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The Empire

Rep. Towns Retirement Signals Power Shift in Brooklyn

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When Brooklyn Congressman Ed Towns announced Monday that he was ending his thirty-year long tenure in Washington, he did it with a whiff of indignation. “I believe firmly that we would have won a 16th term had we decided to run,” he said in his statement.

But Towns was more wistful in a phone conversation Monday afternoon. He recalled talking recently about his grandchildren with Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), who passed away last month.  “I must admit that that conversation stuck with me as I went to Donald’s funeral.”

“Thirty years in the Congress. It’s time to move on and do something else and to spend some time with my family,” he said. “This is it for me.”

Towns had faced two primary challengers vying to capture the newly drawn district. Democratic Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries had amassed a broad coalition of support and had more cash on hand to spend at the end of March than Towns’ campaign. The other candidate is Councilman Charles Barron, the 2010 gubernatorial candidate on the Freedom Party ticket who took on Towns in the 2006 Democratic primary.

“That did not have any bearing,” he said of his reelection challenge. “A three-way race, that really was in my favor,” Towns adding with a laugh.

Jeffries agreed that the June primary would have been a close contest had Towns chosen to stay in it.

“I wish him well in the next phase of his career. He would have been a formidable candidate,” Jeffries said on Monday. “This does reflect a generational transition moment. Brooklyn has come a long way during his tenure.”

Barron did not respond to WNYC's request for comment.

Another former Towns contender was less delicate with his words. Kevin Powell, writer and community activist first made famous on MTV’s The Real World, lost to Towns in primary contest in 2010.

“I think it’s a great day for Brooklyn and New York City politics,” Powell said, comparing Towns to Rep. Charles Rangel, whom Powell said he hoped would follow and drop his reelection bid. Powell likened leaders like them to a “glass ceiling” that’s kept young black leaders from advancing.

“It definitely represents, finally, a shifting. And we are proud of where we come from, because even though we are proud of where we come from, we see the world a little bit differently than the older guard of black leadership,” Powell said. “It’s not just about race politics and voting because someone is black. That’s not good enough in 2012. You actually have to deliver services and goods to the community.”

But Towns said his career was about more than identity politics.

“I was definitely a coalition builder,” Towns said, dismissing the notion that he represented a narrow band of African American interests.

Still, when asked what he considered his most notable achievement during his three decades in Washington, his choice was firmly grounded in the civil rights tradition.  

“The vote that I’m most proud of is when we voted to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday,” Towns said.

The end of Ed Towns’ career in Washington is not just about the passing of the torch in black political leadership. It also underscores the tremendous demographic shifts in Towns’ district, which includes the neighborhoods of East New York, Bedford-Stuyvasant, Clinton Hill, Boerum Hill, and parts of Fort Greene and Williamsburg.

“Brooklyn has changed so much over the last few decades, and especially in those parts of Brooklyn where Ed Towns had represented,” said Jerome Krase, emeritus professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of Ethnicity and Machine Politics: The Madison Club of Brooklyn.  

All these shifts are not necessarily weakening the traditional political power centers in Brooklyn, though. “What’s happened over the decades is machine politics has changed, it hasn’t disappeared,” Krase said. “It merely changes.”

A party leader’s ability to generate what Krase calls “automatic votes” from local club endorsements is amplified in contested, low turnout primary elections – particularly when voters are not immediately familiar with the new boundaries of their Congressional districts and who is asking to represent them.

“Anybody, such as Vito [Lopez, Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman], who can marshal clubs in your district to turn even a few thousand people out to vote in your favor in you’re your district, that’s extremely important,” Krase said. “It actually increases the power of people like him and other district leaders who still have a number of clubs that are still around.”

The Towns family knows that well. When Deidra Towns ran in a special election last fall to fill the assembly seat left vacant by her brother Darryl Towns, it was a Vito Lopez-backed candidate who beat her.

And so today, when Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries called Lopez “a close partner as well as a friend,” it signals that Towns’ retirement isn’t just about the end of a three-way contest in Brooklyn. It’s also a clear a victory in the one-on-one match-up between Lopez and the Towns legacy.