Hakeem Jeffries says he has a real race on his hands, and Charles Barron agrees

Hakeem Jeffries and clergy. (Reid Pillifant)
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A few minutes before a half-dozen African-American clergymen were scheduled to endorse Hakeem Jeffries at Brooklyn's Borough Hall this morning, Jeffries' campaign staff was still trying to drum up some press coverage. 

Three months earlier, when Jeffries kicked off his congressional campaign in the same spot, on an even colder and windier day, recruiting reporters hadn't been a problem. Jeffries' bid, after all, made for good copy: a young upstart trying to unseat the veteran Ed Towns, a 28-year incumbent with a long history of surviving primary challenges.

But when Towns officially dropped out last week, the bottom dropped out of that narrative too, and now Jeffries is trying to convince supporters (and reporters) that he still has a race on his hands, against City Councilman Charles Barron, who got 36 percent of the vote against Towns in 2006 and might have beaten him if not for the presence of a third candidate in the race.

"Councilman Barron is a serious candidate," Jeffries said. "We're taking him extremely seriously, and as evidenced today, with the support of several prominent members of the African-American clergy in central Brooklyn, that we are moving forward as enthusiastically and as aggressively as we were prior to Congressman Towns announcing his retirement."

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By the usual measures, Jeffries would appear to have the race all but won. He has sewn up most of the institutional support, earning the endorsements of all the major unions, and raising more than half a million dollars from a variety of wealthy donors, with nearly $400,000 still on hand.

Barron, an outspoken black nationalist who often casts lonely "no" votes in the Council and has been an enthusiastic supporter of controversial figures like Robert Mugabe and Muammar Khadafy, hasn't attracted much in the way of endorsements, and has $52,000—mostly of his own money—on hand.

But he insists that doesn't matter.

"Endorsements don't win campaigns," Barron told me last week. "People win campaigns. Y'all can write what you want about others, say what you want about others, but I guarantee you this campaign is poised for victory."

And, after raising just over $132,000 in 2006, compared to more than $1 million for Towns, Barron insists he doesn't need much money.

"About $125,000 and I'll be good," he said. "I can get three mailings in, I can get my robocalls in and I can get an election day operation going. Because that's what you really need. And I've identified the six Assembly districts with Towns out, I'm going to do very well—in East New York, and Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant, and even in his district."

Barron should benefit from the high turnout in the eastern part of the district, which he represents in the Council and his wife, Inez, represents in the Assembly. His wife's district had the most votes of any Assembly district in the 2006 race, delivering more than 4,348 votes to Barron out of a total 41,000 that were cast in the race. (Towns got 2,867 in the same Assembly district.)

But Jeffries' union support—some of which have declared the race their top priority in the June primary—should give him a base of voters who can reliably counted on to turn out. And the Jeffries' campaign made sure to point out that today's announcement included some influential preachers from Barron's part of the district, including Reverend Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood.

Youngblood said he worked with Barron before and that he had seen Barron campaigning hard in the neighborhood but that it wasn't a difficult choice for him.

"Both of them are good men," he said. "Charles served the East New York community well and I think he would do well in the event he wins this election. Hakeem I have watched from the very beginning and he just seems like the man."

The other Assembly district Barron won in 2006 was the one that Jeffries now represents. The former office-holder, Roger Green, drew just over 1,300 votes in that district, to Towns' 1,671—both less than Barron's 2,007 votes.

Jeffries said this morning that, despite Barron's bravado about winning on his own turf, it won't happen again.

"He will not win the 57th Assembly District in 2012," Jeffries said. "I'm not Patrick Ewing, but that I will guarantee."

Barron, who is usually adept at drawing media attention with scathing attacks on his opponents, indicated he won't do much to drum up that kind of interest in the race going forward, preferring to focus instead on his record on affordable housing, parks, and education.

"There's so much that doesn't get mentioned when I just go on the attack," Barron said.