If you were wandering down Fulton Street between Washington Avenue and St. James Place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill starving and with $3.50 to spend, you might stroll into trendy taqueria Cochinita and exchange it for a pork shoulder taco heaping with pickled onions. A couple of doors down, for the same price, Brooklyn Victory Garden would sell you a bagel slathered with “faux gras” (or, walnut lentil pâté—not that you didn’t know). Where you could not spend that small wad of dollars is the vacant storefront of Joloff, a shuttered Senegalese restaurant that, after 17 years in this location, has recently been nudged out and relocated deep in Bed Stuy.
Also nestled in this block of Fulton is the small campaign headquarters for Democratic congressional hopeful Hakeem Jeffries. On a visit last Sunday, The Observer found an array of frantic, fresh-faced college and high school students, typing away on brought-from-home MacBooks, noshing on tacos from the aforementioned Cochinita, and phone banking furiously. It is an odd (or perhaps perfectly fitting) place for an ideological battle to land: in a neighborhood newly defined by hastening gentrification, the race that has emerged is between an old-guard, ultra-left black Brooklyn politician and a young moderate, modern coalition-builder who has fairly painlessly raised $700,000.
That afternoon, the campaign office—staffed by living symbols of the population change—was in a fever pitch. Ten young volunteers circled a table with campaign-issued, pay-as-you-go cell phones, calling voters to politely remind them of today’s primary.
The staff had been so busy for the past week that a copious bouquet sat wilting high above the office on a bookshelf, completely forgotten.
The Observer approached Eliza Schultz, an 18-year-old Johns Hopkins student pursuing international studies and public health, who was organizing a massive sandwich order for poll workers volunteering on primary day. As a sophomore in high school, Ms. Schultz had traveled to State College, Pa., for a week and volunteered on the Obama campaign, an experience she described as, “super exciting.” We asked her about the makeup of the regular volunteers in Mr. Jeffries’s office.
“It’s similar [to the Obama campaign volunteers. Most people you see coming in here are a certain age—a lot of us are in college, a lot from high school,” she said, shifting her weight in her wooden Swedish Hasbeens clog-sandals, favored by Sarah Jessica Parker and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
“It’s really amazing how many people were pulled from Uptown Manhattan [to come volunteer]. When I worked on the Obama campaign, we saw that, too. It’s amazing how many people have been pulled from all over the place. So many people come in from Westchester everyday. [Hakeem] has that same pull,” she said.
Indeed, for those whose first political solid food was the Obama run—or even those too young then to participate—the Jeffries run has provided a little bit of that old hope-and-change magic. Young and younger, they have flocked to Fulton Street for the latest hip political campaign to appeal to self-identifying locavores and proud public-radio supporters.
Andre Richardson, field director for the campaign, and Lauren Bierman, the campaign manager, emphasized that the volunteer base is broad and diverse and noted that there has been a unique word of mouth element to the high number of young volunteers.
“A lot of college students are here because they want to be involved … Recruitment has come from word of mouth, and a lot of them bring their friends along,” Mr. Richardson said.
Ms. Bierman agreed, “If they hear about us, they bring their friends.”
Among the volunteers were several graduates or attendees from top-tier schools—Columbia, Brown, Yale and three of the campaign volunteers went to the tony St. Ann’s school in Brooklyn Heights together.
In a corner of the office, 19-year-old Emma Janger moved from task to task in her blue sundress with precision and assertiveness, dispensing instructions on how to purchase more cell phones for today’s intense phone banking and juggling other tasks as we chatted. She’s involved with the College Democrats at Yale, where she will be a sophomore in the fall, and is currently living with her parents in Brooklyn Heights.
After she graduates, Ms. Janger says she wants to pursue politics, though she’s not sure in what capacity yet—all she knows is she’s going to buck the trend of her Boomerang Generation. “I love Brooklyn, there’s no reason not to be here—anything I want to do I can do it here … It’s a debate with my parents right now. I do want to return, but I refuse to move home.” (She’s got a bit of Girls’s Hannah Horvath in her.)
A truly seasoned campaign volunteer, Tiffany Bryant, had set up shop in the back of the office, where we spoke. Ms. Bryant, since she graduated with a degree in political science from Columbia in 2008, has held a series of research and policy jobs. The Obama campaign was her first, and she made a point to do her volunteering in a swing state.
“Senior year of college, I [volunteered for Obama] in Pennsylvania and Ohio and then spent the summer and election in Florida, in Broward County. After 2000, I said, I have to be in Florida for 2008,” she said. “It was very exciting to be in a swing state for the election.”
