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

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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."

Last week, when Jeffries officially converted his exploratory committee to a campaign account, and reported an impressive haul of $173,000 dollars since May, his donor list included people like former state comptroller Carl McCall and former lieutenant governor Richard Ravitch, as well as 25 donations from attorneys at Paul Weiss (including Senator Charles Schumer’s brother, Robert), where Jeffries practiced law before turning to politics. 

So far so good, there. But what happens if Jeffries runs, and Vito Lopez puts his considerable resources at his disposal? Would he able to make comfortable accommodation under his tent both for someone like Lopez and for Brooklyn's Democratic dissidents, some of whom are counting on him to be an agent of relief not just from the long congressional tenure of Towns but from the influence of the county organization on the borough's elected officials?

"I think other clubs that could call themselves 'reform' would have a hard time burnishing the credentials of Mr. Jeffries if that connection is clear," said Chris Owens, a district leader and former congressional candidate who has previously opposed Lopez (and who was also a co-plaintiff, with Jeffries, on the anti-Cathie Black lawsuit).

He said that if Lopez was perceived to be using a Jeffries candidacy as a power-grab it might incite "a backlash."

"I think this would be a wholly unnecessary bloodbath regardless of the outcome, which could really distract from what we need to be building in 2012," Owens said.

It should be said that whether Jeffries will actually challenge Towns remains unclear; a spokesperson said he was unlikely to make a decision until later in the year. 

It should also be said that the potential problem of having an abundance of support from disparate interests is a very good one to have, as these things go.

"The initial strength of the fund-raising effort demonstrates widespread support from all walks of life who all recognize that Hakeem Jeffries is best qualified to represent the district in Congress," said Lupe Todd, a spokesperson for Jeffries (and former spokesperson for Cory Booker), in a statement. "The success of his possible candidacy will not rise or fall based on the validation of gadflies, shrill voices or self-appointed education activists."

Certainly, Jeffries would be in an extraordinarily good position—maybe better than any of Towns' challengers, ever—to win.

Late Saturday night, just before the filing deadline, the 15-term congressman reported spending $40,000 more than he raised last quarter, dropping his cash on hand for a re-election race to just over $11,000 (as opposed to the $159,000 Jeffries has on hand), renewing the perpetual rumor that he is considering retirement.

Towns is hosting a fund-raiser in conjunction with the Jay-Z and Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden next month, which may or may not indicate something about his future plans. Two spokesmen for Towns did not return requests for comment.

Towns' filing was the latest in a summer of setbacks. In May, he lost a race for district leader to a Lopez ally. His son, Darryl, who left his Assembly seat to take a position as the state's housing commissioner, was arrested over the summer for driving under the influence and recently pleaded guilty. And in July, Towns’ daughter Deidra finished third in a three-way special election to replace her brother, despite a vigorous push by the congressman to see her elected to the seat.

The 54th Assembly District is just one part of the 10th Congressional District, but the two candidates who ran against her—one supported by the country organization and another by the reformers and labor-backed Working Families Party—together accounted for just over 75 percent of the vote, with Deidra Towns receiving just 23 percent.

ASSUMING THAT'S ANY KIND OF INDICATOR OF THE STANDING within the district of Towns himself, the odds would have to be pretty good for anyone who's challenging him with undivided support from the antis.

Certainly, Towns’ opponents are feeling emboldened.

"You can't get closer than your daughter running," said Lopez, whose surrogates beat the Towns family in both races. He called the district leader loss “embarrassing,” and said people were surprised about Deidra “getting destroyed.”

Other than the question of whether Jeffries is going to run, then, is the question of whether there will be another candidate with sufficient popularity to shatter that prospect of a unified anti-Towns vote.

Barron, for instance, may or may not get in, but he is already making quite clear what he thinks of the narrative of Jeffries as a Barack or Booker of Brooklyn.

"Oh, please," he told me. "That's ridiculous. That's some white journalists probably, who are comfortable with his type of personality, non-confrontational, go along to get along. Comparing him to Barack Obama? That's absurd."

"Nobody has ever heard of Hakeem Jeffries," he continued. "They probably have heard of his uncle, [controversial CUNY black-studies professor] Leonard Jeffries. But nobody ever heard of Hakeem Jeffries. Barack Obama? Please."

Barron said he will decide in the next two weeks whether to enter the race, and that the calculus would simply be whether he should commit the time and resources of his nascent Freedom Party to a congressional run, or focus on retaining the party’s seats—his wife's and his—in the Assembly and City Council. (Barron, unlike Jeffries, can run in 2012 without giving up his current seat.)

There is one other variable: the 10th Congressional District itself. Just as Jeffries' hopes of becoming an Assemblyman a decade ago were affected (negatively) by an inconvenient redrawing of district lines in a redistricting process, the congressional district he now hopes to represent is going to look somewhat different by the time Albany gets done with it in the pending round of redistricting.

The district is governed by the Voting Rights Act, so most of the fighting will be around the margins, with the conventional wisdom holding that if the district expands to include the progressive, predominantly white voters of Brooklyn Heights, it would help Jeffries, and if it expands to take in more African-American voters, it might help Towns. 

"This is less about Hakeem Jeffries than it is about a changing district," said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who has worked for and against Towns, but isn't currently on his payroll. "Everything depends on the lines."

It's hard to know what effect that uncertainty will have on the deliberative Jeffries, whom friends and colleagues describe as "cautious" and "definitely not rash in his decision-making."

Jeffries would only say: "I’ve been encouraged by the conversations I’ve had to date and will continue to meet with as many people as possible over the next several weeks."

On Tuesday, he had breakfast with Samuels, who told Capital that he wouldn’t be a “heavy lifter” on a congressional race, but would be happy to host an event for him, and also to put in a good word with his friends Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic fund-raisers.

“He's one of the guys I'm going to help, but he's going to need a lot more than me,” said Samuels, who said he got the distinct impression from the fundraiser he attended that Jeffries would follow through on the race. "It seemed 100 percent in the meeting I was in. He's not having breakfast with me because he's leaning toward not running," he said.

"Every day of the week, he needs to be working on developing grassroots support and financial support," said Lopez. "And by sometime in January, he has to pull the trigger and decide whether or not he's running."

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