Return to:


The Electronic Policy Network
TAP Online's Election 2000 Coverage
TAP Current Issue
Topical Archives
On The Web
Current Web Features
Web Feature Archives
Join Our Discussion
Inside TAP
Mission Statement
Contacting Us
Site Overview
The American Prospect - Online
V O L U M E  1 1  I S S U E  5  J a n u a r y   1 7  2 0 0 0

The Ecumenist

Russ Baker
 Print this article  Email this article

On October 6, the crowd at the Manhattan Institute--a mostly white, clubby, conservative think tank--enjoyed one of those delicious pinch-me moments: hearing a speaker improbably introduce George W. Bush as "my homeboy." But if the moniker seemed mismatched, even odder was the bestower, an urban African-American minister and lifelong Democrat, the Reverend Floyd Flake.

Floyd Flake has been blurring party lines for some time now, not just warming up Republican crowds, but actually endorsing the candidacies of Republican New Yorkers Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Alfonse D'Amato. The fact that his occasional defections seem so strange underscores one of his favorite themes: that Democrats should not take blacks for granted. And maybe they shouldn't: Blacks were Lincoln Republicans, even Eisenhower Republicans, before becoming a near-monolithic, 90-percent-plus Democratic voting bloc in the civil rights era.

To Flake and his sympathizers, his electoral preferences are less important than whether his wandering eye brings money and services to his community, and whether it advances long-term personal goals--like playing a major role in policy formation, perhaps as a future mayor of New York City. Despite his abandonment of liberal Democratic candidates, a surprising number of them still speak--and think--rather well of him. That, at least, is an indication that something complex and potentially important is going on.

The Preacher

On a recent Sunday, a horde flowed into Flake's $23-million Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, filling most of the 2,500 seats during each of three services. They came by car from all over, an amalgam of the black lower-middle and middle-class urban core, not poor, but not suburban either, still struggling for stability. A sprinkling of executives, professionals, and small-business owners joined a lot of service workers--teachers, sanitation workers, nurses, postal employees, cops--many of them collecting a paycheck from the government. A powerful and large gospel choir warmed up the congregation, then a young associate minister asked for offerings and began reciting the benefits associated with church membership, and the accomplishments. The church would feed large numbers on Thanksgiving. The ministry for women would be available to counsel about divorce, separation, and other family problems. Child care was available during services. A trip to Barbados was planned. The culinary school had begun registration.

Then the 54-year-old Flake entered like a rock star, resplendent in a white embroidered robe, and boogied in the pulpit. He praised the cathedral choir and pitched their Christmas CD. Then he launched into his sermon, a hoarse razzle-dazzle of rhythmic verbal artistry. He reminded the congregation of the biblical 10-percent tithe to the church, then proposed that they give another 10 percent to themselves. He was preaching financial planning. "Black folks ain't poor," he shouted. "We got $500 billion in disposable income." He urged they tear up high-interest credit cards and invest in a mortgage. Flake talked, as he always does, about accepting personal responsibility and taking charge of one's life. The feeling-good congregation enthusiastically dispensed handshakes and hugs to one and all, responding to several pleas for money by dumping generous offerings into brass receptacles and baskets.

Flake, one of 13 children of a Houston janitor, was raised to revere education and responsibility. He began preaching at age 15, and sold black newspapers on a route. He became the first of his family to attend college, getting a degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio, then went on to work as a sales representative for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and a marketing analyst for Xerox, all while continuing to preach. He served as an associate dean at a black college, Lincoln University, and then as director of a black student center and acting chaplain at Boston University. He arrived in Jamaica, Queens, in 1976, at age 31, as pastor of the long-established Allen church. The community was beset by all of the societal ills of the inner city, including drugs and blight, and he immediately set about building a network of church-based social services and business ventures to address them. Impressed local ministers urged him to take on the local machine-backed congressman in 1986, and Flake won.

During his decade of commuting between Capitol Hill and his pulpit in southeast Queens, his voting record was essentially that of a liberal Democrat. But right from the start, he had a close relationship with some Republicans, notably Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who backed him in his first House race, against a Republican. As far back as 1980, he attended a D'Amato fundraiser, and he and his wife even gave the maximum allowable donation to the senator in 1983. Flake also adopted some distinctly illiberal stands: He backed banking industry bills opposed by antipoverty activists, was one of four Congressional Black Caucus Foundation members to support a GOP bill authorizing school vouchers, and was one of three supporting a cut in the capital gains tax. Today, he's quick to say that he's delighted to be freed from the constraints of being a House member, and far freer to pursue his feeling that African Americans have been taken for granted too long by the Democratic Party, and that changed times call for changed strategies. Black ministers, he says, are taking back the initiative from a generation of black politicians who have not accomplished enough for their communities.

Still, Flake had generally supported Democrats, tempering his stance with occasional tacit support of Republicans who helped direct pork to his district. Since giving up his seat in 1997 to devote himself full time to his church, his partisan ecumenism has became more direct. That year, he endorsed Rudy Giuliani's re-election as mayor of New York. Then in 1998, he endorsed both D'Amato and Republican Governor George Pataki. These days, he has a column in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post (regarded by many in the African-American community as a paper with persistently racist undertones) and a perch as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; he has also been casting around for corporate boards to join.

There's no denying that Flake's maverick status stems from deeply felt principles. He is, first and foremost, the leading proponent of a new vision for black ministers who grew weary waiting for the Great Society rescue that never came. He's deeply concerned about crime, but is not a simple lock-em-up right-winger. He's for waging an even more aggressive war against drug cartels, but he supports sensible sentences for small dealers and decriminalization for users. "You can't incarcerate a whole society for basically having made poor choices," he says. At bottom, Flake has a two-pronged strategy: pressing responsibility and self-sufficiency on his community and congregation, and cutting funding deals with whomever is in power. Some people, like the former minister turned Republican congressman J.C. Watts, Jr., of Oklahoma, have gone all the way into the GOP embrace. Flake is still playing both sides. With that approach, he positions himself as a man for Republicans to seduce and for Democrats to study, embodying the complex crosscurrents swirling around minority politics in America today.

The Social Entrepreneur

Floyd Flake's ecumenism has certainly paid off handsomely. At the helm of one of America's fastest growing congregations and a vast social services empire, he's riding a bonanza. Federal, state, and local largess flows, including the relocation of two federal buildings and pending construction of a rail link to the nearby Kennedy airport. He's in demand as a speaker; he's got an inspirational book out; he's appearing on all kinds of political talk shows. On a recent morning, the neocon scholar Abigail Thernstrom was wandering around his church's school, and the mayor of Syracuse popped in for an impromptu visit.

Some find more than a trace of opportunism in Flake's tilt to the right. "As the only Negro game in town, he gets all kinds of money for that," says one African-American activist (who didn't want his name used). Those who criticize Flake also point to his somewhat checkered history. In the early 1990s, Flake was accused by a female assistant of improper advances and by a trustee of financial irregularities. He faced federal prosecution for allegedly diverting church money to support an opulent lifestyle--the charges were dropped, and he paid a large fine to settle a government civil suit over his use of federal housing money to build a church school.

During a recent tour of his neighborhood, Flake told me, "Those of us who have made a commitment to stay in an urban community have decided that this is our paradise." We began in his spacious office atop the sprawling Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church complex on Merrick Boulevard in the Jamaica section of southeast Queens. The tall, slim pastor was nattily dressed in a pinstriped white and burgundy shirt and white tie. Seated in a leather wing chair, he leaned toward me for emphasis. "We are going to rebuild that paradise--and we understand that it means some paradigm shifts, even politically, because the majority of the statehouses today are in the hands of Republican governors and the majority of the assemblies are in the hands of Republicans. So we can either continue in a protest mode or we find ways to have entrée to deal with who is in power now."

I asked Flake why there was not more political content in his sermon, why he didn't try to expand the analysis on the credit card issue to include the duplicity of banks that raise rates as much as possible on those who can least afford them. Flake said that was not his approach. "Basically, African-American political positions are about blaming somebody else," he said. "Mine is about challenging people to look within themselves and try to correct the problem."

This is classic Booker T. Washington self-sufficiency, nicely in sync with the Republicans and, for that matter, with Bill Clinton. It works for a struggling black middle class who saw the number of black elected officials skyrocket, yet found themselves still pretty much on their own when the Great Society was over. It works for a black polity that despite its Democratic loyalties is in many ways conservative--in favor of government spending but critical of welfare, worried about crime but distrustful about the uneven ways in which state power enforces laws.

Flake combines a passion for personal responsibility within his flock with an indulgence of corporate responsibility. On the House Banking committee, he backed industry legislation to weaken the Community Reinvestment Act. When I asked him about the effect of tobacco and alcohol on the African-American community, he acknowledged their harm but sought to downplay their deleterious effects in comparison to illegal drugs: hardly surprising for a man who worked for a cigarette company when he was younger, but in striking contrast to the Reverend Calvin Butts in Harlem, famed for whitewashing billboards for offending products. Flake's rhetoric moves people away from protest, away from confrontation, away, even, from any sort of resentment of the rich, the powerful, the white--ongoing inequity and prejudice notwithstanding. In fact, black activists I talked to told me that they rarely see Flake at any sort of a demonstration, even when other prominent ministers and community pillars show up. (He and his wife did, however, uncharacteristically turn out for a protest over the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, and even got themselves arrested.)

Gregory Meeks, Flake's successor in Congress, questions whether Flake's accommodationist approach will yield substantive, long-lasting improvements, yet he also gives Flake credit for what he's built. At Allen church, parishioners face a stunning array of services, running the gamut from counseling to leisure. Churchgoers clearly approve, annually contributing a whopping $7.2 million. But government is the cash cow. Among the government monies that Allen currently receives are $11 million in largely federal funds for home care programs, $3 million in federal funding for senior housing, $600,000 in state money for a women's resource center, $250,000 from the city for a senior feeding program, and $150,000 from the city for senior transportation. Additional income is generated from a church-owned bus company and from school tuition. It's an approach that John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, sees as a perfect example of marriage between the Great Society legacy and neoconservatism. "This is a sign that the right has co-opted the decentralist rhetoric that the left invented," Mollenkopf says.

The Tour Guide

Flake is not just a pastor; he is CEO of a sprawling empire. On a fall day with pale blue skies and a strong wind, at my request we climbed into his sporty luxury coupe and went on a tour. We passed through a shifting black urban landscape, from leafy sections lined with beautiful Tudors and Colonials ("A lot cheaper than moving to Westchester County," Flake said, pointing out where Jackie Robinson, Count Basie, and Lena Horne once lived), to distinctly more modest strips. Soon we came to rows of neat houses built on a cul de sac, the fruit of a joint project between Flake's church and the New York City Partnership, a business group--166 homes in all, offering ownership to struggling former renters. "This guy was paying $1,000 a month [in] rent [when he lived] in the Bronx," he said, pointing to one property. "Now he rents his upstairs out and gets $1,050." Some of this land used to be junkyards. Not far away, we passed formerly abandoned houses he'd renovated with bank loans and rehabilitated buildings acquired from the city that he'd turned into permanent housing for the formerly homeless.

Then on to the Allen Senior Center, two buildings with a total of 420 tenants and about 200 people to feed each day. Flake dispensed hugs and joked with the residents, expressing mock alarm that some of the seniors had taken off to see a movie about a psycho killer. Outside, a gust of wind caught a woman's hat and blew it across the street. Flake ran after it. "I've got the reverend running," laughed the woman. "These are the kind of things that allow me to stay grounded," said Flake.

We stopped at a multiservice center featuring pediatric health and other services, which Allen manages on a contract from the city. The city, Flake said, asked them to apply because it couldn't find anyone else to run the center. A woman we met there told Flake she was moving over to run a program for addictive mothers that he was instrumental in getting funding for, along with the mayor. Flake quickly said that he didn't work with Giuliani--he worked with city administrators. "I try not to go to him. I don't want to be indebted."

Here the story gets even more complicated--and suggests that Flake is a powerful figure that few politicians want to offend. Flake endorsed Giuliani in the last election over Ruth Messinger, a liberal Democratic challenger. Yet Messinger doesn't feel resentful. Flake was more than gracious, Messinger told me. He allowed her--as he does all candidates--to speak to his large and voting-motivated congregation. Flake had warned Messinger a year in advance that he had to think about his own political future--which presumably included not going against a famously vindictive mayor or one popular for his tough law-and-order image in an area still grappling with drive-by shootings and resurgent drug trade. "For years, [Flake] has talked about how what he did would be in the interests of his church," Messinger said. "That's a motivating factor in a huge number of situations, and it's sort of refreshing to have somebody be so up front about it."

But, Flake's relationship with the mayor has steadily cooled, and Flake suggests he's unlikely to back Giuliani's U.S. Senate bid; "He has alienated so many people, he has made no outreach into communities like this that gave him those significant numbers." By contrast, "Alfonse [D'Amato] showed up for everything. He's a Republican but he didn't dismiss the community. And Pataki--Pataki will get around to different events and sponsor some events that are predominantly African American." This is testimony to a curious kind of GOP pragmatism that seems to flourish in New York--as well as a new black pragmatism.

Our next stop was the Allen Christian School, Flake's living, breathing advertisement for vouchers. At the school, which was built in 1982 and serves 480 students from pre-K through eighth grade, I saw plenty of computers and eager kids, several yelling out "Hello!"--the boys wearing ties, black vests, and leather shoes, the girls in plaid skirts or jumpers and crisp yellow blouses--and equally pleased teachers. Flake's been able to keep some good teachers for 17 years, and some of his teachers have master's degrees--although he pays them just two-thirds of what they'd earn in New York City public schools. He sees a kid with a long face, sitting in the office for doing something he shouldn't have. "He's one of my best in church," he says, loud enough for the boy to hear his disappointment. Maybe it's all a show for me, but I'm persuaded that if a school's final authority can have that kind of direct connection, he's onto something.

Flake has pretty much given up on public schools. He's convinced that expectations and standards are so low that urban-system kids are never going to be able to compete with ones educated in the suburbs. Flake argues that the only way to save public education is to do it on a school-by-school basis; he is a key backer of New York City's first public charter school.

I asked him what the Democratic Party needed to do in order to make public education defensible. He said it came down to challenging the teachers' and administrators' unions. Flake says that he has more than 50 public school teachers in his congregation and that they frequently complain that they are discouraged by union reps from going beyond the normal effort. "If white kids were being paralyzed by the system the way minority kids are, the system would change, the attitudes even of the union members would change," he said. He wants the whole educational management process rethought, to include, perhaps, the hiring of community-minded corporate CEO's who can stress innovation. "If Democrats are not in power, we can't wait for another generation of our kids to be lost and assume that in due time, just through protesting, things are going to happen," he said. Flake's agenda is preparing black kids for an increasingly test-based society. He argues that manufacturing jobs will not re-emerge and talks about training youths for an e-commerce economy as a direct alternative to a rising black prison population.

Shifting Alliances

Flake is the most striking of several black preachers who have made tactical alliances with Republicans in recent years. The Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church (once the pulpit of Adam Clayton Powell) backed Pataki, and he got a much-needed shopping center for his community and a state university presidency for himself in the bargain. Even the perennial urban provocateur Al Sharpton endorsed D'Amato in 1986--even if it was only to settle a score with Democrats he thought had disrespected him. Reverend Charles L. Norris, Sr., of the Bethesda Baptist Church of Jamaica, executive secretary of Southeast Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment, says many of the clergy group endorsed D'Amato when he ran in 1992. They subsequently regretted it because D'Amato didn't take care of them the way he did Flake, and they didn't repeat their endorsement in 1998.

Flake estimates that somewhat less than 20 percent of his constituents voted for any Republican in the past few elections. That may not sound like a lot, but it is compared to Harlem, where the GOP rarely gets beyond 5 percent. How do you explain that? Flake figures it's because he's got a sizable middle class there, former liberals who see things differently now that they're in the corporate suites. He's particularly struck that African Americans in their 20s and 30s, many having studied at Ivy League schools and having gone on to work at major white institutions, have little interest in the historical black leadership and its concerns. They don't want to hear about their parents' struggle. "What they want to know is that, in this era of e-commerce, they have a chance. They feel some sense of a commitment to give back but they don't want to spend their time looking for the next protest." He says this younger generation dismisses Republicans as racists and Democrats for having failed the city. As a result, they're almost apolitical. When they bother to vote at all, they are more likely to vote on a case-by-case basis.

Explaining his eagerness to join corporate boards, Flake says "the majority of America's corporate leadership are not Democrats, and they don't live in the cities where they run their operations from. Someone needs to be at the table with them to help them to see the broader picture in a lot of areas where they don't see it."

There is even speculation--dismissed by the minister--that Flake imagines himself New York City's mayor. And, in an indication of how fluid things are, the pundits can't even decide on which ticket he would run. "If Flake runs as Republican, that will be the most interesting thing to happen in NYC politics in living memory," says Mollenkopf. Jim Sleeper, author of Liberal Racism, ponders a race with Floyd Flake on the Democratic line and Puerto Rican Herman Badillo, another advocate of conservative-identified solutions and a Giuliani protégé, on the Republican line.

Flake still considers himself a Democrat, and indeed a good friend of Clinton, behind whose re-election campaign he rallied reluctant black clergy. He doesn't think Gore is the man to transform the educational debate, but thinks Bradley (with whom he worked when both were on their respective banking committees) might, since Bradley isn't going to get much teacher union support anyway and since he has been slightly more open to charter school and voucher experiments. And Flake is working the full terrain from center to right: He's a fellow at Brookings as well as the Manhattan Institute. As for his introduction of "homeboy" Bush, he says it was made clear that he was introducing him, not endorsing him.

Flake never explicitly told me what the Democratic Party needs to do to appeal to people like him, but several things come to mind. He wants to call a halt to broad, meaningless promises, and replace them with detailed action plans that can be achieved with limited resources. He wants the party to stand up to its constituent parts--like teachers' unions--and start demanding results. He wants to see more government funding and pushing for innovation and entrepreneurship on a local level. And he wants the Democratic Party not to come asking for backing unless it is prepared to win.

Many who disagree with his pas de deux with the GOP tend to accept his analysis. "It's legitimate to question whether in [the] long run his stands are good for his parishioners," says Jerry Hudson, executive vice president of 1199/SEIU, Health and Human Services Union. "But what has the black community gotten out of walking in lock step with the Democratic Party?" Few would challenge Flake's gospel of self-help and individual responsibility. Liberals sneered at the Million Man March, but it resonated with a lot of people, including the sorts of people who attend Allen church.

Not many peers will go on the record to criticize him, and indeed, most seem to like Flake a lot personally. Great liberals like Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters in California remain good friends; Waters even wrote a blurb for his book The Way of the Bootstrapper. Flake thinks his endorsements are understood to be about bringing goodies home, not about trying to lead the troops into the Republican camp. Parishioners agree. "Sometimes the media think that black people are kind of homogeneous in their political views, which they're not," said Alan Sturgis, a psychotherapist who is a new church member.

So what, finally, does the Reverend Floyd Flake represent? To those who have studied the role of black churches in politics and social services, much here is familiar, but with an unusually adroit execution. In part, Flake stands for equal opportunity pork-barrel--a savvy black community leader doing what it takes to survive in an era of Republican rule. Although Flake's operation contrasts with the antipoverty empires of the 1960s, particularly in its embrace of such Republican and New Democrat themes as bootstrap capitalism, personal responsibility, and school vouchers, it also still depends heavily on traditional public investments in infrastructure, housing, and social services. In that respect, Flake's operation is not so different from Adam Clayton Powell's. What's really new is the tactical alliance with Republicans like D'Amato, who know how to play the game.

The game is good for Flake and his parishioners, but perhaps risky in the long run, in that New York Republicans are atypical in their fondness for public outlay. Nationally, of course, D'Amato, Pataki, and Giuliani are elements of a party that stands for drastic cuts in funding for public improvements, housing subsidies, and social services on which Flake's paradise is partly built. D'Amato, for example, was succeeded as banking chairman by Senator Phil Gramm. Flake may know how to lean both ways on this partisan tightrope, but if his associations make it safe for more black parishioners to vote Republican, he becomes the agent of a partisan alignment beyond his own control. On the other hand, if Democrats fail to recognize that black urban voters are now substantially middle class and looking for more than welfare handouts, they become accomplices in this partisan shift.

As he drove me to the subway station through Jamaica, which in 1984 was considered a middle-class community in decline, Flake radiated pleasure in the way the area has been stabilized. "We've developed $50 million in projects," he said. He pointed out Allen Church's bus company, which grew out of a need to rent a few buses for trips into a for-profit venture with six "scenicruisers" and a number of smaller buses. Allen is revitalizing a modest commercial strip opposite the church, buying stores one at a time. And as we passed York College, Flake pointed out the $200-million Food and Drug Administration testing facility opening on campus, which he believes will strengthen the applied-science component of the curriculum, further enhancing employment opportunities for neighborhood kids. "That's what Georgia Tech does," he said. "When I got to Congress, I realized I wanted what those southern congressman were getting." And he got it. Or, more precisely, Al D'Amato got it for him.

Rachel Tsutsumi provided additional reporting for this article.

Click here for information on the author
Russ Baker

Copyright © 2000 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Russ Baker, "The Ecumenist," The American Prospect vol. 11 no. 5, January 17, 2000.This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

Top of Page


Return to: