the community. If I go to the City Council, whether I be the Speaker or not, I will work to advance programs and policy concepts that will enhance a bottom-up strategy for the development of services, be it economic or social services. There has to be a coming together of community organizations. There is a prototype. I founded the Bed-Stuy Community Conference, years ago. It was an advanced concept at the time. We realized that we could no longer allow each individual community-based organization to continue to function just on their narrow base. We had to come together and coalition in some way. Plan together, strategize together, go after resources together and eliminate a lot of the duplication of services. We did that for a number of years without any funding. It was very effective. Child care and educational organizations would meet and plan. The economic development groups, the housing groups, foster care groups, it worked very well when we had no money.
I was instrumental in neighborhood-based initiatives coming into being from the state side with governor Cuomo and others. We were probably the first NBI, Neighborhood Based Initiative, to get funded, because we already had a model in place. So money started to flow, we started funding the groups. You would think, if they had stayed together, there would be a multi-million dollar agency in Bed-Stuy, dealing with a community=s concept of how we can represent our people, provide services for our people, and work toward self sufficiency.
OTP: What happened?
AV: Money has a way corrupting in terms of taking us off our mission. We=re not different than anyone else other than we can=t be like everyone else. We have to be different. Because we=re black people. We have all these other things working against us. We need to be true to our mission and true to our model. It worked well. When NBI was de-funded, when Cuomo went out and Pataki came in, he no longer carried out those initiatives and the money dried up. We were not creative enough and strong enough to keep our thing going in other kinds of ways, until additional revenues came into play. There are some things that are still standing from that, but the basic structure no longer exists, although there are some committees that continue to function.
OTP: But the groups no longer coalesce?
AV: Exactly, but we=re going to have to do that again, and I will bring into being something similar from a city-wide perspective. Because I think the community has to be organized that way, in order to survive. In order to make progress. We can=t afford to have all these groups. Everybody=s merging, the big guys are buying out each, merging, acquiring. If they have to function that way on that level, what is that telling us on how we have to function. It=s just common sense. I see from a city policy a way of providing incentives and direction to make sure that happens. There has to be a bottom up strategy, and that=s going to be the major policy initiative that I will advocate, either as a member or as a Speaker.
OTP: As I was preparing to come and see you I spoke with my mother-in-law Janie Green, who you knew as an activist in her day, and she thinks a lot of you.
AV: And we haven=t always agreed.
OTP: And a lot of other people hold you in high regard. Now we have Stan Kinard, the young man running for the City Council, he has his new ideas. He=s new leadership coming from the community. The voters voted for term limits. Now this switch that you are doing, isn=t that counter to that?
AV: I don=t think so. First of all, I disagree with term limits, but it=s the law right now. What they=ve said is as a City Council person, you can only serve two consecutive terms. So theoretically, if I do nothing, Annette Robinson obviously cannot run again, but after her term, she can come back and run again. That=s what the law states. The fact that I put myself in a term-limited situation, I=m not reversing term-limit, though I would like to do that, she will no longer be able to serve as a City Council person. I will serve as a Council person. I will be term-limited and I=m not sure what problems they have with that. This is not a secret deal. This is a political strategy that we are courageous enough and bold enough to say we think this is a way that our community can have our leadership, if you think it=s good, to continue into the future for a while. Not indefinitely because I will be term-limited, she will not. I don=t intend to be in office forever. I don=t intend to die in office but that=s beyond me, that=s up to God Almighty. And for those who say they want to bring new vision, being 50 years or older, and bringing new vision, I would have to say, AWhat have you done?@ Anyone can have ideas. If I=m a candidate, and I=m over fifty years old, I don=t want you just bringing new vision, show me what you=ve done, and I will have more respect for you. Rather than to criticize those who have been out here doing things. And my political judgment has been good so far and I think the people will probably go with my judgment, because it=s based on my dedication to the community.
OTP: One of the things I was struck with, as I looked at your background and Stan=s is the similarity between you two. The activist background the aggressiveness the intelligence, it seems like there is a natural kinship. How does that work with politicians? After speaking with you separately, it seems like you guys have a natural match. How do you make room for new leadership that has to come along behind you?
