The three-term City Council member and now candidate for Congress stood outside of a senior citizen center in Starrett City on Friday and waited for two people who seemed to symbolize a dramatic change in fortune for him.
One was a reporter for The New York Times, who the next day wrote a front-page local section story that described Mr. Barron as “surging” in his campaign against Hakeem Jeffries, and the other was Ed Towns, a 30-year incumbent who shocked the political world when he abruptly announced his retirement, and then, even more abruptly, announced that he was backing Mr. Barron to replace him.
Mr. Towns’ move was shocking because the entire political establishment, including every union and every elected official in town, had thrown their support to Mr. Jeffries, a former
attorney at Paul, Weiss who has been hailed as the leader of the next generation of political stars.
It was also shocking because of Mr. Barron’s long history of being shocking.
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.
But, in Mr. Barron’s telling, he has been asked about these matters enough.
“Those are soundbites,” he said. “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.”
Again and again, no matter how many ways reporters asked, Mr. Barron didn’t disavow the long litany of provocative statements and actions, but brushed off questions about them.
“I don’t have to talk about that with you and I am not going to. I am not. I am not. I have a policy on Africa. If you are interested in that I will be happy to talk about it with you. But if you are looking for some hot-button stuff, I don’t have to give it to you.”
(That policy is that “historically Europe and other countries of the world have exploited Africa so much that the people of Africa are suffering.” He favors more government aid and land reparations like those that occurred in Zimbabwe. As for Israel, it “clearly exists as a state.” He calls for a negotiated Palestinian state and denounces the killing of innocent civilians. “Not a statement. Deal with that.”)
Recurring reminders of his past aside, the combination of Mr. Towns’s endorsement, the recent backing of DC37—the city’s mammoth public employee union—and the endorsement of the Amsterdam News has made Democrats locally and across the country nervous that Mr. Barron may actually be for real, despite having raised only 10 percent of the money Mr. Jeffries has raised.
“He would be a big problem,” said one member of the New York congressional delegation. “You can’t erase your past. His association with extremists and fundamentalists and his comments on Mugabe and Khadafy—you can’t walk away from that.”
Continued the lawmaker, “Hakeem is going to win the race. Everyone feels that. But to have him even performing at this level is a little unnerving.”
“There is a degree of panic out there,” added another operative close to Mr. Jeffries. “People are truly concerned.”
Over the last several days, there have been emergency press conferences by Jewish lawmakers warning of the prospect of a Congressman Barron embarrassing New York City; a protest of Russian émigrés who compared him to Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers films; a slew of negative articles dredging up his old comments. President Barack Obama has gotten in on the act too, inviting Mr. Jeffries to a fundraiser at the Waldorf and having his picture taken alongside him.
“Democrats. Are. Worried?” Mr. Barron said, slowly enunciating every word of a question put to him. “How many Democrats are worried? Who are you talking about? They don’t even know what to be worried about. How can you be worried about somebody when you have never spoken to him?”
When it was pointed out to Mr. Barron that perhaps his would-be colleagues were worried simply by what they had read about him, he responded: “And I have read about them. But I don’t know them and they don’t know me. We should sit down and have an intelligent discourse on foreign policy and domestic policy and I guarantee you they will not be worried.”
About that photo shoot with the president?
“I didn’t know about it, don’t care about it. Photo shoots are not going to win this election.”
The denunciations from the Jewish community?
“I am just going to say this: African babies are dying. We have AIDS in Africa, we have wars in
Africa …You want me to talk about a Russian-Jewish demonstration on Monday? Go ahead. Let them demonstrate. I couldn’t care less.”
The concern among senior Democrats is that if Mr. Barron wins he will be held up by Republicans as the face of the Democratic Party. Over the last two weeks, The Weekly Standard has written no fewer than five stories about him, Commentary two, Red State three. The National Review ran a long online profile. All relished the opportunity to paint Mr. Barron as unhinged radical, emblematic of the Democratic party’s true character.
At the senior center, Mr. Towns said he was “shocked” by how many people responded negatively to his endorsement of Mr. Barron. As he tells it, Mr. Barron is more responsive to neighborhood needs than Mr. Jeffries is.
