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Jay Jacobs Backs Candidate Who Claims Commemorating a Klan Leader “Has Nothing To Do With Race”
The chairman of New York's Democratic Party has angered black officials on Long Island with his support for Keith Corbett to replace Kathleen Rice in Congress.
After Kathleen Rice decided not to seek re-election to her congressional seat in Nassau County, a feud erupted within the political establishment over who should succeed her. Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs is backing Keith Corbett, the mayor of a conservative village called Malverne. Jacobs says that Corbett’s moderate record and bipartisan appeal are essential to keeping the seat blue in November. Even though Rice’s district went for Joe Biden by 12 points in 2020 and routinely delivered her double-digit victories, the red wave that swept over Nassau in last year’s local elections has party leadership nervous about the midterms.
Former Hempstead town supervisor Laura Gillen is also running as a “moderate to conservative Democrat,” but Jacobs has been vocally skeptical about her prospects. Last month, he even tried to dissuade prominent donors from supporting her while he consolidated the party around Corbett. But his presumptuousness aggravated Kathleen Rice - who I’m told has never cared for Jacobs - and she endorsed Gillen shortly afterwards. The race is now a proxy war between Jacobs and Rice over which of their protégés is best equipped to compete in the general election.
Last week, I spoke with one of my readers - a Nassau Democratic insider of many years - who told me that the answer is neither. Certainly, they agreed, the party needs a pragmatic candidate who can appeal to affluent suburbanites. But they emphasized that in the state’s most diverse congressional district outside of New York City, ‘pragmatic’ doesn’t have to mean ‘white.’ In their opinion, the party’s best option is the first person who entered the race: Siela Bynoe, a moderate black woman who’s served in the county legislature for nearly a decade.
“It’s time for a resolutely suburban congressional district in New York to have a person of color in Congress, and you can’t get any more mainstream than Siela Bynoe,” my reader explained. “She’s not super progressive, she’s a very traditional African-American Democrat. She has an outstanding record: many years as a school board trustee, as a county legislator, as a local housing expert and advocate. It’s time. But Jay doesn’t agree.” When I asked if Jacobs thinks that a black candidate couldn’t win that district, they replied: “I think he thinks that Rosa Parks couldn’t win that district.”
According to the local press, Jacobs’ approach to this race has angered some black Democrats on Long Island, and the discontent appears to be bubbling upward. Hazel Dukes, the powerful head of the New York NAACP and stalwart ally of the Democratic establishment, endorsed Bynoe last week. “Now Jay is trying to create the notion that Corbett can be the candidate of the black community, having him do events with African-American clergy in the district that he has influence with,” my reader explained. “But it’s beyond staged. Those relationships don’t exist.”
That isn’t the only wrinkle in the plan to sell Corbett as the candidate of the black community. As mayor of Malverne, Corbett spent the past year resisting the efforts of local schoolchildren to remove the name of a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan from their school’s street address. Only after bad publicity started to threaten his nascent congressional run did he finally cave.
For over a century, Malverne has been a site of great racial tension - and occasionally, racist violence. In the 1920s, it served as an important hub for the Ku Klux Klan, which boasted some 20,000 members on Long Island at the time. Though they engaged in cross burnings, kidnappings, and acts of terrorism, their leaders enjoyed prominent positions in civil society. One such figure was Paul Lindner, who helped organize Klan activity across Long Island under the titles ‘Great Titan’ and ‘Exalted Cyclops.’ He was also a wealthy developer and invested heavily in Malverne. In return, it named the local elementary school after him, as well as the street where it was located.
Malverne is almost entirely white and directly adjacent to the hamlet of Lakeview, which is almost entirely black. In the 1960s, Lakeview’s students had access to just one overcrowded and substandard public school, while Malverne’s students had access to three public schools of much higher quality. In 1963, the state government issued a desegregation order to the local school district - the first of its kind in New York. Malverne resisted compliance until it lost its final appeal at the US Supreme Court in 1966. Old news footage captures the poisonous atmosphere of the first weeks of integration, as white parents protested in large numbers throughout the village.
In the years that followed, Malverne used every tool at its disposal to undermine the state’s desegregation order. From the New York Times, April 16th, 1978:
“In 1967, black residents agreed to a modification of the plan in which the [Lakeview] school was closed and state funds were used to bus children from the Lakeview area to [Malverne] elementary schools if they lived more than 0.6 of a mile from the schools.
However, in 1971, the State Legislature refused to vote further funds for busing…Since then, district residents have on nine separate occasions refused to authorize busing funds, leaving many blacks with feelings of betrayal and anger.
Black children in kindergarten through fourth grades have since had to either walk as far as 1.9 miles to school or be taken by private car, taxi or private bus at inconvenience and expense to their parents. State education law provides for transportation for elementary school pupils who live two or more miles from a school.”
