Councilman Charles Barron can be described in many ways, but demure and dispassionate typically aren’t on the list.
The bombastic councilman, for instance, launched his unsuccessful bid for Congress last year by declaring, “I don’t care what they say, I’m still not saluting the flag!” In the halls of Washington, Mr. Barron vowed he’d continue to “stand up for Robert Mugabe, who’s an African hero–taking land back from white people who stole the land from us in the first place!”
Now, after 12 years as a constant presence at press conferences and rallies, the term-limited eastern Brooklyn councilman will be forced out of office. But he hopes his wife, Inez Barron, an assemblywoman with identical ideological stripes, can cement the Barron legacy.
While Ms. Barron hasn’t gone as far as publicly showering Ms. Mugabe with praise, she is nonetheless a radical bereft of only some of her husband’s bombast. She was one of the rare Assembly members to call for Speaker Sheldon Silver’s resignation over his handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment case. She remains an outspoken opponent of mayoral control of public schools, where she was a principal, vowing to lead what may be a lonely fight against a system that even the most liberal mayoral candidates don’t repudiate. And she vows to be blunt in her assessment of the issues.
“The people appreciate someone who’s not namby pamby, wishy washy, but someone who is firm. That’s what our community appreciates,” Ms. Barron recently told Politicker, sitting in her airy New Lots Avenue campaign headquarters, where a gargantuan poster with her image sprawled on the wall to her left.
Although Mr. Barron draws plenty of critics, Ms. Barron is a tireless defender of her bellicose husband, whom many colleagues say is alienated in the 51-member council. She said Mr. Barron’s brash rhetoric is still admired in his own district, where low-income residents a sluggish 3 train ride away from Manhattan revere an elected official willing to shout bluntly about economic and racial inequality.
“When we walk down the street, people love him. They tell him, ‘Give ‘em hell.’ They say, ‘Keep speaking up.’ They say, ‘Stand up black man,’” Ms. Barron described.
The Barron district, which ropes in East New York and portions of Brownsville and Canarsie, is overwhelmingly black–a mix of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. It has struggled for decades with gang violence and poverty. But East New York, sometimes imagined as a crime-infested hinterland by Brooklynites in the moneyed west, is not so static. Gateway Mall, a shopping oasis off the Belt Parkway, and Spring Creek Towers, a relatively blight-free kingdom of affordable housing, are some developments that set the area apart. Gentrification is far away, but farmers’ markets aren’t.
Much like her time in Albany, Ms. Barron said she has no intention of cozying up to council leadership or the mayor. Mr. Barron, she noted, was the only member who did not vote Christine Quinn for speaker. His punishment, Mr. Barron claimed: being relegated to a seat in the council chambers that is in the shadow of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a founding father he called a “pedophile” who “raped his slave Sally Hemings; whether it was consensual or not is irrelevant.”
Ms. Barron also noted that her husband, despite being relegated near the bottom of the list when it comes to discretionary money doled out to the district from the speaker’s office, secured funds for park renovations, school constructions and affordable housing.
“We’ve got to confront injustice and inequality wherever they are,” Ms. Barron said of her approach. “When we become silent on those things and don’t confront them and combat them, then we become complicit in those kinds of situations.”
Legislatively-speaking, there are also other similarities. Ms. Barron was one of only 17 legislators with the distinction of having introduced not a single bill that passed her own chamber during this year’s legislative session. She was the Democrat who voted most infrequently with Mr. Silver and also missed over 150 votes, eighth most among her colleagues, (which she attributed to an injury). Her husband, meanwhile, has yet to pass a single piece of legislation since the beginning of the council session in 2010 (though he did pass a resolution), according to council records.
Nevertheless, clues emerge that Ms. Barron could be more of a peace-maker and less bomb-thrower if she makes her way to City Hall. One indication is how she speaks of the man who crushed Mr. Barron’s congressional dreams, Hakeem Jeffries.
“We are both … black electeds, we both work on issues presently, I don’t see why we can’t continue,” she said, genial rather than cold.
Mr. Jeffries is backing Ms. Barron’s main rival, 29 year-old Chris Banks, who is running without Ms. Barron’s labor support but spending far more money. Like Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Barron, the rematch between Mr. Banks and Ms. Barron–she defeated him while campaigning for re-election last year–is a study in generational and ideological divides. Ms. Barron is staunchly opposed to gentrification and still wields Black Power lingo. In contrast, Mr. Banks, one of five candidates running for the seat, was open to bringing a Wal-Mart to East New York.
“Inez will be ineffective in the Council because she still carries the luggage of the Barron name. She’s been just as offensive as the husband. Look at her, she agrees with everything she does,” Mr. Banks, one of several candidates running against Ms. Barron, told Politicker. “Obviously she’s a little quieter than Charles, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Mr. Barron himself scoffed at Mr. Banks and the powerful congressman at his back, Mr. Jeffries.
“He’s irrelevant,” Mr. Barron said of Mr. Jeffries. “We don’t even think of him at all. He backed [Mr. Banks] last time and lost. The people of the district will speak.”
The irrelevant ones, Mr. Jeffries fires back, are the Barrons. “The measuring stick of greatest significance are the results from June 26 of last year where Charles Barron lost the congressional race by 42 points, an unprecedented display of district-wide irrelevance,” said Jeffries spokeswoman Lupe Todd.
Still, if Ms. Barron is successful, Mr. Barron is expected to stay active in local politics, very possibly running for Ms. Barron’s Assembly seat if she wins and keeping the area in the family name.