Brendan Flynn, a Gowanus resident with side-swept bangs, is studying political science at the CUNY Graduate Center and working on his dissertation (the subject: “agriculture policy, sort of?”) and leading a fantasy basketball league (the most hipster of all fantasy sports endeavors), when he’s not spending eight-hour days at the Jeffries office coordinating volunteers. Mr. Flynn told us he too worked on the Obama campaign, canvassing in Philadelphia on election day.
It is not just these young people who note the similarities to Mr. Obama’s run. The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News and The Washington Post, to name just a few outlets, have also drawn comparisons. Perhaps the connective tissue is reductive (one Jeffries volunteer winced when we suggested the comparison, noting that these comparisons are only made for politicians of color or female politicians), but bear with us: both attended and excelled at law school (Obama at Harvard, Jeffries at NYU), did time as associates at white-shoe law firms, ultimately left the lucrative private sector for the public one to work on issues of importance in ultra-local politics, and both are family men with two young children. And though he and his handlers downplay this comparison, Mr. Jeffries accepted the president’s tacit support, posing for a photo-op with the him at the Waldorf, and conceded to The Washington Post (in an article headlined: “Hakeem Jeffries: Brooklyn’s Barack Obama?”) that, yes, he and Mr. Obama share a birthday.
In the run up to the 2008 election, Steve Hildebrand, deputy national campaign director of Obama’s first run, told the Boston Globe that not only did the campaign see young people being galvanized to vote (66 percent of voters under 30 would end up casting their ballots for Obama), but unprecedented numbers of people volunteered. “Millions of Americans who haven’t been involved in a political campaign ever in their lifetimes [became] very active,” he said, estimating that it was the first time for 70 percent of their two million grassroots volunteers.
Jumping into such a campaign, especially one with eventual national ramifications and featuring a star candidate, no doubt also contributed to the constellation of helpers in the room.
This is volunteer Steve Kung’s first campaign, and he came looking for that excitement. The 22-year-old, who graduated in May from Brown with a degree in history, is still looking for a job.
What kind, we wondered?
“I’m not exactly sure. I’m casting my net pretty wide because of the economy, but I’m willing to lend my hand to this” in the meantime, he said. Asked why he chose this campaign, Mr. Kung said it had a reputation. “Apparently it’s supposed to be really intense and heated, one of the most intense primary races in New York City,” he said.
Chloe Shanklin, 19, another first-time campaigner, sported hot pink shorts as she worked on a laptop, tapping her white boat shoes anxiously as we spoke. (She had things to do.) On the advice from a professor, she joined up. “I thought I’d try something new and ended up loving it and sticking with it,” she said.
Ms. Shanklin is taking a semester off from Hamilton, but the experience has shaped her interests. “Last semester I thought biology, now I’m thinking something on the politics end. It’s changed my viewpoint. Being involved is great and it’s something I want to keep doing,” she said.
Exactly zero of the above young supporters live in Mr. Jeffries’s district—but given the prevailing trends, they might just end up there soon.
There is a very real demographic creep happening in the district, and it’s not just anecdotal. A recent article by education analyst Michael J. Petrilli named 11238, the zip code in which the Jeffries HQ is squarely located, one of the fasting gentrifying neighborhoods in the country, with a “change in white share” of 21.5 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Nevertheless the 8th district remains hugely diverse, with mostly white neighborhoods in north and south Brooklyn (Coney Island, Brighton Beach and the gentrification centers Ft. Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights) and a middle containing Bed Stuy and East New York—primarily black neighborhoods thought to be strongholds for his opponent Charles Barron. (The district is 53 percent black.)
It’s been a weird journey, this campaign. After the long-term congressman for the district, Ed Towns, unexpectedly dropped out of the race, it was suddenly wide open. An endorsement war followed (Mr. Towns, the powerful DC37 municipal union and former klansman David Duke endorsing Mr. Barron; Sen. Chuck Schumer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and most every other union or politician who matters endorsing Mr. Jeffries), and despite Mr. Jeffries’s legislative accomplishments, star power and 10-times-greater fundraising cache, some began to worry that Mr. Barron was “surging,” as The New York Times put it.
The Jeffries campaign has publicly denied being worried, though the candidate did note in an interview that Mr. Barron had “morphed into an establishment candidate.”
Many agree today’s primary election will hinge on voter turnout, which could well depend on Mr. Jeffries’s small army of young supporters.
A fact they no doubt had in mind Monday evening as they handed flyers to commuters disembarking the C train at the Clinton-Washington stop—many new residents in the neighborhood themselves.
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