Ultimately, the demographic realities of the school district simply made it impossible to maintain segregation. Recognizing this fact, many white families chose to pull their kids out of the public school system entirely. Today, over a quarter of Malverne’s K-12 students attend private schools - more than double the statewide average - while students of color account for a full 80 percent of the district’s enrollment.
In 1987, Lindner Elementary School was renamed Maurice W. Downing Elementary School to honor the memory of a beloved principal who died tragically in a house fire along with his family. But the change was sentimental, not political. For the next 35 years, the name of the street where the school was located remained Lindner Place.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, local residents started a campaign to come up with a more appropriate name for the street. Doris Hicks, president of the Lakeview chapter of the NAACP, first raised the idea at a unity rally held at Malverne High School that summer, an event intended to promote better relations between the communities. Support for the renaming gained traction among Malverne High students - most of whom had attended Downing Elementary as young children - and they took the lead in organizing for it. To learn more about their efforts, I spoke to Dr. Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Malverne Union Free School District.
“This was a community effort. It wasn’t just the kids, but the kids definitely led the charge, and they’ve been empowered by the whole process,” Dr. Lewis told me last week. In the spring of 2021, students undertook research projects examining the life of Paul Lindner and his involvement with the KKK. Ten students presented a summary of their findings to Corbett and the village Board of Trustees at their monthly meeting in June 2021. Footage of the full presentation is available online, but here are a few excerpts, beginning with remarks from Dr. Lewis.
Though they complimented the students’ work, Corbett and the board weren’t quite persuaded. “The mayor asked us to produce additional information about Lindner because they wanted to know more,” Dr. Lewis explained. But what more could they want to know? The fact that Lindner was a leader of the KKK is beyond dispute. Old newspaper coverage featuring his photograph and describing his involvement with the Klan is readily available online. Nevertheless, the students agreed to the request. “Because June was at the end of the school year, we told them that we would provide more information in the fall at a community event,” Dr. Lewis said.
After classes resumed, the students made an in-depth, public presentation of their research on October 28th, 2021. Yet even though they knew that this event was held to satisfy their desire to learn more about Lindner, neither Corbett nor any board member attended. Their absence became a major point of contention in this dispute, because Corbett spent the next six months claiming that he and the board were never invited, had no idea the event was happening, and still didn’t have the facts they needed to come to a decision on the renaming.
Corbett first made these assertions on November 2nd, five days after the event. At the village Board of Trustees meeting held on that date, a Malverne resident brought up the issue during the public comment period. Though the man is an older immigrant and speaking a bit slowly to accurately express himself, he is unfailingly polite, while Corbett is rude and defensive throughout their exchange. Eventually, Corbett says that he plans to call the school the next day to discuss the matter.
Dr. Lewis declined to go into detail about the school’s interactions with Village Hall, but she confirmed that they sent both the mayor and the board an invitation. “The trustees were invited to the event via email through the village clerk, which is the appropriate protocol. The clerk later emailed us back to say that the invitation had gone to the spam folder,” Dr. Lewis explained. She also noted that she sends out a weekly newsletter to district parents that twice mentioned the event was happening prior to October 28th. Corbett has two children enrolled in Malverne High School, so he would have received those notices too.
In the interest of making every possible effort, Dr. Lewis told me that a representative of the school hand-delivered a physical recording of the event to Village Hall in early November. I emailed the village clerk on Monday and Wednesday of last week to confirm these details, but received no reply. After the students’ fall presentation, the board took no action for several months, and progress on the campaign stalled out. It soon became clear to everyone involved that if they wanted to win approval for the renaming, they needed to rethink their strategy.
Jamie Bellamy moved to Malverne four years ago when she and her husband bought a home on Lindner Place - one of only eleven residential properties on the street. “It’s the shortest block in town, but it gets the most attention,” she said wryly when we spoke over the phone last week. She first became aware of Lindner’s history in the summer of 2020, when she attended the unity rally at Malverne High School. “When I found out who he was, I felt like I needed to be a part of changing it,” she told me. At the end of last year, when it seemed like Corbett and the board had started to drag their feet, Bellamy helped form a committee to press the issue.
“I was the only resident of Lindner Place, but we also had the village historian, members of the school board, the NAACP president, and many others,” she explained. In February 2022, she attended the monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees on the committee’s behalf. She spoke movingly about how excited she was to raise her young son in Malverne, but didn’t want him to grow up on a street whose name honored such a dark chapter in its history. She added that the committee was ready to help with whatever work was necessary to support the renaming.
