New York City Councilman Charles Barron is the real-life embodiment of the paranoid right-wing fantasy about President Obama: a former Black Panther, a backer of wealth redistribution, and an outspoken admirer of leftist dictators worldwide.
But now Barron has risen from a controversial local curiosity, best known for inflammatory statements like calling Thomas Jefferson a pedophile, to the verge of becoming a national newsmaker. He’s running for Congress and threatening to upset the party favorite, comparatively centrist Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, in next Tuesday’s primary that will effectively decide the next representative of a safely Democratic district snaking through Brooklyn.
National Democrats are getting nervous as Barron has picked up the endorsements of the powerful local union DC37 and its national parent union AFSCME, as well as that of the retiring incumbent, Ed Towns, in what’s expected to be a low-turnout summer contest. If Barron wins, the far-left wingnuts will have a new face on Capital Hill, one that makes socialist Senator Bernie Sanders look conservative by comparison.
What gets lost in all the hype about Barron is that beneath the committed radicalism, the man is a consummate politician, a back-slapper par excellence, angry but also affable, intolerant but intelligent. And he’s particularly proud of his ability to deliver for his district despite or because of his press-grabbing act.
On a recent weekday, Barron was holding court on the sidewalk outside a restaurant called Sista’s Place that doubles as his Bed-Stuy district campaign headquarters, glad-handing passers-by. He is a local celebrity of sorts, with high name recognition due to his headline-grabbing statements and the yellow campaign posters on virtually every storefront. A middle-aged man named Keith stops and says that he’s heard that Barron is against the Constitution. “Naw, man, I’m the biggest patriot there is,” Barron says with hands clasped over his Nehru jacket–clad heart. “I love this country so much that I want it to change.”
Barron’s list of inflammatory statements are long and to get the national reader up to speed, the Beast has compiled a list of his lowlights here. There’s a reason why The New York Times editorial board called him an ”embarrassing ideologue”, while the less-restrained Daily News called him a “malignant clown”.
“He becomes someone who gets hung around the neck” of Democrats, said Republican media strategist Rick Wilson. “He’ll go on the floor on the [House], and he’ll make statements where he will talk crazy shit.”
“Radical is a good thing,” Barron tells me. “It comes from the Latin word that means you get to the root of the problem. The root cause is an unequal distribution of wealth and income. The root cause is an institutional and structural racism and classism.”
“If they think Barack Obama is radical because he wanted health care for everybody—that to me is incredible.” He goes on: “I don’t think any American president has been good for black people.”
Including this one? “This one is trapped in a Congress—his own party has too many conservative Democrats,” he says, later adding “any president of the United States of America is going to be the custodian of an imperialistic foreign policy and a very capitalistic domestic policy—that’s the bottom line.”
Barron doesn’t back down from his controversial beliefs. Instead, he courts further controversy, and the notice that comes with it. A framed photo of Robert Mugabe—the Zimbabwean dictator he infamously invited to be a guest of honor at New York’s city council—occupies pride of place in his campaign HQ, next to photos of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When asked about Mugabe’s forcible confiscation of white-owned farms, Barron defends the policy as just: “You’re damn right he confiscates land.”
Other self-described heroes include “my man” Hugo Chavez and Muammar Gaddafi, whose rise to power Barron says was not a military coup, but “a peaceful revolution.” On the subject of Cuba and Fidel Castro, he breaks out the misty fatigues as well, calling him “a liberator.” When pressed about the human-rights abuses and murders perpetrated by the men he calls his heroes, Barron points to the third-world dictators the U.S. has backed in the past.
“I don’t think they should kill so many of their people,” Barron says with understatement about the body count accumulated by his brothers-in-arms. “I don’t agree with that—but I don’t think that America has the moral authority to be talking about any nation or any leader in the world about murder.”
But he is less eager now to embrace his radioactive rhetoric over the years about Israel, though he doesn’t quite recant it either. Barron has previously compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Nazis and called the Jewish state “the biggest terrorist in the world.” But the Brooklyn congressional district he’s running in contains many Jewish refugees, especially the Russians in Brighton Beach, and Barron, happy to replay his greatest hits about dictators, declines to repeat his past insults of Israel. “I don’t feel for Israel, I don’t think about Israel,” he says, and shifts the conversation to the greater Middle East.
But in the window of a grocery story near where we’re meeting, a campaign poster for his opponent, next to at untouched one for Barron, has the words “Israel’s Slave” scribbled over Jeffries’s face.
“In that district, no one is listening to discussions about Mugabe, Israel, or any foreign policy,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Barron’s constituency is more concerned about everyday eating. Therefore, he’ll make the most populist argument.”
The real scandal of this congressional primary is less Barron’s beliefs than the fact that he is now a serious contender, thanks to the veil of political legitimacy and get-out-the-vote ground troops given to him by the incumbent and the unions.
If Barron wins the primary, right-wingers will have an even more extreme ideological opposite in Congress, a bogeyman eager to play the part.
When Barron challenged Towns in 2008, he won 15,000 votes in a low-turnout primary—and that was without any organized-labor unions in his corner. His opponent’s sin is supporting charter schools, regarded as an existential threat by local labor unions—so much so that they would apparently rather back a candidate with a history of anti-Semitic statements and a love for leftist dictators. It’s hard to claim the moral high ground when you place self-interested policy litmus tests over common-sense concepts of social justice.
If Barron wins the primary, right-wingers will have an even more extreme ideological opposite in Congress, a bogeyman eager to play the part. Like all extremes, he wants further polarization in the political environment and national conservatives would lose no time in fundraising off his steady stream of incitements. Barron is an outlier even in urban Democratic politics, but he would quickly prove to be a destructive distraction, empowered by unions and imposed on the national party.
“Part of the problem” with having a primary effectively decide the race is “there’s no way to shake out a guy like that,” said Wilson. “There’s no punishment for being a crazy person.”
Barron, he said, was “made for YouTube or Twitter.”
“I’m not controllable,” Barron boasts. “I’m unbossed, unbought, I’m going to be in your face and take on the powers that be that you might not want me to because you have to negotiate with them.” But then negotiation isn’t his aim and governing isn’t his goal. Brooklyn Democrats, be careful what you ask for next Tuesday.
Ben Jacobs contributed to this report.