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Jewish World Review July 17, 2002 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5762

John H. Fund

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Not Just an Average Joe: A black GOPer may give Rep. Eliot Engel a run for his money | The announced retirement of Oklahoma's Rep. J.C. Watts has set off a predictable round of hand-wringing about the Republican Party's lack of "diversity." Mr. Watts's departure would leave the GOP without a single black member in Congress.

Unless, of course, another black Republican wins this November. That isn't likely, but there's a chance. On Friday Joseph Holland, a former New York state housing commissioner, announced he will run in a bizarrely shaped new district that joins parts of suburban Rockland County and the city of Yonkers with the far northern part of the Bronx. The Democratic incumbent, Eliot Engel, may be vulnerable; he won only 50% of the vote in a 2000 primary against a black state senator.

Mr. Holland, a 44-year-old businessman, has a story of great promise, disappointment and redemption. He grew up in Yonkers and went on to be an All-America football player at Cornell and a Harvard Law School graduate. Upon leaving law school he co-founded both a substance abuse center and homeless shelter in Harlem. He then opened businesses to employ the people he sought to help, including the first inner-city American Express travel office and a Ben & Jerry's ice cream franchise. Among his most ardent supporters was Van Woods, owner of the legendary Sylvia's soul-food restaurant, who along with Mr. Holland co-hosted Jack Kemp's well-publicized 1996 campaign visit to Harlem.

A lifelong Republican, Mr. Holland had the good fortune to sign on as co-chairman of George Pataki's campaign for governor in 1994, at a time when few thought the obscure state senator had a chance to topple Mario Cuomo. Mr. Pataki rewarded him by making him the state's housing commissioner. But in late 1996, Mr. Holland suddenly resigned when the New York Daily News reported that he had fallen seven months behind in repaying $100,000 he had borrowed from the state to open his ice-cream parlor. The collapse of a restaurant he owned also led creditors to seek and win a judgment of $508,000 against him.

In the ensuing six years, Mr. Holland has moved back to his native Yonkers and worked his way out of his financial mess. He says voters will be satisfied with his answers to any questions.

But can he win? The reconfigured district is shaped like an upside-down swan with the body in Rockland County and a neck swooping down the Hudson River joined to the head in the Bronx. While nearly half of the district will be new to Rep. Engel, it still tilts strongly Democratic with a population profile that's 50% white, 32% black and 18% Hispanic. Al Gore won 68% there in 2000, vs. 60% statewide. Any Republican would be an underdog.

Still, there is a plausible scenario that would elect Mr. Holland, whose connections to Mr. Pataki and other top Republicans ensure that his candidacy will be well-funded.

In the Bronx, which makes up 45% of the new district, Mr. Engel will win big thanks to his assiduous cultivation of constituent needs. A Wall Street Journal profile of him entitled "Revenge of a Nerd" described how he prided himself on spending more time than city hall did worrying about broken traffic lights and subway delays in the north Bronx. Still, his 50% showing in the 2000 primary against a scandal-plagued state senator is a sign of continued hostility towards him by local black and Hispanic leaders. Minorities make up 70% of the district's portion of the Bronx. Ambitious pols in the Bronx might see having their troops sit on their hands as a good route for their own advancement. If a black Republican wins the seat, he could be an easy target for one of them to pick off in 2004.

In Westchester County, Mr. Holland is likely to do well in Yonkers, his hometown, which has a Republican mayor. Next-door Mount Vernon, a largely black middle-class town of 67,000 people, will be a key battleground.

Suburban Rockland County makes up 30% of the district and is the wild card. Republicans routinely elect the county executive there along with state legislators. Indeed, until 1999 the state senator from the area was none other than a Republican named Joseph Holland. Although they are unrelated, sharing a name with a popular local figure won't hurt Mr. Holland. Recall the Eddie Murphy film "The Distinguished Gentleman" where the star plays an average Joe who wins office because he shares the same name as the deceased incumbent.

Mr. Holland notes that Gov. Pataki carried the district in 1998 and says he should be able to make inroads among traditionally Democratic voters. "The values are already there," he says. "They have conservative values structured around family and God and responsibility."

Mr. Engel's allies respond that while that may be so, voters in the Bronx portion of his district routinely reject all Republican candidates, even New York's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. For that reason, Mr. Holland may also seek the ballot line of the small Independence Party to avoid the reluctance of many voters to even consider pulling the Republican lever.

No doubt many Republicans will pour money into Mr. Holland's candidacy between now and November even though he is an underdog. Some of that will stem from a desire to avoid media catcalls about losing the only black member of the House GOP caucus. There certainly is a double standard involved. In 1995, there were no stories about the lack of "diversity" among Democrats when the only American Indian in Congress, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, switched parties and joined the Republicans. He even blasted his old party for only paying "lip service" to the interests of Indians. There were only yawns from the media.