When she concluded her remarks, Bellamy was caught off guard by Corbett’s reaction. “I thought that when you go to a Village Hall meeting, you speak and then you go sit down. I had no idea that he was going to speak to me and question me the way that he did, but I gave it right back to him,” she recalled with satisfaction. Video footage of the entire meeting is available online, but let’s take a look at the most revealing excerpts:
Much of what Corbett says here is difficult to parse. He claims that this is the first time anyone has directly asked the board to take action on this matter, which is not true. He repeats his assertion that the school never invited the board to attend the students’ fall presentation, even though Dr. Lewis told me that Village Hall received a recording of the event in November. And he says that the board still doesn’t know enough about Lindner to make a decision, but concedes that the students’ findings are “probably true” and that the name “probably should be changed.”
But before it does so, Corbett says that the board must consider all the facts about Lindner, “good, bad, and indifferent.” Though he won’t come right out and say it, he seems to be suggesting that even if Lindner was a Klansman, there may be other aspects of his legacy that warrant keeping his name on the street. Bellamy catches his meaning, and makes the point that a rich person who does charitable works can still be a racist unworthy of commemoration. Corbett then responds with a real scorcher of a take: “This has nothing to do with race.” Things only go downhill from there.
Corbett starts toying with the idea that being a Klansman doesn’t necessarily imply that someone is racist when he demands that Bellamy produce evidence of Lindner’s “publicly expressed beliefs,” not merely his membership in the KKK. Corbett makes this point even more explicit in his exchange with Malverne High freshman Olivia Brown, who addressed the board after Bellamy. When Brown asks what the main reason for the board’s hesitation is, Corbett replies: “No one’s doubting any of [this] information, we’re doubting exactly what it says. Paul Lindner’s personal beliefs are never expressed in anything…I’m not doubting that he was probably in the KKK.”
At the next Board of Trustees meeting in March, the campaign submitted a report packed with nearly 40 primary sources - some of which were known to the board all along, others of which were new - containing evidence of Lindner's role in the KKK, as well as bigoted statements that he made. Bellamy and Brown spoke again, reflecting a shift in tactics. “One reason that Olivia became the students’ spokesperson is because we know that the village trustees were saying, ‘These are not our kids.’ In other words, they’re our district kids, but they’re not Malverne residents,” Dr. Lewis explained, noting that the district includes neighboring areas like Lakeview. “That’s when we decided that our spokespeople would only be Malverne residents.”
At long last, the board relented, and called a special session to initiate the renaming process earlier this month. Corbett says it only took so long because the campaign failed to provide the board with the details it requested in a timely manner. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that just a few weeks before, Kathleen Rice announced her retirement from Congress, and Corbett decided to run for her seat. It’s also notable that the approval came just as the Lakeview NAACP started planning to protest the board’s inaction, which could have undermined Corbett’s support among black voters.
Given Corbett’s behavior over the past year, it’s not hard to see why Jacobs’ support for him has displeased black officials on Long Island. Last month, Newsday reported that it was one reason for State Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre’s recent request that Governor Kathy Hochul remove Jacobs as state party chairman:
“One core point of disagreement between the chairman and the lawmaker is the way he has proceeded on the Democratic primary to succeed Rep. Kathleen Rice…Some say he is ignoring the sentiment of local Black elected officials who favor county Legis. Siela Bynoe — an ally of Jean-Pierre. Jacobs has indicated a fondness for Malverne Mayor Keith Corbett, a loyal lawyer for the party operation.”
This brings us to another troubling aspect of this saga. Being the mayor of a small village like Malverne is only a part-time gig. Corbett’s day job is at the Long Island law firm Harris Beach, whose managing partner is Thomas Garry, vice chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Party. Corbett himself serves as the party’s law chair. Mere months after their strained relationship with black voters contributed to an abysmal showing at the ballot box, Nassau Democrats are handing out congressional seats as patronage to cronies that black leaders view with justifiable suspicion. As a more successful politician once said: there they go again.
Despite the resistance she faces from Jacobs, Bynoe could still pull off an upset. But her odds are undermined by the presence of the fourth major candidate in the race: Carrié Solages, one of Bynoe’s two other black colleagues in the county legislature. Their districts are directly adjacent to one another and they’ll be drawing from a similar base of support. That’s a remarkable stroke of luck for Corbett as he battles Gillen for the moderate white vote.
Good thing for him that after Solages was arrested in 2017 for beating up his girlfriend while demanding to know where she hid his drugs, Jacobs welcomed him back into the fold with open arms. Today, their relationship is as warm as ever. Carrié’s sister, State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, is an ally of the Nassau Democratic machine. Just last year, former governor Andrew Cuomo appointed their brother Philippe Solages to a judgeship on the Court of Claims - a gift from Jacobs, my reader tells me. You know what they say: sometimes luck is what you make it.