Accused of Being Out of Touch, a 25-Year Congressman Campaigns for Dear Life
It was a grueling day of nonstop activity for United States Representative Edolphus Towns. He started campaigning shortly after sunrise at a subway station in East New York, in the heart of his Congressional district in Brooklyn. By day’s end last Thursday, he had stumped at a senior center and a community barbecue, solicited contributions by phone and attended a fund-raising reception in his honor headlined by former President Bill Clinton.
That is typical of the pace he is keeping lately. By his own admission, Mr. Towns is campaigning as if he were in the fight of his political life.
And why? He is a 25-year incumbent in a solidly, reliably Democratic district. He has the backing of nearly every major Democratic official in the state and has raised nearly $1 million. He faces an opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary who is a relative political neophyte, a journalist best known for having appeared on the first season of “The Real World” on MTV.
But Mr. Towns, 74, is in his third competitive race in his last five elections. Two years ago, he won a three-way Democratic primary, but with only 48 percent of the vote, one of the weakest showings of any incumbent in Congress.
To hear Mr. Towns’s detractors — and even some of his supporters — tell it, the congressman has become vulnerable because he has done little to address the problems faced by his neighbors and others like them.
“He should be a leading spokesman for the issues of urban America,” said J. Phillip Thompson, an associate professor of urban politics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But when I think of Ed Towns, I think of someone who’s been virtually missing in action on the major issues that his constituents care about.”
Indeed, nearly everyone in Brooklyn politics acknowledges that Mr. Towns is a master fund-raiser and campaigner who is very much at home with voters. But they also complain that he has been less than a potent political force in, say, the tradition of either Representative Charles B. Rangel of Harlem or former Representative Floyd H. Flake of Queens.
“In many ways, he’s made himself into a political institution,” said Barry D. Ford Jr., a Harvard-educated lawyer who lost Democratic primaries to the Brooklyn congressman in 1998 and in 2000. “But he has still not been a leader on the issues that are important: the support of schools, drug-related violence, housing and so forth.”
This year, Mr. Towns’s opponent in the Democratic primary is Kevin Powell, a 42-year-old lecturer and activist of the hip-hop generation who has sought to capture the Obama-fueled enthusiasm of young voters in the district.
In his campaign, Mr. Powell has reignited many of the criticisms lodged against Representative Towns in earlier campaigns: that he is in the pocket of the tobacco industry and various political action committees; that his legislative record has been lackluster and that he is out of step with the district, which stretches from Canarsie and East New York to Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene; that despite serving 13 terms, he wields little influence in Congress. As evidence, he cites Mr. Towns’s support of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential primary, in a district that voted for Senator Barack Obama.
“He’s been taking money from the pharmaceutical industry, even though there are seniors in this district who can’t afford prescription drugs,” Mr. Powell said. “And where is the economic empowerment zone that he promised this district 10 years ago?”
Mr. Powell added, “This says to me that we have someone in office who has just been getting over on the people of Brooklyn.”
Mr. Towns has accepted nearly $90,000 in contributions from tobacco companies since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign donations. That places him in the top fifth of all members of Congress — and significantly higher among representatives from outside the South. The critics, including anti-smoking groups, say Mr. Towns should not have accepted the money because cancer rates in his district are high and many residents have little access to health care.
For his part, the congressman says that his accomplishments have been voluminous, and that his leadership has been underestimated.
“I don’t jump in front of the cameras, like some people do in politics,” Mr. Towns said in an interview in his Downtown Brooklyn office. “I prefer to get the work done and not worry about the spotlight.”
When asked about his role as a leader nationally, he said: “When you look at who’s been in Congress from New York, I’m the only one ever to chair the Congressional Black Caucus.” He added: “That shows that I’m respected by my colleagues across the country. They respect my judgment.”
His support of Mrs. Clinton was a logical one, he said, because she had been an effective senator. “She has delivered,” he said. “And every Democratic member of the delegation supported her.”
His legislative accomplishments have been significant, too, he said, citing most recently a law he sponsored that protects residents from housing increases at Starrett City, one of the nation’s largest federally subsidized housing developments. Another bill he shepherded into law, he said, offers funds for colleges with large minority enrollments to upgrade their technology.
The reason for his weak showing in the last election, he said, is that he was concentrating more on his legislative work in Washington than on campaigning. He will not make the same mistake again, he said.
“This time, I’m focused on my race,” he said. “And the response has been tremendous. When I’m focused, you’ll see that nobody works harder than I do.”
While Mr. Powell may have nowhere near the campaign funds of Mr. Towns (he has raised a small fraction of the congressman’s $1 million), he is a widely recognized figure in the district largely because of his television and community work.
It remains to be seen whether voters will respond to Mr. Powell’s passionate critiques. Mr. Towns, an ordained Baptist minister who has maintained close ties with the black clergy of Brooklyn, is comfortable and active on the campaign trail.
Mr. Towns, who was born in North Carolina, had a varied career before going to Congress. He has been a public school teacher and an administrator at Beth Israel Medical Center. He cast his lot politically with the old Brooklyn political machine, then led by Borough President Howard Golden, under whom he served as deputy borough president.
He came to Congress in a three-way contest in 1982, succeeding Frederick W. Richmond, who pleaded guilty that year to federal tax evasion charges and resigned from the House.
Over the years, Mr. Towns has faced criticism on a number of fronts. Many union leaders denounced him for his vote in favor of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or Cafta. The agreement was aimed at lowering most barriers to trade and investment between the United States and six other nations, including the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
Some Democratic leaders criticized him for his 1997 endorsement in the re-election campaign of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican who was wildly unpopular among black voters.
In this election, Mr. Towns has received about 60 percent of his contributions from political action committees, and the rest from individuals. (By industry, pharmaceutical companies are his top donors.) The average for incumbent members of Congress is to receive about 40 percent of their campaign money from political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Towns said he wanted a strong showing in Tuesday’s primary to end any temptation to future challengers. “I’m determined to show everyone that I can win and win big,” he said. “That’s just what I’m going to do.”