With Ed Towns retiring, 2 very different challengers emerge

June 7, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Eric Goldschein

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

With the retirement after 15 terms of 77-year-old Rep. Edolphus Towns, change is coming to the newly redrawn 8th Congressional District.

Towns announced in April that he would not seek reelection this fall.

On Tuesday, June 26, Democratic voters in the 8th CD will choose between Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and City Council Member Charles Barron. They are both charismatic candidates, but that is perhaps where the similarities end.

Jeffries is considered the frontrunner in the contest for the nomination, due to his long list of endorsements and more moderate positions that are seen as likely to help him win votes among the district’s new white voters. Jeffries’ big endorsements include MoveOn.org, UFCW Local 1500, United Auto Workers, NY Hotel and Motel Trades Council AFL-CIO, along with state senators, assemblymembers and party leaders — including Kings County Democratic leader Vito Lopez.

Barron’s campaign charged that Jeffries would be beholden to his institutional supporters and not to the voters.

“A broad coalition is strength, not a weakness,” Jeffries told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Charles Barron’s campaign is grasping for straws. There is no evidence that I will be anything other than an effective member of Congress for the 8th district.”

The new 8th Congressional District, shaped like a deformed crab, represents a large swath of different backgrounds, especially now that the redrawn lines include more of Fort Greene, Williamsburg and Coney Island. But Jeffries contends that common bonds do unite these dissimilar neighborhoods.

“Everywhere I’ve gone, people are concerned with many of the same things: safe streets, good and safe schools, a strong ecomony.”

Jeffries lists the big issues he tackles, including criminal justice and education, on his campaign website. Unemployment and foreclosures are “ravaging” the district, he said.

“East New York, Canarsie and Bed-Stuy have amongst the highest foreclosure rates in the city of New York,” he said.

Charles Barron, on the other hand, comes into the race as an outsider with an outside chance at the nomination.

A former Black Panther, Barron has taken some controversial positions — including supporting the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi and opposing the state of Israel and gay marriage. Barron has represented East New York, East Flatbush, Canarsie and Brownsville in the City Council since 1997. He has run for mayor, governor, Brooklyn borough president and this same House seat, losing each time.

Within the past week, Barron garnered two big endorsements that breathed new life into his campaign: one from DC37, the city’s largest public employee union, and the other from Ed Towns himself. Despite political clashes between the two over the years, Towns said he wanted an “independent voice” to take over his seat in the fall.

The move was criticized by some as a backroom deal, made more as an act of retaliation against Jeffries and Vito Lopez than as a good-faith political alignment. Significantly, Towns has great support among the Jewish community — a community not inclined to support a critic of Israel and a man with a reputation for being “anti-white.”

After accepting Towns’ endorsement at his campaign headquarters in East New York on Monday, Barron said that he always represented his constituents fairly.

“I’ve always represented different people,” Barron said. “We have people in Brownsville, Canarsie, East Flatbush — people of different income levels and different backgrounds. I’ll just continue to do that on a bigger level.”

He also contended that his radicalism is a good thing for the community.

“Radical comes from a Latin word that means getting to the root,” Barron told the Eagle. “So when you are radical, that’s helpful, because you galvanize people. Look at it this way: I’m the number one councilmember in bringing affordable housing into my district. I can’t do that alone. So for me to be able to get 50 Council members to vote for all of my projects shows that I’m a consensus builder.”

When asked what his biggest priorities would be upon entering office, Barron was unequivocal in his support for eradicating poverty.

“Forty-five million Americans are in poverty, 25 million are on food stamps. We’ve got to say no to war, save lives and save that money so we can address the needs of the people in the 8th and across the country,” he said. “We need to look at that gap between the rich and poor. We’ve got to look at the poor people who pay more on their taxes than rich people.”

But Barron said that more than anything, his campaign isn’t just about him. “I’m bringing a movement to Washington, not just an individual, because it takes a movement to make change.”

Both men hope to have the kind of success in office that Ed Towns had. After winning the seat in 1983, Towns went on to win each of the next 15 general elections with no less than 85 percent of the vote. He currently sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Though still popular, a combination of age and the influx of new voters into the reworked district seems to have forced Towns into retirement. His support of Barron, who once called him a “disaster,” is seen by many as a response to Lopez’s endorsement of Jeffries. Lopez did not support Towns’ daughter in her state Assembly campaign last year.

Jeffries has broad support, cash in hand and frontrunner status. Barron has outspoken rhetoric, momentum that comes from two big recent endorsements and, in his words, “the movement.”

On June 26, voters will tell which coalition was stronger.

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