Monday, January 19, 2009

Big Egos and Ambitions Set To Collide in Prospective Race To Succeed Towns by David Freelander - City Hall News

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Ed Towns reached the pinnacle of a long career last month when he became chairman of the prestigious House Oversight Committee in Washington.

So, naturally, the jockeying to replace him began to heat up back in Brooklyn.

Most of the early speculation around who would replace the 74-year-old, 14-term Towns has centered around a pair of Assembly members from neighboring districts: Towns’ son Darryl, a 16-year veteran of the Legislature who has slowly been climbing the ranks in Albany, and Hakeem Jeffries, a 38-year-old former attorney at the outset of his second term whose future in politics has been the subject of intense speculation for years.

Beyond those of timing, and whether there might be a special election precipitated by early retirement, there are the questions about whether Darryl Towns even wants the seat. The power of dynasty politics being what it is, Towns would be at an advantage in a race to succeed his father, but so far he has not indicated that he prefers the life of a freshman Congressman to that of a senior member of the Assembly.

“The congressman wants his son in there, but Darryl is more of a reluctant warrior,” said Rock Hackshaw, a longtime area political operative. “I don’t think he’s ever been that gung-ho about Congress.”

Also at stake is a question of the state of local black politics, with Jeffries and Towns representing a study in contrasts. Jeffries was roommates with Washington, D.C., mayor Adrian Fenty while both were working towards graduate degrees at Georgetown, and is considered part of the next wave of “post-racial” black leadership, young elected leaders who are educated at top-tier schools and who consciously have distanced themselves from some of the old lions—and their children—of the Civil Rights Movement. Including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and, of course, President-elect Barack Obama, the group is distinguished not just for glittering academic pedigrees, but for having the kind of crossover appeal that allows them to attract a broad swath of white support.

Jeffries is acutely aware of what sets these politicians apart.

“There is a distinction between legacy politicians and emerging leaders,” he said. “There are certain legacy politicians who come into office following their parents, either into an office specifically or into politics in general, and the door is open to them a little wider because of their parents. Then you have a group of emerging leaders who don’t have a familiar connection to politics and have challenged the existing Democratic machine and broke through the doors and have risen to leadership. A lot of the younger elected officials in Brooklyn, the ones who backed Barack Obama all the way back in the summer of 2007, were those who were elected without establishment support. We weren’t beholden to political figures like Charlie Rangel and others leading the way for Senator Hillary Clinton.”

The younger Towns, meanwhile, represents something of an in-between place within the media narrative of dueling generations of Civil Rights politics. A veteran of the Air Force, Towns graduated from North Carolina A&T, a historically black college. Though only 48, he has already served a decade and a half in Albany, gaining seniority that has made him chair of the powerful Banking committee as well as head of the state legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucus.

He dismisses talk of a new, different generation of black political leaders.

“Why isn’t Jesse Jackson, Jr. included in that?” Towns asked. “Because he went to the same college I did, a historically black college? I don’t think we need to label people that you are an elite black, you are an ordinary black as long as we are working towards the same goal.”

The looming congressional race, however, could be shaped just as much by traditional party politics. Darryl Towns is a critic of Brooklyn county leader Vito Lopez, who happens to have taken an early interest in Jeffries.

“He represents a plurality of Democrats,” Towns said, criticizing Lopez’s approach to the job. “He could represent a majority, but I’m not sure he wants that.”

While Lopez did not pledge to back Jeffries should he decide to run for Congress, the county leader stressed that he was in Jeffries’ corner.

“I’ve been supportive of Hakeem on almost everything he’s done,” Lopez said. “If and when he runs, I have a responsibility to look at who he is running against. If it was a vacant seat for Congress, it would be very hard for me not to support him.”

But though Towns and Jeffries may have their differences, they have been united in supporting the elder Towns, despite the many who fault the congressman for what they see as a less-than-energetic tenure and for supporting CAFTA, the free trade agreement which opponents claim hits working class residents of areas like Brooklyn especially hard. Though he has survived both, the dissatisfaction with him in the district has attracted vigorous primary challengers for the past two cycles: in 2006, when he eked out 47 percent of the vote as fiery Council Member Charles Barron and then-Assembly Member Roger Green split the anti-incumbent; and in 2008, when he ultimately cruised to victory over former MTV star Kevin Powell.

Nonetheless, Towns’ vulnerability remains a hot topic in Brooklyn. With the right candidate, many expect, he would easily fall in a primary.

“If there was a halfway decent candidate like Hakeem Jeffries, then Towns would be in mortal danger,” said one veteran of several area campaigns.
Local political observers have been expecting Towns to retire for years now (and point to the fact that he has not as key evidence that his son is not interested in the seat). But with his new chairmanship in D.C., many now believe he will seek re-election in 2010. His office confirmed that he would.

That could put another wrinkle in a prospective congressional race: Jeffries has insisted he will not run against Towns, and if he and Darryl Towns continue to defer while the number of voters frustrated with Towns continues to grow, both could miss their chance.

Barron (D-Brooklyn) has already announced his plans to run for the seat in 2010. The current project, he said, is to work out a deal with Powell to prevent another split vote. But Barron’s candidacy could still be a long shot, given his inability so far to garner support outside of the black, working-class areas that put him in the Council. Middle-class whites have been moving into the area in droves in recent years and could make up as much as 25 percent of the electorate in the next cycle—enough that some have speculated that the right white candidate could in fact win the seat, especially if they are able to make inroads with Hispanic voters and the Hasidic Jews who live in the district’s northern end.

In the meantime, speculation has erupted about the Congressional ambitions of Council Member Letitia James, who would be the only woman in the race. One of the most vocal opponents of Atlantic Yards, her profile has continued to rise in recent months through her leadership of opponents to the term limit extension. However, she is thought to lack the depth of a base in the black community that Barron has, the middle-class base that Jeffries has, or the name recognition of Towns. Ironically, in yet another twist, if James and Barron are both in the race challenging Towns, Barron’s effort to dissuade Powell from entering could hurt him since many believe Powell and James would compete for the same votes in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. James herself denied any interest in the seat—which, notably, she could run for without giving up her current job, as Darryl Towns and Jeffries could not.

Regardless of what James decides, some of Jeffries’ supporters fret that Barron could be a thorn in Jeffries’ side, needling him for exactly the reason that so many find him attractive: his crossover appeal to both black and white voters.

In an interview, Barron was relentless in his criticism of Jeffries.

“I was hoping younger people like him would be a more refreshing, independent voice. He has taken some positive positions on the issues, but to me he is still a puppet for the Towns and Vito Lopez machine—and that’s what we need to break up. I lack a lot of respect for him.”

Barron also dismissed the notion that the future of the seat belongs to anyone.

“Heir apparent?” he said. “There ain’t no heir apparent as long as I’m in the race.”