Thursday, December 18, 2003

Mary Pinkett, RIP

Mary Pinkett, the first black woman elected to the City Council, died on December 4th. That reminds me of a political me I had almost forgotten, buried under the snarky writer me, and, of course, a woman I will always miss.

In the winter of 1989, at the age of 17, I interned at Councilwoman Mary Pinkett's office in the 35th District of Brooklyn. This was before going off to college in Vermont and falling in love with the idea of writing for a living. Her office a small but warm affair in Fort Greene, above a pizza place(which made it hard to work as lunchtime approached). Thge office was presided over by her loyal aide, Mary King, while the Councilwoman was at City Hall, fighting the good fight. There I learned some of the most important lessons in my life, lessons that go beyond politics.

On my first day I remember that I wore my father's Saville Row suit, which was a good thing, as any man who has ever worked for Mary will tell you. Councilwoman Pinkett loved to have the men around her well-dressed.
Within ten minutes of knowing her, my suit recommended itself well enough that she decided to take me on a campaign pit stop. As we jumped into her town car, she began to pry me for personal information, lingering on the fact that I was born in Africa. But what was up?

And so, there I was, about twenty minutes into my new job, at a Senior Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn listening to Councilwoman Pinkett campaign. At the end of her speech, the Councilwoman told the elderly African American audience that a "young, African legislative aide" was in the audience, and that a "vote for her was a vote to bring young bright voices onto the New York scene."

And so I received my first lesson in politics. As I spent the next half an hour talking about Africa to the clearly interested seniors, most of whom fought the Civil Rights struggles in the 60s but had never been to the Dark Continent, my initial shock lessened. Politics was about using the materials at hand to ones advantage; you had to be on your toes to be in the presence of Mary Pinkett. Was everyone in politics like this? How naive I was even for 17!

Several months later Councilwoman Pinkett invited me to the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration at City Hall. I wore something green -- a tie, I think, purely by chance, but I believe to this day that that got me the invite from the Councilwoman. So there I was, a black 17 year old, at the Councilwoman's side, at City Hall with Ed Koch, the New York press and other Irish American dignitaries. Suddenly I feel all the attention in the room focus in on me. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ireland, either interested in my tie or in the fact that I was the only young black man in the room, was standing next to me and the councilwoman, solicitous. And just like that, voila: flashbulbs started clicking.

I imply here that the Lord Mayor's motives were political because he seemed more interested in my tie and how I liked the Irish coffee -- me, a 17 year old kid -- than talking to the Councilwoman, at my side, smiling into the cameras, unconcerned.

How does on talk and act when the cameras are chasing you? The Councilwoman did well, and, in the process, promoted legislation for the city to stop doing business with Myanmar (Burma),Chaired the Civil Service and Labor Committees, and promoted legislation to protect whistleblowers and the elderly on the Commission for the Aged.

Those were the days of giants. Ed Koch's administration was coming undone, crumbling really, after years in power from within by corruption charges. The way was being set for David Dinkins, who would eventually become the City's first African-American mayor, a one termer. Liz Holtzman, now a name largely forgotten, was battling to increase her budget before the now defunct Board of Elections, while I took voluminous notes in my High school notebook, for the Councilwoman. The incredibly ambitious Susan Molinari, was young, the only Republican in the Council, she was on the fasttrack to her father's Congressional seat, and a hot career in Congress before leaving to start a family and anchor an ill-fated CBS news show for children. Looking back at the drama of New York City politics, I cannot believe that I almost forgot those days altogether. But even among giants, Mary Pinkett stood tall.

Mary Pinkett, the first black woman elected to the City Council, died November 4th at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Columbia Medical Center. She was 72. May she rest in peace.

1 comment:

Adolphus said...

It won't truly have success, I believe this way.
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