Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns hasn’t yet retired from the Brooklyn seat he has held for nearly three decades, but that hasn’t stopped two of his would-be successors from starting to look past him — and toward the very different visions of black political leadership they see in the district’s future.
In one corner is New York Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a onetime corporate lawyer who earlier this month filed paperwork to open a congressional account, putting his marker down for a seat he’s long eyed. In the other is City Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and longtime black activist, who pulled 37 percent of the vote when he ran against Towns in 2006 and has said he is planning to run again.
The looming race presents two clashing philosophies of black politics: the state lawmaker reaching for post-racial politics and the protest-oriented city councilman who espouses what he calls “radical progressivism.”
It’s a difference the 76-year-old Towns knows well.
“Barron is kind of a community activist, and of course, Jeffries worked within the Democratic structure and worked with the so-called Democratic leadership,” Towns said. “Barron is outside of that world and is an activist, which is very different.”
Jeffries’s rise has been telegraphed for years: In the rough-and-tumble world of Gotham politics, few figures are more buzzed about than the state assemblyman, who routinely draws comparisons to another 40-something African-American pol who made his mark in his state’s Legislature before heading to Washington.
“How Hakeem Jeffries Became the Barack of Brooklyn” blared the headline of a recent New York Observer profile of the assemblyman’s rise to prominence.
Barron is an outspoken force on the New York City political scene — he unsuccessfully challenged Towns in 2006 and waged an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2010 in which he slammed the Democratic Party for taking black voters for granted and called now-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s choice of a white candidate for lieutenant governor a “slap in the face.”
The likely candidates would draw support from very different portions of the district: While Jeffries is expected to pick up backing from areas like Brooklyn Heights and gentrifying Fort Greene, Barron has long counted the area’s projects as his base.
The fireworks have already begun. To hear the blunt Barron tell it, Jeffries is a “club guy” and part of a movement that, he said, “de-emphasized race and is go-along to get-along.”
“We need fighters — people who are going to be extremely active, extremely progressive and who will have no interest in corporate interests,” he said. “I don’t think much of Hakeem Jeffries.”
“It’s time for a change to what I would call radical progressivism,” said Barron. “That’s the kind of change we need in Brooklyn.”
Beyond the Barron base, Jeffries is often seen as the epitome of the new black pol — an Obama-like figure who sought to ascend Democratic politics by working within the party structure instead of opposing it.
That approach “is a reflection of the changing face of African-Americans in New York and in this country,” said Kevin Wardally, a Democratic consultant deeply involved with local black politics in New York.
Publicly at least, Towns is taking a chest-thumping approach to Jeffries’s interest in his seat — declaring that he has no intention to retire and suggesting the assemblyman is an impatient up-and-comer who should wait his turn.
“He was standing with me the last time, talking about how great I was. I’m sure that’s not the same person,” Towns said, laughing at the mention of Jeffries’s name.
The congressman wouldn’t offer anything more than lukewarm words for his potential successor, saying only that Jeffries has done a “capable job in the Assembly.”
Towns said he was working 13 to 14 hours a day and hadn’t given thought to who would take his place.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said.
But the New York congressman’s long political career has been in decline. Late last year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings to replace Towns as the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — an embarrassing blow that seemed to display the Democratic leadership’s lack of confidence in the veteran congressman.
For years, it had been widely assumed in New York political circles that former Assemblyman Darryl Towns was next in line for his father’s seat. But earlier this year, Towns joined Cuomo’s administration in a post overseeing a key housing agency, seemingly confirming that the younger Towns isn’t looking to make the move to Washington.
Darryl Towns, the congressman acknowledged, is “looking to do something different.”
While Towns allies refrain from addressing Jeffries directly, it’s clear they are sensitive to the questions surrounding the longtime Brooklyn congressman’s succession and don’t like the idea of him being pushed out before he’s ready to go.
“There’s always a changing of the guard, and I don’t think that a changing of the guard means you have to put someone out,” said Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, a fellow black congressman who recalled waiting for Rep. Floyd Flake to retire before launching a campaign for his southeastern Queens-area seat. “What you have to do is make sure you’re in a position, should the opportunity present itself, that you can step forward — and there are ways of doing that without putting anybody aside.”
Recognizing those concerns, Jeffries has sought to engineer a low-key campaign kickoff. Jeffries did not respond to a request for comment. His campaign website makes no mention of Towns and simply lists his biography, noting that he’s opened an “exploratory committee.”
But there are signs that the Jeffries wheels are in motion. On Sunday evening, the state assemblyman held a Williamsburg fundraiser benefiting his nascent campaign.