Hakeem Jeffries musters a Bookeresque coalition for Congress: Reformers, machine and all

Hakeem Jeffries talks to constituents. (via Jeffries' website.)
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Hakeem Jeffries, a 41-year-old Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn who is considering a challenge to longtime incumbent congressman Ed Towns, has become many things to many people.

Though Jeffries has a middle-of-the-road position on education reform, charter-school advocates from outside the heavily African-American district have embraced him as another Cory Booker, the post-civil-rights-generation Newark mayor who vanquished the union-backed Democratic establishment.

At the same time, charter-school opponents, who have cheered his opposition to school closures and who joined with him as plaintiffs when they filed suit against the appointment of former schools chancellor Cathie Black, consider him an ally, too.

To good-government activists, he's a wrench in the Brooklyn political machine.

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But to that very same machine, Jeffries is new blood, and an opportunity to replace a hostile incumbent with a reliable ally.

"If Hakeem decides to run—I just went through two or three battles with Ed Towns," said Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman, when asked whether he'd back Jeffries against Towns in a primary. "I think you could add 1 and 1 up, but I'm not going to do that for you."

What do they all see in him?

It's fair to say that the fact that Jeffries has attracted such broad support for his potential challenge to Towns, who has represented a V-shaped chunk of central Brooklyn since 1983, has quite a lot to do with actual merit.

He's an appealing candidate—he's been the subject of admiring profiles as far back as 2000 when he first ran for the Assembly against 20-year incumbent Roger Green—and he's proven himself to be a proficient (and politically well attuned) legislator, too. Since he won his Assembly seat five years ago, he's been meaningfully involved in passing laws affecting key issues close to home, focusing on affordable housing, education, policing, and the counting of prisoners in their home districts.

(Lopez, who chairs the Housing Committee on which Jeffries sits and is rather adept at working the levers of power in Albany, called him "an impressive legislator.")

But Jeffries is also profiting, greatly, from the local political environment in which he's currently operating. There is no Cory Booker-like figure in New York at the moment; no African-American elected official in Jeffries' generation with the immediate potential to become a dominant political figure citywide and beyond. And in Towns—a 15-term incumbent whose profile in Washington is so low that he was dissuaded by Democratic leadership from seeking ranking-member status on the House Oversight Committee—Jeffries will have found an almost ideal opponent against whom to contrast his youthful vigor.

Then there's Jeffries' style. He is a conciliator, and people—constituents, colleagues, donors—like him. His would-be political opponents, in fact, would say that Jeffries is accommodating to a fault.

"Jeffries will go where the money is going," said City Councilman Charles Barron, a Democrat and outspoken black nationalist who got 37 percent of the vote in a three-way primary against Towns in 2006, and who is considering running again this year. "To me, he's not a principled person and he's not his own man. He's definitely a puppet for Vito Lopez. He's a traditional politician and he's cut from the same cloth as Towns."

And how does Jeffries see himself?

"I began my journey as an elected official challenging an incumbent who was backed by the Brooklyn Democratic machine and continue to believe that there are significant reforms that must be made in state government, in order to deliver effectively and efficiently for the people of New York," Jeffries said in a phone call earlier this month, speaking slowly and cautiously.

He mentioned redistricting reform as one such issue, then pivoted to praise Lopez.

"I’ve worked closely with Chairman Lopez in his capacity as the leading affordable-housing proponent in the legislature, and no one can deny that he has been the most effective voice on behalf of working families and senior citizens who are trying desperately to remain in gentrifying communities," he said.

NOTWITHSTANDING HIS WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH LOPEZ, Jeffries is broadly considered part of a new guard of Brooklyn politics, a reputation he established a decade ago, following the last round of redistricting, when Albany's powers-that-be drew him out of Green's Assembly district, after he gave the longtime incumbent a surprising scare in the 2000 primary.

Jeffries persevered, moving into the new district and eventually, in 2006, winning the seat. The fight gave him a reform cachet that still endures, despite his qualified support for Lopez and the county committee.

When the Democratic donor and good-government crusader Bill Samuels received an email late last month inviting him to a Jeffries fund-raiser at "some random apartment," he decided to go, in large part, because he had a "very positive image" of Jeffries from his redistricting saga. (Jeffries' story is included in the documentary Gerrymander, in which he calls Green's redistricting move "gangster.")