“I am retiring, but I am not going to leave you there just shaking and flaking,” he told the seniors. “I am going to leave you in the hands of a good man, who will stand up and fight for the rights of the people.”
“We all say stuff,” Mr. Towns continued with The Observer. “Nobody has a better record on Israel than I do, but you could go back to statements I made when I was in college or playing basketball. If you follow somebody’s statements you can always make something out of it.”
And was he at all motivated by spite about Mr. Jeffries, who began peeling off Mr. Towns’s supporters back when he was still in the race?
“No, absolutely not. I have got too much God in me for that kind of stuff. I am a Baptist minister. I would never.”
The rhetoric aside, Mr. Barron is as natural a pol as could be found. In front of the mostly white visitors to the senior center, he hugs old ladies and listens patiently to the old men. He exudes warmth and sincerity.
“I like you,” Morris Fielstien, 88, says to him, grabbing him by the hand
“I like you too,” Mr. Barron responds, and turning to The Observer with a grin, adds, “Did you see that. He likes me. And he’s white. Write it down.”
As for Mr. Barron’s controversial past statements, Mr. Fielstien shrugged. “My memory’s not too good.”
At another senior center, an 81-year–old African-American woman named Geneva Barr seems torn.
“I’m voting for the young boy, what’s his name” she said, taking out a flyer featuring a photo of Mr. Jeffries alongside his family. “I thought I might give him a chance. I love Barron, too. He really fights the fight. I thought I may go with Barron because Towns is going for him.”
Mr. Barron may disavow the soundbites now, but they have turned him into one of the most recognizable and, among a certain constituency, popular members of the City Council. His City Hall colleagues have never questioned his skills or shrewdness, only what the purpose of the whole Charles Barron Show really has been—to climb the political ladder, as his previous runs for mayor, borough president, Congress (twice now) and governor attest. Or at least to use the platform of politics to become the next black leader of New York, a la Al Sharpton. His meagre fundraising, around $70,000 to date, most of it from his pocket, gives credence to this suspicion.
Political operatives in central Brooklyn think there remains a decent chance that Mr. Barron can overcome Mr. Jeffries’s vastly superior warchest and organizational support to eke out a victory. He does have superior name recognition and a devoted fan base. The election will be held in June for the first time, and turnout remains a great unknown. Moreover, Mr. Barron’s new soundbite-free approach has shown the Jeffries camp that he won’t self-immolate.
Mr. Barron, though, insists that there is nothing new to see here, that he is merely emphasizing a side that the press has ignored.
“I am not the New Charles Barron. I still have the fire and the passion, but I don’t want you just to see that side of it. I am saying that this is the Charles Barron I have always been but that you won’t print. Since you already have that side, I want you to see the other side, but since you refuse to see it that is all I am giving you.”
Later, at a meeting of several dozen African-American women at a church in Bed-Stuy, Mr. Barron expounded upon this point.
“I don’t want people to think I am just a lot of rhetoric. You see the substance they don’t print. We have a reporter here and I want to make sure he prints the right things.”
The audience hummed its approval.
“They only print when I speak hot, fiery rhetoric. I still got the fire but I want to make sure that they print the substance too, because the fire brings the substance.”
Mr. Jeffries has gotten the progressive support of groups like MoveOn and the Working Families Party, but Mr. Barron launched into the kind of policy prescriptions that would cheer the most left-leaning precincts of Brooklyn: more money for Medicare and Medicaid, free healthcare, a vigorous anti-poverty program, greater investment in infrastructure, no more money for the Pentagon or Wall Street bailouts, no more money for sports teams to build stadiums in the five boroughs.
“You aren’t broke. You are just spending money on the rich and that must stop. So that is what I want to bring to Washington. They are trying to fool us. They don’t want us to come out in numbers. They don’t think you know that Tuesday, June 26, is a voting day.”
He led the crowd in a “June 26” call-and-response. They were still cheering when he walked out into the hallway, sidled up to this reporter and whispered, with an ironic grin, “Do you think they might like to hear about Khadafy?”