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."