Even as he operated outside the traditional political machine, Vann’s influence grew, landing him a 1983 cover profile in New York magazine that contemplated whether he had “become the city’s most important black politician.”
“Is this fairness that we can expect from our own Democratic party?” Vann asked. “Is this how the Democratic party treats its family?”
But his reputation as a firebrand was tempered by a dignified, thoughtful demeanor.
Among other achievements, Vann helped lead a successful legal fight against racial gerrymandering in the City Council and led voter registration drives that helped build Black political power in central Brooklyn.
First he was an educator, and a central figure in the historic, racially-charged clash over local school control in the late ’60s. That led to community organizing and then elected office: 27 years in the state Assembly and 12 in the City Council.
In the 1984 presidential primary, he spearheaded Jesse Jackson’s New York campaign and won a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention, which he used to rail against New York’s system of primary runoff elections, thought to harm minority candidates.
“You measure the meaningfulness of a man or a woman is not when things are good and money is flowing,” he said at a 2011 news conference. “You measure their value when times are hard.”
Vann also served as a mentor to a generation of politicians, including state Attorney General Letitia James — who served on his staff — and Mayor Eric Adams.
“He was a very special and dear friend,” Adams told reporters at an unrelated news conference Friday. “And we’re a better city because of him. And we’re really going to miss him.”