Charles Barron Versus Hakeem Jeffries for Congress: A Primer

Photo: Thomas Good/Getty Images, The Local: Fort Greene/Clinton Hill/Flicker

The Democratic Primary in Brooklyn next week was never supposed to be this interesting. Hakeem Jeffries, a smiley family man and rising star in the coalition-building mold of Cory Booker and Barack Obama, seemed like a lock to replace fifteen-term Congressman Ed Towns. His only competition would be wacky old Charles Barron, the ex–Black Panther and three-time City Councilman, who was long ago branded as the sort of tired provocateur whose quips get eyes rolling, not tongues wagging — the borough’s loudmouth uncle. When he announced his candidacy in November, Barron repeated his promise to never pledge allegiance to the American flag, and no one really noticed.

But the media’s relationship with someone like Barron is symbiotic, and so it usually comes back around. He also happens to have a charm reserve and some footholds in the community, so over the weekend, the New York Times declared that his candidacy was “surging.” And just like that, we have ourselves a race. Or at least some panicking Democrats.

First, it’s worth revisiting some of Barron’s greatest hits. The Times picked a few favorites:

His more outrageous remarks over the years, from calling Thomas Jefferson a pedophile to likening Gaza to a “concentration death camp” to expressing his desire to slap “the closest white person,” have given way to a reputation as a showboat and provocateur on the political fringe.

As did the New York Observer:

He once described Moammar Khadafy as his personal hero. He invited Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to City Hall. He has described Israel as a terrorist state. His supporters heckled Andrew Cuomo when he met with Harlem leaders during his gubernatorial campaign. And he once said he’d like to “slap white people for my mental health” at a rally on reparations for slavery.

The Anti-Defamation League has their own dossier linking Barron to “radical” and “anti-Semitic hate groups.”

Yet he’s brushing that all off now, shaking hands in senior centers and admonishing reporters. “Those are soundbites,” he told the Observer. “I am not turning this campaign into soundbite-response, soundbite-response … We are going to force you to have an intelligent conversation no matter how much you want to hype it so that you can create controversy, sell papers or try to help my opponent.”

With establishment Democrats getting scared Barron might actually, maybe eke out a win, thereby handing Republicans an “extremist” caricature to hold up and scare people, Jeffries is indeed getting plenty of help. The Times, Post, MoveOn.org, and more all ran editorials to the effect of “Stop Charles Barron, Now” (yes, literally), and even Barack Obama jumped in, not giving an endorsement, but inviting Jeffries for a fund-raiser photo op and wishing him luck.

Ed Koch backed Jeffries, as did Senator Charles Schumer, who avoided all mention of Barron, but stressed that Jeffries “is a true blue friend of Israel and has a sophisticated sense of America’s unique role in a complex, interconnected world.” Jeffries also has the support of the Transport Workers Union and health-care workers union 1199SEIU.*

Barron has collected his share of endorsements, too, including from Rep. Towns and DC37, the largest public-employee union in the city. Less helpful is the counterintuitive support from the KKK’s David Duke, who called Jeffries a “bought-and-paid-for Zionist Uncle Tom.” (Barron denounced the endorsement, despite the work that went into this insane video.) 

But as the Tuesday vote approaches, Barron has just about $6,000 left in his campaign piggy bank, compared to Jeffries with nearly $400,000, Capital New York reports. “Hakeem is going to win the race,” one local politician said. “Everyone feels that. But to have [Barron] even performing at this level is a little unnerving.” But it’s made for a hell of story for the local press corp that helped give Barron his bad reputation and always thirsts for a juicy race that draws national attention. It’s also been a win for the man himself, who could have a future as a brand-name activist as long his past sins are old enough news. Even if Barron can’t beat the system he’s always railing against, he’s at least gotten its attention for hitting the streets in a hard-fought campaign instead of just slaughtering sacred cows.

* This post has been corrected to reflect that TWU and 1199SEIU have endorsed Jeffries, not Barron.

Barron Versus Jeffries for Congress: A Primer