While Fernando Ferrer is getting a lift from Bill Clinton, Mike Bloomberg is getting his from the Lord. On a recent Sunday in Bed-Stuy, Bloomberg sits among the congregation at Cornerstone Baptist Church alongside Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. In a crowd of myriad browns, the two undersized Jewish men absorb the sermon of Reverend Lawrence E. Aker, III.
A handsome man who looks much younger than his 38 years, Aker stands before the congregation in a silvery robe of black and white stripes. “I’ve seen the lightning flashing, I’ve heard the thunder roar,” he calls out. “I heard the voice of Jesus and he said to fight on. And he said that he would never, never, never leave us alone.” Aker’s baritone voice reaches a strident pitch: “We are more than conquerors. We are super-victorious.”
This electoral season, Aker and the Cornerstone congregation have aligned themselves with another man who seems destined to be super-victorious—or at least likely to succeed as a second-term mayor, if his record campaign spending is any indication. Bloomberg has spent nearly $50 million of his own money so far, between 20 and 25 times what Rudy Giuliani did on his re-election campaign, according to the director of National Political Services, Joseph Mercurio.
At a press conference held outside the church following Sunday services, Aker praises Bloomberg. “In the midst of the 2005 mayoral race, we must look at the feats and deeds of Mayor Mike Bloomberg,” Aker says, going on to describe Bloomberg’s work in the city’s black communities, citing street sanitation, graffiti-free buildings, affordable housing, and improvements in public schools as just a few of the Mayor’s accomplishments.
As the second-largest church in Brooklyn, Cornerstone has more than 1,500 members and is almost exclusively African-American. On the day of Bloomberg’s recent visit, the pews were crowded with colorful hats: vibrant violet with matching feathers, magenta with black and pink sequin accents, flowers, bows, leopard spots—a sharp contrast with the subdued navy of the NYPD, who accompanied the mayor, and the charcoal of Bloomberg’s and Markowitz’s suits.
“I think for the most part our congregation will support Democrats, but will make a switch because of Mayor Bloomberg,” says Aker. “He has helped to make our area safer. We are building a good relationship with the local precinct as a result.”
For the parishioners at Cornerstone, prayers often mix with politics. Markowitz is a regular visitor here, and Bloomberg has visited once before. “The Cornerstone congregation is politically savvy and well informed of the political climate in Brooklyn,” says Karen St. Hilaire, who has been a member of Cornerstone for eight years and who, despite being reluctant to embrace politics in the church, says: “I know that when people are informed, it makes for a better outcome.”
Bloomberg’s presence at Cornerstone may demonstrate the far-reach of his first term as mayor. Bed-Stuy and Cornerstone Baptist are experiencing a renaissance: the sidewalk that Bloomberg delivers his Sunday press conference from is freshly paved, the affordable housing units across the street from the church are newly minted, and new flat screen televisions adorn either side of the pulpit inside the church.
As Aker delivers his sermon, accompanying images appear to his right and left on the flat screens. “A woman who had a turkey in her freezer for 23 years called a 1-800 turkey hotline run by the Butterball Company and asked, ‘Is it still edible?’” says Aker, pausing for laughter as the screens to his sides display images of a large, juicy turkey. The Butterball representative replied that the turkey was still edible, continues Aker, but warned, “You do realize you’re going to lose much of the flavor?” When the operator asked the woman what she planned to do with her quarter-of-a-century-old turkey, she answered, “I guess I’ll give it to the church.”
As the congregation’s laughter quiets, Aker’s voice swells again to fill the building. “Oh I’m glad that when God gave us Jesus Christ, he gave us his very best,” he says. “People may give us things they don’t need, things they don’t want, but when God gave us Jesus Christ, he gave us his very best.”
Bloomberg makes the case that he has given New York City his very best, too. Standing on the Cornerstone steps above a blue sign that says ‘MIKE’ in large letters, and ‘Bloomberg’ in smaller letters below, he gives an account of his first term. “Today, crime is down 21 percent and the economy is growing,” Bloomberg tells the reporters and congregants gathered before him. “Four years ago nobody thought that would happen, and let me tell you it did not happen by accident.”
James Chavis Jr. represents one of three generations in his family to belong to Cornerstone Baptist Church. Along with his wife and four children, Chavis Jr. listens to the Mayor’s Sunday morning speech, joined by his father, James Chavis, in sharing his support for Cornerstone—and for Bloomberg. “I really think he’s qualified,” says Chavis, “He had to make some tough judgments and calls early on, you know, with property taxes. But we have also seen results, and in the end, I even got some money back. I just got a check for $400 this week.”
“In the end it’s not about whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” says Chavis Jr.
Cornerstone welcomes all kinds.