Taking a step outside of his downtown Brooklyn office, Edolphus “Ed” Towns walked down Joralemon Street surrounded by his constituents, but he went unrecognized. Wearing slacks and a sweater instead of his normal business attire, he walked with a smile going into one his favorite places to eat, Queen Marie Italian Restaurant at 84 Court St. “Hello, Mr. Congressman,” the waiters greeted him.
The 78-year-old Chadbourn, N.C., native has represented Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional District, the oldest and biggest Black political power base in New York, for the past 30 years. On Dec. 31, he will retire from the job that he loves.
“The fact that I was able to go places and do things was the best part of my job. Without my [congressional] involvement, I wouldn’t have been able to do most of these things that I have done, such as going into war zones and helping people in my community,” he said.
It was by accident that Towns put down roots in Brooklyn. “I came to Brooklyn in 1958 to visit friends, and I ended up staying,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m happy I did. It has been a great experience that I enjoyed.”
Before representing the 10th District, which includes Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Heights, Brownsville, Canarsie, East New York, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and Ocean Hill, Towns had numerous other jobs, all of which, he said, had built him many relationships and given him more respect for the needs of others.
He was a social investigator for New York City’s Department of Social Services, a professor of sociology at Fordham University and CUNY/ Medgar Evers College, a teacher for the blind, where he taught students how to travel by using sound, and an assistant administrator at Manhattan’s Beth Israel Medical Center, where he worked for 11 years.
Towns’ political career began shortly after he left Beth Israel, when he became the first African-American deputy borough president in 1978.
His inspiration to run for Congress came from a woman born and raised in Brooklyn who had a huge impact on Towns’ political career: Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was an educator and politician who represented New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969 to 1983.
“She encouraged me to run for Congress,” Towns said, adding, “I would have been involved in some sort of service–not sure if it would have been congressman.”
Towns’ main goal when becoming congressman was to get involved in health care and to join a health committee. Throughout his time as a U.S. representative, Towns performed legislative work in education, telecommunications, health care and affordable housing. Each has gained him much recognition. Towns has served as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Regardless of his work on the committee, Towns’ biggest accomplishment, he says, comes from the Student Athlete Right to Know Act, which mandates the reporting of student athlete graduation rates from colleges. Another big accomplishment, he says, was the creation of the Telecommunication Development Fund, which provides capital for small and minority telecommunications businesses.
Towns found himself facing numerous challenges over the years. “My biggest challenge, I would say, is getting people to accept change. I tried hard to get information out to the people and reach out for them to be involved,” he said.
Although Towns has accomplished a lot throughout his 15 terms as congressman, he managed to attract his share of controversy; one flap that many New Yorkers no doubt recall was Towns’ decision to stand behind Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1997 election.
“Giuliani negotiated and promised something that he would do for the community that I represent, such as housing in East New York and other communities,” Towns recalled.
When asked if he would make the same choice again, Towns said, “If circumstances were still the same, I’d still support him. But it was a disappointment to me that he didn’t keep his promises.”
Through it all, Towns continues to stay grounded and motivated, and he says that is from the help of his wife, Gwendolyn, who has been by his side for 53 years: “She gives me words of encouragement. Her getting involved and helping me was motivation. She’s a real partner and a great supporter.”
With three decades of public service under his belt, Towns considers his determination to be a valuable trait.
“Even if things don’t work out the first time around, don’t quit; continue to persevere and don’t hesitate to ask for help,” he said.
Three days before submitting petitions for a spot on the congressional ballot in April, Towns stepped down from running again. His exit left the race to two men who had been running against him: state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron.
When asked the big question on why he decided to retire, Towns’ simply said with a chuckle, “Age.”
“I reached a place where it is time to spend quality time with my grandchildren, and after 30 years, I felt like I was entitled to [retire],” he said.
To some, Towns may always be that Democrat who stood behind Giuliani, but he would like to be remembered as a guy who was and is concerned about the well-being of the whole community and who was able to lift people up.
“When I saw wrong, I did anything to make it right. I was able to get more young people scholarships than any other elected official in Brooklyn,” he said, adding, “I’m retiring from Congress, not from the community. I will still be involved in health care, affordable housing and education. I also want to encourage communities to be more involved in political activities.”
Although Towns tried his best to serve the communities he represented, some may feel that he could have done better.
“He was a man who served well as a congressman most of his time in office. He carried himself in a dignified manner and knew the ins and outs of his congressional district,” said Henry Butler, chairman of Community Board 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, Butler added, “It is the job of a congressman to bring funding and resources to their district. I can’t think of any big projects that were brought to the Bed-Stuy part of his district.”
Towns “was one of the best bosses that anyone can work for. He takes everyone into consideration and has friendships with employees besides employer-employee,” said Harry Pinchback, who has been Towns’ special assistant for the past 23 years.
With Towns’ retirement approaching, the staff that has worked for him during his time in Congress will now be out of jobs. Some staff members have already found new positions, while others such as Pinchback intend to follow in Towns’ footsteps and retire.
Edna Johnson, who has worked at Towns’ Joralemon Street office as a special assistant for over five years, hopes to go to work for a nonprofit Brooklyn housing organization.
“I am eligible to retire, but I’m the type of person that can’t sit down. I specialized in housing while I was here, and will continue to do that when I leave,” Johnson said.
Towns hopes that all of his employees will find jobs, and he stated that he will assist them in that endeavor.
With the election for the 10th District over, Towns reflected on Jeffries, the man who will fill his shoes.
“I think he will do well. He’s familiar with the political setting and has served as assemblyman for many years. He is motivated and committed to represent constituents. I believe he is going to do an outstanding job not only for Brooklyn but the state,” he said.
Nov. 4 was the first time in more than four decades that Towns’ name did not appear on an election ballot.
“I spent 46 years in electoral politics, and for the first time to not have my name on a ballot in some form felt good,” Towns admitted.
Although retirement is looming, Towns vows to continue to urge young people to get involved in their communities. “Work hard, learn as much as you can, and don’t be selfish,” Towns said.