Samuels was impressed enough to write a check for $500, and said he's excited about Jeffries because he's "clearly an outstanding future leader," but also, because "there are so many young action groups [in Brooklyn] of which Hakeem is an example, and Vito Lopez's structure has got to be toppled, for all the obvious reasons."

Asked if it would give him pause to know that Lopez was likely to back Jeffries too, Samuels was inclined to forgive it.

"Sure it would, but it means he's a good politician, there's feuding among the old guard," he said, comparing it to the way President Obama had to come up through Chicago's machine politics. "What I don't want is somebody to go to Albany or to Washington, and not have the fire in their belly."

Presumably because of that same idea about Jeffries, that he'd head to Washington with the fire in his belly, some education-reform proponents with ties to Cory Booker and former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty, another reformist Democrat, have begun pouring money into Jeffries' coffers, too. (Fenty and Jeffries roomed together in Washington while Jeffries was working on a master's degree in public policy at Georgetown, and they remain close friends.) 

Their affinity for both Booker—who, incidentally, triumphed in 2006 in part by co-opting elements of the Democratic machine that had crushed his first mayoral bid in 2002—and Jeffries is not a coincidence.

"With Booker, it was very much New Newark versus Old Newark,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform. “And you can see the same kind of storyline playing out in Brooklyn." 

Democrats for Education Reform, where Booker sits on the board of advisors, gave $2,500 to Jeffries by way of its political action committee, and Williams personally gave $1,000.

The two men met in 2007, when Williams was trying to muster official support for then-governor Eliot Spitzer proposal to raise a cap on the number of charter schools permitted in New York.

“He struck me then as the same kind of forward-looking leader [as Booker],” Williams said. “He's not the same kind of old-school New York politician, and that's appealing to a lot of our donors.”

Boykin Curry, who is on DFER's board and was also an outspoken supporter of Booker's mayoral campaign, gave $2,500. (Curry's brother, Marshall, made the documentary Street Fight, which was about Booker's unsuccessful 2002 campaign against Sharpe James and which helped make Booker a celebrated cause among liberals outside New Jersey.)

Two other members of DFER's board gave a combined $3,700.

But whereas Booker unwaveringly advocated both as candidate and mayor for "school choice," Jeffries has positioned himself somewhere between the hard-core reformers and the skeptics, opposing public-school closures and certain charter co-locations, in which charter entities were moved into public-school buildings. 

"We don't agree on everything, but he's always accessible," said Williams. "We think he's a good leader and a good representation of what the future of New York politics ought to look like: pragmatic, independent."

Jeffries has been a frequent critic of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education policy, and voted against the extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, calling it "out of control." But he offered qualified praise for Bloomberg's latest chancellor, Dennis Walcott.

"Chancellor Walcott is off to a good start, and he has begun to improve the relationship between the D.O.E. and communities that have been shut out of the school governance process," he said, adding, "Mr. Walcott, I believe, has the desire to do what is necessary, and I just hope that he has the will to break with the mayor when necessary."

Prior to Walcott, Jeffries was a plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing the appointment as schools chancellor of Cathie Black—who was perceived to be both unqualified to run a public school system and an uncompromising supporter of the Bloomberg administration's pro-charter-school policies.

Some of his co-plaintiffs on the suit now say they are “disappointed” in Jeffries’ support for charter schools.

"Now that he's running for Congress and he needs to raise that money, he's flip-flopped," said Mona Davids, another co-plaintiff and the president of New York City Parents Union.

Davids cited Jeffries’ inclusion on DFER’s “Summer Hot List” of candidates—which touted a New York Observer story calling Jeffries “the Barack of Brooklyn”—shortly before Jeffries co-wrote an op-ed in favor of co-locating charter schools.

"One of the things we all had in common on that [Cathie Black] lawsuit was charter co-location," Davids said, calling the issue a deal-breaker for her support.

A spokesperson for Jeffries said his position had remained consistent, and that he had never been flatly opposed to co-locations, but had favored it in certain cases and not in others.

That case-by-case position on schools, actually, is fairly representative of Jeffries' mode of operation—he navigated a middle ground on Atlantic Yards too—and colleagues say it is the reason he's been able to generate the excitement of an insurgent without scaring off members of the establishment.

"I think he's very thorough," said one. "If he takes a stand on an issue, he's very well versed in that issue. He's not going to appeal to the camera for the sake of it. He's very thoughtful."