3:10 pm Jun. 22, 20122
On Thursday night, beneath a framed picture of Robert Mugabe, a big dry-erase calendar and a map of the newly configured eighth congressional district, about a dozen campaign volunteers for Charles Barron were toiling away inside a little cafe called Sistas' Place on Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
On a table at the front, there was a big stack of Barron for Congress fliers and a jar of Barron for Congress ballpoint pens, and several of the men toiling away on laptops wore black baseball hats emblazoned with the gold letters: BARRON FOR CONGRESS.
There was a distinct buzz of activity; it took a few minutes for anyone to attend to an out-of-place reporter, and when an older woman finally did, she was un-Barron-like in her reticence.
"Going alright," was all she would offer about the feeling on the ground.
To the supporter of City Councilman Charles Barron, the idea that he is suddenly surging in his Democratic primary contest against establishment-supported rising-star assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries is simply a case of the media coverage finally catching up with reality.
"The things we were hearing and have been hearing—I don't know if it's a surge—it's always been a Barron race as far as all the feedback I have had," said Wanda Williams, the political director for DC37, the city's largest public employee union, which endorsed Barron last month. "In terms of people talking about the race, he's been the front-runner. So I don't know about a surge."
The DC37 endorsement was one of a pair of coups—the other being the endorsement of Ed Towns, the longtime congressman who is vacating the seat—that focused media (and donor) attention on the suddenly competitive-looking race. Barron ran for the seat once before, in 2006, losing to Towns in what was nevertheless a strong showing in a three-way primary.
Williams conceded that the "front-runner" sentiment was largely coming from Barron's corner of the district, out in East New York, where he has served as the city councilman for more than a decade.
The brownstone belt in the western part of the district is considered Jeffries' home turf, with the battle being fought largely in between.
"At this point, we're going to spend a lot of time amongst our core supporters to energize them to come out on June 26, as well as in battleground neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Canarsie and Coney Island," Jeffries told me, after speaking at a Bed-Stuy community forum on Thursday night, two blocks from Sistas' Place.
"It's always been my view that Bedford-Stuyvesant, Canarsie and Coney Island are the Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida of the 8th congressional district," he said.
The swing neighborhoods are dotted with Jeffries and Barron signs.
"It seems like it's going to be close," said Bernadette Okeke-Diagne, who was smoking a cigarette outside a coffee shop next to where Jeffries was speaking. "People have different perceptions."
Personally, Okeke-Diagne likes Jeffries.
"I perceive him as definitely soft-spoken, and definitely intellectual and going all the way back to W.E.B. DuBois, representative of the Talented Tenth."
She said that one of her neighbors is an enthusiastic Barron supporter.
"She feels that Hakeem has not been present," Okeke-Diagne said. "She doesn't know him. He's not visible. But she knows Charles Barron and she's going to vote for him. She was saying, 'Hakeem hasn't made himself known.'"
Okene-Diagne disagreed: "To the contrary, he's all over the place."
"There's kind of a sexy counterintuitive storyline that Barron's got more enthusiasm on the ground," said Bob Master, the political director for the Communication Workers of America, which endorsed Jeffries.
Master, who was getting reports from the ground while he was in Albany dealing with the legislative session, said his people weren't seeing it.
"My sense is we have a robust canvass and I just heard anecdotally last night that the IDs are holding," he said.
Which would mean that Jeffries' voters are still Jeffries' voters, and, presumably, Barron voters are still Barron voters.
The considerable attention paid to Barron's foreign policy pronouncements, like his comparison of conditions in Gaza to those in Nazi concentration camps, should help Jeffries in the heavily Jewish neighborhoods in the district, which could produce around 20 percent of the voters in the primary, and where the campaign was initially concerned about motivating voters.
"Certainly one of our early concerns was were we going to be able to generate turnout in all areas of the district," said Scott Levenson, who is helping run Jeffries' campaign. "The fact that our opponent's position on the state of Israel and broader foreign policy positions has generated attention in that community, I'd say that's been a net positive for our campaign."
But neither side believes Barron's defenses of Mugabe or Moammar Khadafy will have much of an effect in the heart of the heavily African-American district. There, Jeffries' campaign is instead seeking to paint Barron as an unserious legislator, ill-suited to deliver for the district.
"Across the board from East New York to Howard Beach, the thing that seemed to move people the most was, 'I don't know if I'll ever pass a piece of legislation and I don't care,'" said Levenson, referring to a Barron comment at his defiant campaign kick-off in November.
The campaign featured the quote with a goofy picture of Barron jumping off the City Hall steps, in a recent mail piece. (The exact quote was: "So if I do nothing else—I don't know if I'm going to get a single bill passed—don't care. But I tell you one thing, we're going to rock 'em.")
"People understand the rationale that in the Republican Congress it might be tough for you to pass legislation, that wasn't the issue," Levenson said. "The issue was that you don't care. Once you start telling people that, it's a joke. You don't believe in the job. You're not serious about being a legislator, compared to a guy who has built a career on being a legislator."
Outside the district, fears about Barron's positions on Israel have resulted in an intensifying stream of money coming into Jeffries' campaign, which was already relatively flush.