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Politicians Jockey For The Spotlight At 2013 West Indian Day Parade

09/02/2013 09:10 am ET

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- For a few short hours on Labor Day morning, the toughest job in New York just might belong to Bill Howard.

That's because Howard, the 70-year-old vice president of the West Indian Day Carnival Association (WIADCA), will again be the host for the VIP breakfast before the city's annual West Indian American Day Parade. Like in past elections, politicians running for citywide or Brooklyn office are expected to attend the major event -- and all of them will be asking Howard for a helping hand in getting a reception among the influential crowd of 500.

The West Indian Day Parade is a cultural institution in New York, when millions turn out along Eastern Parkway to see the steel pan bands, the feathered dancers and the floats blasting reggae, calypso and soca music. The breakfast attendees include influential Caribbean-Americans, including businesspeople, heads of Caribbean cultural organizations and church leaders. It's a valuable speaking opportunity for politicians.

"It's very bad. You can't accommodate everybody," Howard told The Huffington Post. "I'm emceeing, and you've got 50 staff members sending cards and notes up to me that so-and-so is under the tent, and can he get two minutes on the podium. It gets complicated."

The complications don't just end when the politician gets on stage. Getting him or her off is often a harder task that produces its own set of stresses, Howard said.

"Once you've given an elected official a mic, it's kind of hard to have them move," he said. "If an elected official starts going on too long, I stand right behind him and start pulling his coattails."

Politicking happens at all of the city's big parades -- St. Patrick's Day, Puerto Rican Day, Gay Pride -- with candidates looking for a prominent spot in the march or a chance to speak. But the Labor Day procession in central Brooklyn is New York's largest. That the celebration falls just days before the mayoral primary election on Sept. 10 only amplifies its significance.

And in this year's crowded Democratic field for mayor, the parade provides an opportunity to woo black voters. A poll released last week by Siena College and The New York Times showed that 20 percent of black Democrats hadn't made up their minds on the mayoral race (or wouldn't reveal their choice).

Operatives requesting anonymity told HuffPost that campaign staff jockey for any advantage they can get during the celebration.

"There is a lot of politicking going on at the West Indian parade -- from where everyone is sitting at the breakfast in the morning to where camps are lining up to march," said a Democratic aide who worked on a previous citywide race.

All of the major Democratic candidates for mayor are expected to march this year in the West Indian Day Parade, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Last year, Quinn was one of three grand marshals for the parade. In 2011, there were four grand marshals, but sources said WIADCA cut the number to two this year to avoid the possibility of bias before the election. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who is not running for his position again due to term limits, and musician Christopher Bowe, aka MC Wassy, get to wear the marshal sashes this year.

Like an engaged couple deciding the seating arrangements for their wedding, parade organizers have to carefully choose the order that the politicians get to march.

"This year, because everybody is running against each other, nobody wants to be near each other," said a WIADCA official.

Parade organizers charge a minimum of $200 for groups to march -- a nominal price for candidates who raise upwards of $4 million for the mayoral race. In past years, Howard said, some politicians sidestepped the registration expense by marching in a labor union's contingent that had paid an entrance fee.

"It's probably the cheapest show in town," Howard said. "But some of them don't want to pay."

For the first time this year, parade officials requested a $200 contribution for a seat at the VIP breakfast, or $2,000 for a table of 10 from any candidate seeking office. Some unnamed politicians balked at paying, said WIADCA President Tom Bailey.

"Some have responded positively, others have not, but we have not closed the door to anyone" Bailey said. "This is chicken feed compared to the thousands per head that some fundraisers charge."

Now in it's 46th year, the parade is a cultural institution of the city. But it started as a blip on the map, said Una Clarke.

An immigrant from Jamaica, Clarke became the first Caribbean-born woman elected to the City Council in 1991, making her beloved in the city's West Indian diaspora. (Her daughter, Yvette Clarke, is a congresswoman from Brooklyn.)

"Very few politicians used to come," Clarke said of the parade's early years. "The word was that Caribbean-Americans don't vote."

Today, candidates show off their Caribbean heritage. Bill Thompson, the former comptroller, talks frequently about his grandparents, who emigrated from Saint Kitts. Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, is married to Chirlane McCray, who is likely to be at his side during the parade displaying her heritage by waving a Barbados flag.

"Now everybody wants to be a part," Clarke said, "and everybody wants to be a Caribbean-American."

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