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Sunday, July 27, 2003  

Councilman paid ultimate price for envy

The councilman and his assassin were probably much more alike than not. Both were youngish African-American men with political ambitions who had worked in more than one field. New York City Councilman James E. Davis had been a security guard, police officer and, most recently, a politician. The man who murdered him, Othniel Boaz Askew, had a college degree in accounting, had attempted to start businessness and dabbled in modeling. That all ended last Wednesday.

A New York City councilman was killed inside City Hall yesterday afternoon by a political opponent who accompanied him to a Council meeting, pulled out a pistol and shot him in front of scores of stunned lawmakers and onlookers, officials said.

The gunman was then fatally shot by a police officer assigned to City Hall, who fired six shots from the floor of the Council chamber to the balcony where the councilman, James E. Davis, had been killed, officials said.

Investigators said the killing appeared to stem from a simmering political dispute between Councilman Davis, 41, of Brooklyn, and the gunman, Othniel Askew, 31, who had planned to challenge Mr. Davis this fall for his seat representing central Brooklyn in the Council.

The rivalry between the two seems to have been more in Askew's mind than in reality. Davis had proven his mettle as a politician, even coming close to defeating a heavyweight, Clarence Norman Jr., the Democratic Party leader in the city. He easily made the ballot for reelection to his seat, while Askew, a gadfly and inexperienced, failed to qualify.

Though most of Askew's personal history seems mundane, there are glimpses of a man who may have considered himself a failure behind the hyperbole. He could be volatile. In 1996, Askew was charged with assaulting his lover after chasing the man out of their home with a hammer. In 1993, he had a driving under the influence arrest. His claim to be a developer seems to have been inflated. Askew had filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and appears to have been unemployed at the time of his would-be candidacy.

There are other clues suggesting the assailant was unstable. A viable competitor against Davis says Askew approached him with bizarre suggestions.

Anthony Herbert, another candidate in the race against Mr. Davis, said he also considered Mr. Askew to be unstable. He said Mr. Askew had approached him recently and told him that he would drop out of the race if Mr. Herbert, once elected, would make him his chief of staff.

"He wanted me to agree to providing him with his own office and his own secretary and some of the powers of being councilman," Mr. Herbert said. "He suggested that we could be sort of, co-candidates. He came in here and wanted me to put this down on paper. He wanted it signed. I thought he was crazy."

In addition to a will and a good-bye letter to his brother, Askew left behind two unsigned agreements. One was a recommendation of himself as a person with political potential. The other was a contract making him an aide to Davis once the councilman was reelected. Investigators believe Askew may have prepared both of the documents himself. They were found in his blood-soaked suit pockets after he was slain.

Furthermore, he contacted the FBI will apparently spurious claims that Davis had been harassing him.

Though the mental instability angle is intriguing, I find myself focusing on jealousy as the motivation for the slaying. Envy is an emotion I have been on the receiving end of often enough, but still have difficulty fathoming. I look at the tragedy and see Davis as someone who achieved some worthwhile, but far from extraordinary, goals. So, how could Askew have become jealous enough of the man to murder him? Why didn't he apply himself to acquiring a political position by earning it instead of attacking someone who had achieved what he hoped to? It seems to me that Askew, who was 31, with some hard work, might have achieved similar results by the time he reached Davis' age, 41.

Perhaps I am blundering by not considering that Askew's likely mental problems and his jealousy were probably combined motives for murder. However, bad behavior motivated by jealousy is far too common to be fully explained that way, though it usually stops short of homicide. If there is a lesson in the this tragedy, it is that we should realize envious people will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals of harming the objects of their jealousy and try to curtail their actions before the worst occurs.

James Davis' body will lie in state in the rotunda of New York City Hall, near where he was slain, Monday afternoon. You can learn more about Davis, an anti-violence activist, by visiting his web site.

Note: Mac-a-ro-nies is being updated less often than previously for two reasons:

1) This is writers' conference season, so I am often traveling; and

2) I've been having some serious problems with my laptop, which needs replacing. It is currently in the shop.

I hope to return to more consistent publication soon.

7:55 PM