East New Yorker residents filled the rows of a local movie theater on Thursday night to watch what could have been an explosive debate between the two Democratic candidates for Congress in the 8th district in Brooklyn. Instead, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and City Councilman Charles Barron spoke congenially about their respective platform, records and positions on issues affecting those in attendance.
The last time that the candidates shared the stage was for an in-studio debate for NY1's "Inside City Hall" with host Errol Louis on Monday, June 4. While on TV, the candidates attacked each other's records: Barron went after Jeffries' alleged flip-flopping on local issues while Jeffries repeated some of Barron's incendiary words about President Barack Obama.
Thursday night's tone was starkly different. Brooklyn community activist and sometime political candidate Mark Winston Griffith moderated the event and was the target of arguable one of the most contentious moments of the night when one audience member loudly lambasted the moderated after Griffith disclosed his ties to both candidates -- specifically his past endorsements of Barron.
The rules forbade candidates from attacking each other's records and the audience from interrupting the debate, but that didn't stop the 100-plus onlookers from interacting with the candidates.
Barron, whose city council district covers the East New York area, was the odd-on favorite to carry the night's crowd. But Jeffries reminded the audience that his work in the State Assembly has carried past the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill area that he represents, especially when it came to affordable housing.
"Many of those clergy members out here in East New York are supporting me in this effort," Jeffries said, "because they understand that my track record of success as it relates to standing up for housing is unmatched."
Barron challenged Jeffries' assertion and argued that he and his wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, have helped make the East New York the most affordable neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The candidates spent most of the almost hour-long debate on youth and education policies. Both said that they support the public school system and that they want to redirect federal resources into inner-city schools. Jeffries argued that one of the biggest issues facing youth is the high arrest rate of young Brooklynites for marijuana possession.
"It's the largest single arrest category in the nation," Jeffries said. "And it's happening right here under Michael Bloomberg. He arrests more young people for this offense than Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined."
Barron agreed, but said that Jeffries's latest effort to decriminalize of the possession of small amounts of marijuana as a way to curb stop-and-frisk arrests doesn't go far enough.
"You need more than that," Barron said. "Now that's a good move, but our young people need jobs. You have to face our community, particularly with youth."
Barron also came out strong with 99 percent-inspired rhetoric and argued for redistributive economic policies.
"We need to take money from those who have it and give it to the have-nots," Barron said, adding that he would call for federally designated poverty areas. "We have to have an infusion of dollars, billions of dollars to attack poverty."
Towards the end of the night, Griffith gave the candidates a question from the audience about how each candidate would address the state of healthcare in the neighborhood. Barron took a stand against what he called unfair distribution of Medicaid and Medicare funding.
Jeffries answered the question with a resolve to support the president's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
"The Republicans down in Washington want to destroy anything that President Obama has built up," Jeffries said. "Even if it's good for America, good for East New York, good for the Congressional district or good for the city."
By the end of the night, the candidates tried to compress their careers as succinctly as they could, with Barron framing himself as the energy that Congress needs to shake things up.
"We need a fighter to go to Washington," Barron said. "When I go to Washington, we're not going to go there playing around because it's a life-and-death situation that we have in our neighborhood."
The visiting Jeffries closed the forum and positioned himself as a serious legislator during a time of serious crisis for the district.
"You can have every confidence in the world that just like Adam Clayton Powell and Shirley Chisholm, I'm going to go down to Washington and legislate the best I can to improve the quality of life in East New York,” he said.