In a primary race with no incumbent, two very different candidates are vying to represent a congressional district that has been served by the same man for the last 30 years.
After three terms in Albany, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is well regarded for his ability to build bridges across political divides. He’s led on multiple bills to reform the criminal justice system in a borough with high incarceration rates.
City Councilman Charles Barron, on the other hand, is often a victim of his own rhetoric, fielding attacks for his praise of international dictators and unabashed criticism of Israel. His current constituents, however, praise Barron for his work on the issues that affect their day-to-day, including public education and affordable housing.
Barron speaks with a rigor and passion that Jeffries's reasoned and diplomatic manner has yet to match. It could ultimately work in Jeffries favor. For the first time in their political careers, both candidates have to reach out to the more conservative, Jewish presence in the district's latest additions.
As of March, the newly formed 8th congressional district includes Brooklyn’s southernmost neighborhoods of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. It even has a chunk of Ozone Park in Queens. Like its previous incarnation, it covers Fort Greene and extends through Bedford-Stuyvesant to East New York. Five of Brooklyn's poorest Census tracts still fall in its borders, and it remains a primarily African American and Latino district.
Jeffries often makes the point that every resident in the district cares about safe streets, strong schools and strengthening the economy. These shared concerns, he said, are issues that can unify the congressional district.
"It’s been clear to me that we need someone with the capacity to bring folks together," Jeffries told WNYC, "in order to make sure we can use this congressional seat to have a platform in Washington D.C. to get things done and improve the lives of people back home."
A native of Crown Heights, Jeffries began his professional career as an attorney. After a few years in the private sector, he won three consecutive terms for the 57th District Assembly seat, which represents Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and parts of Crown Heights.
At least one member of the Assembly credits Jeffries for NYPD’s controversial of stop and frisk policy a significant issue in Albany, largely with his bill to eliminate NYPD’s electronic database of stop-and-frisk-related arrests.
"A lot of people thought that even if he got this passed through the Senate and Assembly that the governor was going to veto it," the lawmaker said, "and I think his leadership really led so that the governor would end up signing it."
The same lawmaker acknowledged that Jeffries also has his legislative weaknesses. The Assembly member recalled that Jeffries upset the body when during 2011’s vote on the rent regulation laws. Jeffries, who sits on the Assembly’s housing committee, had questioned the bill even though he was largely absent from the negotiations, a move that didn’t sit well with the Assembly’s leadership.
Even so, Jeffries displayed a capacity to build coalitions despite differences within the party. Legislators from both the state and city level have endorsed him, as did Democratic clubs opposed to the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine. He’s also racked up endorsements from the New York Times, Daily News and Post, as well as from major public unions.
If Charles Barron has been intimidated by any of Jeffries’ strides, he certainly doesn’t show it in public. In fact, often makes it a point to avoid any comparison.
"I discuss me in the context of Charles Barron," the councilman told WNYC. "When I look at my record, it’s not compared to anybody who’s in the race. It doesn’t compare whatsoever."
Barron said that he got his start much like President Barack Obama - as a community activist. A former Black Panther, Barron first ran to represent the East New York on New York’s City Council in 2001. He won again in 2005 and a third time in 2009, despite his stated opposition to the extension of term limits.
He credits he and his wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, for their work for helping make East New York one of the most affordable neighborhoods in the city. He also touts his leadership on legislation for new schools and green spaces, even if he doesn’t get recognized for it.
"You’re not going to see me as prime sponsor because you don’t get prime sponsor labels when you fight the speaker, fight the mayor and stand up to people in power for the struggling people in our districts," Barron said.
Even if Barron doesn’t think he’ll get credit for it, some major players support his record. New York’s largest public employee union DC 37 endorsed Barron, as did the historic African-American publication New York Amsterdam News. Barron even nabbed a surprise endorsement from the retiring incumbent, Congressman Ed Towns.
"We need a strong voice in Washington D.C.," Towns said at the press event where he announced his endorsement, "a person that’s independent and is going to tell it like it is."
Barron’s comments on Israel might not be on the minds of his base, but they are certainly on the minds of its newest voting population: South Brooklyn’s Russian Jewish population.
Despite June 26 marking the community’s third congressional election in less than two years, local Russian media impresario Gregory Davidzon said that residents are watching the race closely.
"It’s really important to us that Barron doesn’t win the election," Davidzon said.