8:50 am Jan. 16, 2012
On Sunday afternoon, in a brief speech on a bitterly cold day on the steps of Brooklyn's Borough Hall, Hakeem Jeffries finally made it official.
After six months of raising money for a possible run in Brooklyn's 10th congressional district, Jeffries stood in front of about 50 sign-waving supporters and announced that he will, in fact, challenge longtime incumbent congressman Ed Towns.
"Washington is broken. Congress is dysfunctional. People are suffering. We deserve more," Jeffries said.
He drew the loudest applause when he said he was going to Washington to fight alongside Barack Obama.
"Now I think he's doing a pretty good job," Jeffries said. "He's got the intellectual capacity of W.E.B. DuBois and he's calm, cool and collected like Denzel Washington."
But the speech mostly focused on Republicans and the "radical right," with Jeffries talking about how hard he would fight for the community, an implicit dig at Towns.
"I'm going to work as hard as I can to justify the confidence that you have placed in me, and give you the congressman, and the community, and the country that we deserve," said Jeffries, whose supporters were waving signs with the campaign's slogan, "We Deserve More."
In a brief question-and-answer session after the speech, reporters tried to elicit a more direct criticism of the incumbent.
After Jeffries said he has "respect" for Towns' record of service, he was pressed by Gersh Kuntzman, the former editor of the Brooklyn Paper (who was sporting a new New York Times press credential), to specify some point of disagreement.
"Well the campaign is 15 minutes old and there will be a lot of time for us to do that in the weeks and months to come," Jeffries said.
"This is a good time to do it, given how much media is here," said Kuntzman.
"I've said all I'm going to say about the incumbent," said Jeffries, who turned to look for other questions.
Jeffries has already assembled a broad coalition of supporters, but there were relatively few elected officials on hand for the announcement. Among the crowd on the steps was district leader Walter Mosley and City Councilman Steve Levin, who is close to Brooklyn chairman Vito Lopez, one of Jeffries' likely supporters.
"I do expect in the weeks and months to come we will announce a surprising number of endorsements from a wide variety of elected officials, clergy, organized labor and community stakeholders," Jeffries said.
In lieu of an elected official, Jeffries was introduced by Kenneth Thompson, the high-profile defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, who recently represented the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.
After the speech, Thompson told me that the two first met when Jeffries was an intern in the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District, where Thompson made a name for himself as the prosecutor who tried the Abner Louima case.
Thompson, who lives in the 10th district, was one of many donors who helped stake Jeffries to an impressive $173,000 third fund-raising quarter in the fall, and said he would be doing everything he can to help elect Jeffries.
He said he is co-hosting a fund-raiser for Jeffries in Manhattan on Wednesday, with another prominent criminal defense attorney, Ted Wells, who has represented clients ranging from Scooter Libby to Eliot Spitzer. (Wells is a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where Jeffries worked before entering politics.)
"It's time for a change," Thompson said.
Jeffries told reporters he expected to have the resources to compete with Towns--who had just over $11,000 dollars on hand at the end of third quarter--and that he wasn't much concerned with how the district might be redrawn in the coming months, since the Voting Rights Act limits how much it can actually be changed.
He said he took Towns at his word that the longtime congressman isn't planning to retire without a fight.
"He's going to have to make a case as to why Year 31 and Year 32 are justified in this climate," Jeffries said.
Jeffries didn't mention, and wasn't asked about, Councilman Charles Barron, the third candidate who has declared for the primary.
CORRECTION: Jeffries' spokeswoman takes issue with my crowd estimate, which I put at 50. She said, among other things, that that number fails to add some other supporters who watched Jeffries from some folding chairs up front (there were about 10 of them, as I recall), and the 30 or so others (again, by my count) who were milling around partaking of the free hot chocolate provided by the campaign.
I think that's right, and I've changed the language to reflect that my count refers only to the people standing on the steps with him.