East New York Council Race Hinges on Barron's Legacy

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Charles Barron, who has represented the 42nd district in the New York City Council since 2002, is hoping his wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, will replace him. Then he plans to replace his wife in Albany.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Charles Barron, who has represented the 42nd district in the New York City Council since 2002, is hoping his wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron, will replace him. Then he plans to replace his wife in Albany.

The race is on to find the successor to Charles Barron for the 42nd district City Council seat covering East New York and parts of Canarsie, Brownsville, and East Flatbush. Barron is endorsing his wife, Assemblywoman Inez Barron.

“I'm not just pushing my wife 'cause she's my wife,” the councilman says. “We had joint staff meetings with our offices for all of this stuff. She would be excellent to continue the vision of rebuilding East New York.”

Ms. Barron says she will build upon her husband's visions and “try to maintain what he's done in terms of making sure that developers don't come and exploit the process and make it detrimental to the people who've endured all these trying situations.”

If Assemblywoman Barron wins, the councilman plans to enter the special election to replace her in the legislature.

But not everyone has agreed to the seat swap. Among those also vying for the 42nd district seat in the September 10 Democratic primary are Christopher Banks, a member of the community board and director of the social service organization United Concerned Citizens; John Whitehead, a community board member, sanitation worker, and president of the mentorship organization Black Men Who Care; Regina Powell, a community activist, educator and founder of the Get Involved Now Association; Sean Henry, a financial consultant for BTQ Financial and former program director at the Department of Homeless Services; and Nikki Lucas, an independent consulter, former business owner and community activist.

Several of the candidates contend that the district needs new leadership – leadership less provocative than the Barrons.

Controversial, constructive—or both?

Councilman Barron is celebrated for the change he has brought to East New York. During his time in office, 6,000 units of affordable housing have been built—the largest increase in affordable housing of all Brooklyn districts. Barron says his accomplishments include the renovations of three parks, the construction of two new schools and the ongoing development of four vacant corridors with multi-use buildings, including retail, affordable housing and community service organizations.

But Barron is also known for making controversial remarks, including criticism of the Israeli government and support for the Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the former Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi. And some of Inez Barron's opponents argue that the Barron family's radicalism has hurt the neighborhood.

“There's no way you can be a councilperson just making statements,” says the 29-year-old Banks, the youngest candidate, who has raised the most campaign funds so far. “Your vote must count and the only way your vote is going to count is working across the aisle with folks that have differences than you.” He blames Charles Barron's icy relationship with Speaker Christine Quinn for the fact that the 42nd district receives less City Council discretionary funding than some other districts, and adds that Charles and Inez Barron are “from the same tree … the same stock.”

It's true the couple share some the same vocabulary: “racial profiling” to describe stop and frisk, “not go along to get along” to describe their method, and “effective” to describe their time in office. But the councilman denies his “divisive” stances or his opposition of Quinn's “dictatorship” have backfired on East New York.

“[The land-use committee has] never said no to a project that I supported in my area in the City Council. So all that 'divisive' – that's just repeating, echoing rhetoric,” Barron says. He adds that although Quinn will not support his bills if she sees he is the primary sponsor, he gets legislation through by making himself a co-sponsor. In addition, he brings additional funding to the district by working with agencies directly, he says.

In East New York, one can find a resident of every attitude toward the Barron family legacy.

“As an entrepreneur and as a person from East New York, I really respect [Barron] because he fights for his people,” says Joshua Barker, owner of a barbershop. “He's on the front lines when a kid gets shot. He's there where you need him,” he says, adding that he will most likely vote for Inez Barron.

But the owner of another barbershop, Lemont Patterson, plans to vote for Banks. “[Barron] is a real radical and we need change,” Patterson says. “If he wants to still live in the 60s, tell him he needs to start a revolution on his own.”

A cast of candidates

The candidates hoping to replace Charles Barron range in age and experience, employment and education.

Inez Barron, elected to the State Assembly in 2008, says her best accomplishments were authoring and passing legislation to keep Starrett City rents at affordable rates for the next 30 years and to protect homeowners from shady real estate practices. Before entering politics, she was a community activist and worked for the Department of Education for 36 years.

Banks says he was not always taken seriously when he became Community Board 5's youngest member at the age of 21. He subsequently co-chaired two committees and authored resolutions relating to community and police relations and rooftop cellular antennas. Banks ran against Inez Barron for State Assembly in 2012, and now leads the East New York Coalition, which seeks to address the proliferation of shelters in the district.

