Jewish World Review July 17, 2002 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5762
John H. Fund
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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