AV: Stan has been trying to make a way. He ran against Frank Boyland and his new vision didn=t work there. He ran against councilperson Tracy Boyland, and his new vision didn=t work there. He=s become a perennial and now he=s running over here, and of course he=s free to do that, it=s a democratic society. More important that new leadership is effective leadership. People don=t throw out something that works, just because it=s been around. It=s counter to our African tradition and our respect for elders. The most important thing is that you have leadership that=s working for you. When someone comes along Anew@, it means they must offer something better that will benefit the people. Not because it=s new, or because it=s young. I=m not impressed when someone says they want new leadership. Show new leadership, don=t just talk about it. You mentioned perhaps the similarity that may exist between Stan Kinard and myself, and I think there=s a lot, being black, being conscious of our roots and being true to them. Where we may differ, when I was a young man, I did not make my reputation because I was a teacher. I made my reputation because of the other things that I did, other than what I got paid for. I didn=t get paid to organize the African American Teacher=s Association. I didn=t get paid to be involved in the community in negotiating for Medgar Evers College and bringing that into the community. I didn=t get paid for serving on the board of the Bed Stuy antipoverty organizations, or Bed-Stuy Restoration corporation. Or organizing parents when they were afraid to come into the schools, when we called ourselves Negroes and so forth. Teaching was what I got paid to do, but because I lived in this community, was born in this community, saw that there were needs and problems, and I got involved in them beyond my A9-to-5@. So I=m not impressed with people who because they work in the community feel that somehow they=re showing their dedication, love and commitment. They=re getting paid. Show me what you do beyond that. Then I think people will have a little more respect and you=ll gain more support and be able to do the things that you want to do. I did not come into politics because I wanted to be an Assemblyman. I was involved in trying to make a difference in the community. People came to me and said we think we know what you=re trying to do. You can do it better if you are an elected official. I was not geared toward electoral politics. I was a community activist. I weighed that and looked at that, and said I=d try it. And if we can do things better and make more changes, why not. I challenged Cal Williams and the first time I challenged him, I did not win. I did not run in the primary, I ran on the Vannguard Line in the general election and got two thousand votes. People said if you could get two thousand votes in the general election, you should run in the Primary, you=d probably win, and in 1974, that=s what I did. I ran and I won and the rest is history.
But I didn=t just sit back and look at people and say I want to be an elected official. I was doing things in the community, that=s my criteria. Stan Kinard, he has come to me at different times and I=ve tried to help him with his situation, high school, this that and the other. At no point did he say, AThere are things that I think you can do better, there are some issues I think you need to address, let me work with you to do this, that and the other.@ I can respect that, if he came in that way. But when you come and say, AI=m going to challenge you because I have some new vision.@ I say fine. Take it to the people, and if they agree with you, no animosity. Certain people I expect a little bit more from, because you come from an Afrocentric base. At least that=s what you express in your rhetoric. People who have a common bond because of our history should approach things differently. You may come and say, AI=m going to run,@ and call that respect, but I want you to respect all that I=ve tried to be about in this community for all these years. I don=t think that I warrant you just coming in and running against me. Although I don=t fear that at all, and you have the right to do that. People will speak. But If you respect the role I=ve tried to play, struggling in this community all these years, I think it would warrant a different kind of response. But that=s just one man=s opinion.
OTP: What about the other races, for Mayor, District Attorney, do you have folks you are supporting yet?
AV: City-wide we will be supporting Norman Siegel for Public Advocate, and Willy Thompson for the Comptroller. I will not yet endorse a mayoral candidate. I=ve just endorsed Jeannette Gadson for Borough President. State Committeeman Annette Robinson. The County leader is going with DA Hynes, we will probably go with that, although I understand that the young woman who was going to run against me, now is running for DA.
OTP: Sandra Roper.
AV: She has not asked for my support, and we will probably be committed to go with the County leader and Hynes in any event. But she never asked. That=s not a wise strategy on her part.
OTP: You=ve grown up in this community.
AV: Born and raised.
OTP: There have been a lot of changes, and one of them, is that there are a lot more different members of the African Diaspora here now. How do we relate to them better? I found myself recently speaking to one of the vendors and noting that he was from Africa, without saying which country and it was a lack of awareness on my part. How do we relate better to the members of the Diaspora be they from Africa or the Caribbean?
AV: Most people look for immediate, short-range solutions to problems which usually do not work. Coming together as a community is an ongoing process and has to come from the base. The people who make up the community from their block associations or tenant associations, retail associations, it is these organizations and organs which reflect the diversity of the people that have to interact and appreciate what each other brings to the table, and identify a commonality. People being together is not necessarily a community. If we don=t understand that we have things in common, a common destiny, our children will suffer the consequences. For instance let=s take schools. What I find I,s beyond the fact of the parents not being involved in the schools, people in the community have to understand they have stake in the public schools. They think AUnless I have a child or a grandchild going to that school, then I don=t have to be concerned about what=s happening.@ That=s ridiculous. Our schools should have involvement from parents and Grand parents, and from community-based organizations who understand that we have to make those schools work. We have to bring experience expertise and technical assistance in strengthening the community=s role in that school. If it means leadership training for the parents, whatever we bring to make sure those schools work. The children are from our community and they will affect us, property, the future. There is a whole mindset we have to effect in how we begin to deal with each other, whether it=s on the block level the precinct council, all of the organizations that affect the community, we have to make sure there is a common understanding. It=s all a reflection of our mindset. What we=ve experienced uniquely as an African People. The slave mentality, all of the things that have occurred that cause us to think as we do towards ourselves, and how we react to others. There has to be a cultural/spiritual element that is very strong in our community. Because as my grandmother used to say, you can be an educated fool. School alone is not the answer. We have a lot a black people who have a lot of money a lot of degrees and they are a part of the problem because they lack their connection to us because they don=t understand their culture, they don=t understand the creator, they don=t understand their responsibility, and how they got where they are. Because if they did they=d be much further ahead. One of the problems in the black community is lack of leadership. Those who have the leadership skills moved out and made no ladder. No connections coming back. In many cases they=ve left their momma back here. We must always build in the cultural/spiritual connection.
OTP: Amos Wilson spoke of how the more MBA=s we have, the fewer black businesses there are in our communities. As I look as these corner bodegas, I see businesses that gross $40-70,000 a week, and the people supporting them with their dollars complain they have no money. How do we change that?
AV: I have been well aware of the problem. I think that in times past, and even now, we don=t control the education system. We have been educated away from what we should be about. We=ve been educated into being a job seeker, instead of owning businesses. That was not always true in Bed-Stuy. When I grew up in Bed-Stuy, Fulton Street had black-owned businesses. Mrs. Warren had a grocery store, you had Tip-Top, we had the pool hall, we had Butler Florist, Little Grey shop Restaurant, a bakery. We had black-owned businesses, we were developing our own economy, spending money with our own people. They spent money with their own people. That=s what economy is all about. But their children got educated away from business. Become a postman, social worker, teacher, or whatever, we=re making progress. And it was progress to some extent, there had been limits to what black people could do. There weren=t many things that were open to us. But fundamental to America is to do business. And we had businesses that we did not continue and grow because we were told we needed to be something else. We have been educated away from the basic foundation of a capitalistic society, which is doing business. So we have to re-educate our people to understand, you need to be a business person. Those of us who have that inclination, skill and ability. Some of us need to be teachers, doctors and lawyers. But some of us need to be in business and not think that it=s something inappropriate. That=s one of the things I attempted to do early on, when I originally set up the Bed-Stuy Community Trust. It was a recognition early on that we need to make young people aware of what business is all about. What America is all about. And that you can be independent. You can be an owner. Not somebody that=s looking for a job. You can provide jobs. It=s that kind of orientation and mindset that we have to strengthen and provide incentives for and provide direction for, which is not now being given.
OTP: is there anything you=d like to add?
AV: Just to elaborate on what I=m attempting to do, cause I want it to be very clear. First of all, the people will decide if it is a good strategy or not. They will vote for me to go to the City Council or they will not. If they do, it means they approve. If I=m elected, they will vote for Annette or someone to fill my seat in the Assembly. For people to say this is somehow a backroom deal, or this flies in the face of the public will, I question that. First of all, most black people did not vote for term limits. When you analyze the vote that came out, those who did vote for term limits, the majority of the vote for term limits was in the white community, not the black community. That=s number one. You cannot say black people believe in term limits. You can say it=s the law in New York City, and that most people in New York City who voted, voted for it. But you can=t say most black people voted for it. That=s number 2. but the most important thing is that my political judgment that I=ve been making over time, few people will say that I have not acted in the best interest of the community. To now say that the judgment or decision I=ve just made, now I=m not always right, but to think that it=s not in the best interest of the community against what I have been about. You may disagree with it, but it=s Al Vann=s decision of what I think best represents and protects this community, good leadership. I wouldn=t even leave the Assembly if there were somebody that I knew that I felt good about who could provide the kind of leadership that I know Annette Robinson is capable of providing and has demonstrated she can provide. I=m very comfortable in the assembly. I=ve done things and there are some more things I probably could do. I=m a known quantity there. I like to think I=m respected there. But having said that, if I leave the Assembly and come to the Council, I don=t lose my relationships. I still know people in State. And should we be fortunate enough and God Bless us, and Carl McCall gets elected governor, I don=t lose my relationship and friendship with Carl McCall, because he=s governor, and I=m on the City Council. And should I be fortunate enough to be Speaker of the Council, it only strengthens what this community and this City can get from the empowerment that would represent. So I don=t know what the problem is. You can disagree with me, and you can offer a different vision, you can offer a different alternative for people, but your coming into being should not be based on your criticism of me, but what you present. Not on what I haven=t done. I=m only one person.
Speaks His Mind