The "diversity" issue is far less important to minority voters than whether school choice, national health care, empowerment zones or small-business formation become a reality or not. Nonetheless, the symbolism of having African-Americans in high positions is important to many people, including guilty whites in the media and Bush administration. And while it is true that Republicans such as Colin Powell and Condeleezza Rice occupy major appointed positions in government, there have been few elected black Republicans at the national level since Oscar DePriest, who represented Chicago's South Side, was ousted from office in 1934 as blacks began abandoning the party of Lincoln for the party of the New Deal.

Mr. Holland isn't the only black Republican running for Congress this year. Joe Rogers, the lieutenant governor of Colorado, is seeking a suburban Denver House seat. But scandals in his office make it unlikely he'll survive the GOP primary. In 2000 Jennifer Carroll, a retired Navy officer, outpolled George W. Bush in her Florida district to win 42% of the vote against incumbent Democrat Corinne Brown. She is running again this year, but redistricting has solidified the Democratic tilt of the district and makes her rematch a long shot.

Mr. Holland is also a long shot, but an investment in his race would show Republicans have a serious interest in promoting candidates who go against the stereotype of their party. Having a competitive race in the nation's media capital that featured an attractive black Republican would also be a plus since it would be sure to draw significant attention. Voters would benefit too, because this year incumbent gerrymandering has reduced the number of truly competitive House races to a mere two dozen out of 435 seats. A serious Holland-Engel match-up would give voters a genuine choice.

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07/15/02: The McCain Mutiny-II
07/01/02: Opening the Schoolhouse Door: The politicians can't stop school choice now
06/20/02: The Body' Bows Out --- American politics will be duller without Jesse Ventura
06/06/02: It's time for President Bush to stand up to California's senators
05/16/02: A Court Intrigue: Procedural funny business in a racial-preference case
05/14/02: Thin moral ice: New revelations from a skater's Stasi files recall an oppressive era
05/09/02: Newark, Zimbabwe!?
05/02/02: Will Terror Leave Us No Choice? Teachers unions try to use Sept. 11 as an excuse for bad schools
04/23/02: The New Nixon? Al Gore plots his comeback
04/16/02: 'I, Uh, I Have No Comment': A union plays dirty in opposing an antitax initiative
03/31/02: Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Filibusters can help the Senate GOP get things done
03/14/02: Red-Light District: It's time to draw the line on gerrymandering
02/21/02: Slippery Slope: Can Dick Riordan beat California's Democratic governor?
02/14/02: Reform School: The Shays-Meehan incumbency protection act
02/07/02: Arizona Highway Robbery: Politicians make a grab for campaign cash
01/31/02: Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
01/17/02: Dr. King's Greedy Relations: Cashing in on a national hero's legacy
01/10/02: Oil of Vitriol
01/04/02: The little engine that couldn't--and the senators who don't want it to
12/24/01: E-mail and low-cost computers could be conduits for a learning revolution
12/13/01: How Gore could have really won
12/07/01: Let our students keep their cell phones
12/04/01: Why the White House gave the RNC chairman the boot
11/12/01: A Winsome Politician: She won an election in a majority-black district--and she's a Republican
11/01/01: Bush Avoids Politics at His Peril
10/30/01: Cocked Pit: Armed pilots would mean polite skies
10/24/01: Chicken Pox: Hardly anyone has anthrax, but almost everyone has anthrax anxiety
10/11/01: Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible
10/04/01: Three Kinds of pols
08/24/01: Lauch Out: Who'll replace Jesse Helms?
08/08/01: Tome Alone: Clinton's book will probably end up on the remainder table
08/03/01: Of grubbing and grabbing: Corporation$ and local government$ perfect "public use"
07/31/01: Affairs of State: The Condit case isn't just about adultery. It's about public trust and national security
07/14/01: The First Amendment survives, and everyone has someone to blame for the failure of campaign reform
07/12/01: He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet
07/12/01: Passing Lane: Left-wing attacks help boost John Stossel's and Brit Hume's audiences
06/25/01: Man vs. Machine: New Jersey's GOP establishment is doing everything it can to stop Bret Schundler
06/15/01: A Schundler Surprise? Don't count out "the Jack Kemp of New Jersey"
06/06/01: Memo to conservatives: Ignore McCain and maybe he'll go away
05/29/01: Integrity in Politics? Hardly. Jim Jeffords is no Wayne Morse
05/22/01: Davis' answer to California's energy crisis? Hire a couple of Clinton-Gore hatchet men
05/07/01: Prematurely declaring a winner wasn't the networks' worst sin in Florida
04/23/01: How to fix the electoral process --- REALLY!
04/11/01: A conservative hero may mount a California comeback
03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund