While Texas Gov. George W. Bush negotiated the streets of New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was the Rev. Floyd Flake, pastor of the Allen African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Queens, who helped show him the way.
At a charter school in Harlem and an education address to the Manhattan Institute midtown, the Houston-born Flake was there, calling Bush “my homeboy,” and helping to bring a little cred to the first half of Bush’s much-touted “compassionate conservatism.”
An unpredictable firebrand, Flake was elected to Congress in 1986. Generally a reliable Democratic vote, Flake broke party ranks when it came to abortion and gay rights, and frequently forged bipartisan alliances on economic issues. As one of 13 children born to parents who never completed grade school, Flake has always preached the importance of self-reliance, and often cites his own example of what can be done if you work hard and trust in Jesus.
Flake resigned from Congress abruptly in November 1997, to focus on the Allen A.M.E. Church, which he says is an excellent example of that Bible-and-bootstrap ethic. When he first came to the church in 1976, the church had only two employees. Under Flake’s leadership, Allen AME is now a multi-faceted, multimillion-dollar enterprise, with 800 employees and 12,000 members. The church runs nine nonprofit subsidiaries, including a 300-unit senior citizens center, a school, a women’s resource center and a federal credit union. There are also two for-profit subsidiaries as well.
Shortly after he resigned from Congress, Flake told an Associated Press reporter that “the best thing that’s happened to me is getting out of Congress! Because I’m going to be a real hell-raiser from now on!” He has proved to be just that, crossing party lines to endorse the reelection campaigns of Republican Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
This time around, Flake is still holding his cards close. He is quick to clarify that his appearance with Bush this week was not an endorsement. And as for next year’s anticipated Senate race between Giuliani and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Flake says he’s “still trying to work that one out.”
But Flake did give the GOP presidential front-runner praise for coming to Harlem, normally considered hostile territory for Republicans. “I think it’s a positive sign,” Flake says. “I’m from Houston, and when I talk to my friends from back home, and preach in their churches — the African-American pastors of some of the largest churches in the city — they say that this is the way he always has been, the way he ran his campaign for governor. They have a pretty high regard for him. What he did in New York this week was very consistent with what he has done in the past.”
A longtime proponent of school vouchers, Flake says that education and school choice is “clearly the No. 1 issue for me,” and the impetus behind his endorsements of Pataki and Giuliani. “As I look at the crisis in urban communities, it is very difficult– as one building homes for first-time home buyers — to maintain people, to keep them in the neighborhood, once they’ve worked up to middle-class status, and that’s because the schools are so bad.” Flake says the answer to revitalizing urban neighborhoods is revolutionary change in education, including more charter schools and voucher programs.
Flake is impressed with Bush, his “homeboy.” (Bush returned the rhetorical tribute, opening his education speech by saying, “My fellow Texan.”) “The fact that he even took on the House Republicans on the earned income tax credit” was a big deal, Flake says. The tax credit, after all, is “a major focal point for many people, minority people. That’s been one of the few ways they can bridge some of the gap, given that they work every day and are still under the poverty line.”
Bush “has more of a sense of necessity to move toward the middle than I have seen in recent times,” Flake says.
Still, Flake acknowledges the political realities that he says may keep Bush from being as inclusive as Democrat candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley. “Of late, the Republican party has been viewed as so far to the right, it’s been impossible for many Republicans to be even in a conversation with the African-American community. That’s probably going to be his difficulty, trying to balance that whole process.”
“He’s at least trying to bridge the gap,” Flake says. “He at least is making some infant steps in that direction.”
Flake says that his endorsement will come down to one of three men: Bush, Gore or Bradley. He has a close relationship with the Clinton administration and, thus, Gore, he says, as well as a “high level of respect” for Bradley, who was on the Senate Banking Committee when Flake was on its House counterpart. “It’s still very much in the air,” he says.
“That is, if I’m even going to endorse at all.”