A Democratic congressional primary pitted an Obama-style young lawyer against an old-school, outspoken ex-Black Panther. The younger man romped.
When the results came in, Charles Barron had lost the Democratic primary in Brooklyn's 8th Congressional District Tuesday by a staggering margin of 72-28. It wasn't because the controversial New York city councilman has outlandish views about foreign policy, praising Muammar Qaddafi and Robert Mugabe. Nor was it because Barron's opponent, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, outraised him by a ratio of roughly 10 to 1.
Instead, it was simply that Barron was not good at politics.
This election received national attention precisely because Barron, a racially charged throwback to the 1960s, seemed to have a real chance at winning. He was never the favorite -- even when his campaign was peaking several weeks ago, one Democratic insider described him as "a live longshot" -- few thought it would be a blowout. Challenging an incumbent in the same congressional district six years ago Barron had lost narrowly. There was no reason to think his margin Tuesday night would be much different. Although Jeffries in his victory speech derided "the political pundits who said this was going to be a close race," prior to polls closing, those pundits did seem to have had a point.
The 8th Congressional District is a majority-minority district under the Voting Rights Act that sprawls across the eastern half of Brooklyn and is shaped like a giant upside-down hairdryer. The seat came open when 15-term Rep. Edolphus Towns abruptly decided in April not to run for re-election rather than face challenges from Jeffries and Barron. Towns had long been decried as ineffectual and had been a lackluster fundraiser on the eve of what was expected to be his toughest campaign yet.
That narrowed the election to Jeffries and Barron, who represent two polar extremes in African-American politics. Jeffries, an New York University-trained lawyer and former white shoe corporate attorney, is an exemplar of the Obama generation of black politicians. In contrast, Barron is a former Black Panther who boasts of his background as an activist and his role as a gadfly on the City Council. Reggie Sherman, a businessman from Bedford-Stuyvesant sympathetic to both, put it bluntly: "Hakeem is light skinned; Barron is dark skinned. Hakeem knows when to keep his mouth shut; Barron doesn't."
Barron's inability to keep his mouth shut spawned much interest in the race. Because he is highly quotable, he has long been a favorite of the New York press, but that meant Barron had a rich history of controversial comments. In 2002, he said discussion of slavery reparations made him want to "go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him." He also had a long record of disdain for Israel and "the Jewish lobby". This garnered him lots of free publicity. "The press will cover him because we're all addicted to race like crack," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York Democratic consultant and former Towns adviser.
"Hakeem is light skinned; Barron is dark skinned. Hakeem knows when to keep his mouth shut; Barron doesn't."
But Barron also became a real contender. He received the endorsement of New York City's largest public employees union, DC 37 (and through them, the backing of the powerful national union AFSCME) as well as the Sierra Club. On Election Day, DC 37 political director Wanda Williams said Barron's longtime advocacy for the union's members on the City Council had won him their backing. She also dismissed concerns about Barron's record of controversial statements by saying "we're a bit of controversial union" too. But Barron really made it on national radar screens when he received Towns' endorsement.
Although Towns and Barron had been longtime political rivals -- with Barron even launching a fierce primary challenge against the incumbent in 2006 -- Towns backed him as a successor in early June, in what was widely interpreted as an act of spite towards Jeffries. The endorsement may not have helped Barron much. It lifted Barron's profile nationally and gave his foreign-policy views unwanted attention, leading one Jeffries adviser to call it "a net positive." Plus, as one prominent New York Democrat told me Tuesday night, outside Jeffries' victory party, "If Ed Towns' endorsement meant that much, he'd still be running."
It was this attention that proved to be Barron's deathblow. It brought a tidal wave of contributions to Jeffries' campaign as well as the tacit support of President Obama, who declined to endorse but let it be known that he'd wished Jeffries luck. In contrast, the wave of publicity brought only Barron the highly-unwanted endorsement of ex-Klansman David Duke.
The national scrutiny turned the race into a legitimate congressional primary. Barron tried to run a local campaign to be congressman for his City Council district. He gave out his cell-phone number to reporters, and his ground game seemed to consist only of soundtrucks blasting a campaign theme song and volunteers in bright yellow handing out handbills at subway stations. His campaign kept to its home base in the most African-American parts of the district, with not even a gesture toward white constituents. Although Barron need not have pandered as much as Jeffries, who bemoaned "the high cost of a yeshiva education" in his election-night speech, he had absolutely no presence in predominantly white neighborhoods like Brighton Beach, where Jeffries distributed Russian-language literature.
Barron bewailed in interview with me several weeks ago that "no one in the district is talking about [his foreign policy] statements." This may have been true in East New York, his predominantly African-American home turf. But among white voters who had never been represented by him, it may have been the only thing they knew about Barron. In gentrified Fort Greene, Jim and Nina, two young white professionals who had only lived in the neighborhood for several years, said they were as much voting against Barron as for Jeffries. In Brighton Beach, Ben Axelrod, a Democratic activist, described Barron's philosophy simply as "pure anti-Semitism."
Barron built his political career by attending countless community events. He gained the reputation as the guy who always showed up, when there was a funeral, a rally or a protest, Barron would be there. But this old fashioned brand of local politics just wasn't what voters were looking for anymore. A Jeffries volunteer in Bedford-Stuyvesant proudly said her candidate "doesn't just come out when there's a death." That may have been what voters were looking for once, but not anymore. Once the campaign became nationalized, such a quaint approach was doomed to failure.