City Portraits: Charles Barron’s East New York

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Charles Barron. (Courtesy Daniel Ross/thirteen.org)
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Charles Barron, who represents parts of East New York, Brownsville, East Flatbush and Canarsie in the New York City Council, is currently the only candidate for governor who was once a member of the Black Panther Party. More importantly, as he points out, he is the only candidate for any statewide office this year who is not white.

Barron, who ran against Christine Quinn for Council speaker earlier this year and lost, 48-1, is known for taking positions that range from provocative to wildly unpopular. In fact the lopsided result against him in the Council—an ethnically diverse body, many of whose members in leadership positions are black and Latino—is an accurate reflection of the anti-political position he has chosen to assume there.  He has hosted a reception for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, and urged black listeners at a rally to slap the closest white person, and accused the speaker of the Council of ethnic cleansing. He is the only Democrat on the Council with no committee or subcommittee chairmanship and no discretionary "lulu" to spend on constituent-pleasing projects.

It's a brutal cycle of permanent dissent, railing against the state and city government for what he calls the systematic disenfranchisement of his constituents, thereby ensuring that he and his office remain on the margin of the city's power structure.

He has no regrets about this course.

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Asked this week to explain what has always seemed like a very deliberate decision to set himself up in permanent opposition to power, Barron said, "Because at heart, Azi, I believe America needs a radical root canal—a political root canal. And you can’t radically alter the American system going along to get along. So, it’s no so much that 'I’m not in this for housing or jobs.' [But] the very thing causing us to be in this system is the capitalistic system. America needs to be changed at the core...For me, to be anything less than radical would be to be maintaining a system that is killing my people."

Barron was born on October 7, 1950 in Flushing Hospital, in Queens. For six years, he lived in Corona with his family, who later moved to the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side.

He attended PS 188 on the Lower East Side, Junior High School 71 near Williamsburg, and then Stewart Park High School in Floral Park. He left there and got his GED. Then Barron was off to New York Technical College, which was called New York Community College at the time. After getting an associate degree, he went to Hunter College, earning a bachelors in sociology with a minor in elementary education.

In school, he was, not surprisingly, involved in politics. He was the president of the SEEK Student Committee, which helped academically and financially struggling students. He was also the "Welfare Commissioner" of the student body. His GPA had been around 3.3—enough to be on the Dean's List— but he says it slipped to around 2.5, thanks to all the time he spent in extracurricular activities, like his membership in the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party, for example, where he developed much of the worldview that informs his politics to this day.

IN THE 1980S, BARRON MOVED TO BROOKLYN'S BEDFORD-Stuyvesant neighborhood. In 1983, he relocated to nearby East New York, and has been there ever since.

Around the time he moved to East New York, he married his wife, Inez, who already had a 10-year-son, Lelani. (Lelani now works in the film industry.) Barron and Inez have one child together, Jawanza, who is an assistant tennis coach and works with needy children in Brooklyn.

After school, Barron and his wife created Dynamics of Leadership Inc., which taught motivational speaking, conflict negotiating and diversity training. Barron, through his company, also taught lessons on team building, "critical and analytical thinking, "and what he calls "emotional intelligence."

"I went all over the country," he said in a recent interview. "I made over $100,000 a year."

"Tony Robbins and Les Brown, were more inspirational," Barron said. "Mine was about leadership, culture and race, all that stuff they stay away from."

The bulk of Barron's clients were churches in Brooklyn, school superintendents throughout New York City, non-profit organizations, and, of course, colleges. Barron said he was paid by Harvard and Yale to speak on their campuses, along with De Pauw University. (Barron says he helped increase diversity at that school after bringing to their attention the fact that they had nearly no African-Americans in top leadership positions.)

The irony that the most conflict-prone city lawmaker, whose had numerous public clashes with critics, once taught seminars on conflict resolution and the science of negotiation isn't lost on him. But Barron says his public antics overshadow his other work.

"I'm an excellent negotiator," he said. "A lot of people disagree with me, but you'll find very few who don't like me. Even the mayor likes me. They don't dislike me. They just disagree with me politically" and "how I confront situations."

(This is true, sort of: City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., a conservative-leaning Democrat of Queens, once commented that Barron was "dangerous" because he was so "charming.")

Barron is in his third and final term in the City Council, but has made numerous efforts to move up, or at least out, during his time there.

He ran for Congress in 2006, in New York's 10th district, against the second-longest-serving member of the New York delegation, Edolphus Towns. Towns responded by ignoring Barron's candidacy, refusing to attend debates and forums, and hardly campaiging. Towns ended up winning a three-way primary with 46 percent of the vote, to Barron's 38.

Barron announced after that that he was going to run for borough president of Brooklyn, before term limits were extended and the incumbent decided to stick around. And he announced he would run for mayor in 2009, but abandoned his barely-off-the-ground campaign in deference to Bill Thompson, who was city comptroller and a near-consensus nominee at the time, and is African-American.

Now, unhappy with a Democratic slate of statewide candidates who are all white, Barron has decided to run for governor. He's launched the Freedom Party, with the aim of attracting the 50,000 votes necessary to earn it a spot on future ballots, and in true Barron fashion, he has "dared" anyone to challenge his petitions and knock him off the ballot.

So far, no one has.

Azi Paybarah is a political reporter for WNYC.