Whitehead, who ran against Charles Barron in 2005, is a jack-of-all-trades: soldier, steel worker, licensed paralegal, security officer, union organizer and sanitation worker. He's served as a member of the Men's Caucus for Congressman Ed Towns and has lead many community improvement organizations. As the community board's chair of sanitation, he says he's protected the community from environmental hazards, rising rents, and labor injustice.

Regina Powell, who calls herself a “community mom,” is a long-time educator, political campaigner, the founder of several programs that provide resources and tutoring to East New York children, former president of Cypress Day Care, and a leading activist in the rejuvenation of Robert Venerable Park. She ran against Charles Barron in 2009.

Sean Henry, from Chicago, moved to New York in 2000 to attend New York University's Graduate School of Public Service. He has worked as a financial manager for private real estate, as a director of homelessness prevention programs for the Department of Homeless Services and as a financial consultant for the nonprofit agency Hudson Guild.

Nikki Lucas once owned an audio-video business called Nikko's In the Mix. She has participated in political campaigns as well as many youth and school programs like the Starrett City Girl Scouts, the Bedford Head start program and the Family Engagement Committee. With these organizations she is currently working to create parent-learning centers, develop ID cards to protect seniors and youth and bring art programs to schools.

Shared priorities

Their priorities are similar: encouraging the city to deliver more youth and community services to East New York, continue building affordable housing and increase jobs, and serving as advocates for families in NYCHA housing. The differences are in the details.

Inez Barron says she dislikes the charter school movement because it is creating a “two-tiered system,” with charter schools receiving more resources and being able to remove students they are unable to serve.

“If you can go into a building where they're collocating, you can tell, by many indicators, which portion or which floors are the charter schools. That's not right. Children know that there is a difference between the services they're getting,” she says.

Henry says he wants to improve education at both charter and non-charter schools. Banks says he hopes to facilitate better relationships between the two types of schools. Whitehead says his stance depends on the charter school, and that he might support a charter school that has its own building or is co-located but only receives public funds. Lucas and Powell say they don't oppose charters, but do oppose co-locations.

“If they want to collocate anything in the school, collocate things that provide social programs for the families,” Lucas says.

While all the candidates recognize the proliferation of homeless shelters in East New York, the candidates propose different responses.

“I'm going to push toward having the city shift its priorities not in support of big business through public contracts, but really trying to address the issue of affordable housing and trying to get folks in the shelter system socially mobile,” says Banks, who says he wants to ensure shelters are providing adequate services, demand all the neighborhoods of New York City share the burden of shelters, and close some shelters in East New York.

Whitehead, who lived in a shelter after a fire, thinks Banks is giving the city a hard time. “I'll take them all, as long as you send the resources to take care of them,” he says, adding that other parts of the city don't have space for shelters.

Lucas and Powell say they would advocate for an increase in affordable housing so that more homeless people can transition to permanent residencies. Henry says the city should stop building shelters altogether and invest more in homeless prevention programs.

Although Assemblywoman Barron says she will continue to oppose the oversaturation, she adds that “it's not something that we get input in or the ability to say yes or no on.” (The Department of Homeless Services is not required to notify elected officials when they choose a shelter site.)

Barron, Banks, Lucas, and Henry express strong disapproval of stop-and-frisk policing. But Powell says she would try to improve community-police relations and thinks the community is focusing too much on stop-and-frisk. Whitehead supports stop-and-frisk but wants to make sure the police do not abuse the tactic. He says that he can't deny the importance of stop-and-frisk in deterring young men from carrying guns.

Visions for the future

The six candidates also proposed some ideas of their own to improve quality of life, economic development and education in the district.

Charles and Inez Barron share a vision to bring a trade school, a science museum and cultural institutions to the area and to improve the waterfront.

Banks also hopes to improve waterfront, and says the neighborhood requires a “Marshall Plan to reinvest in local infrastructure.”

Whitehead says Bloomberg sent out a team of inspectors on scooters to check on the infrastructure needs of the city, and he'd like to do that in a more focused way for East New York.

As a former business owner, Lucas says she has ideas for supporting businesses already in the district, such as encouraging financial partnerships between big-box stores and small business, and incentivizing businesses to foster community improvement.

Henry says he will eliminate red tape for nonprofits and businesses.

“We need to stop nickel-and-diming our businesses with these outrageous fines,” he says. He also hopes to streamline the auditing process for nonprofit service providers.

Powell hopes to reform the education system by increasing community involvement in the selection of principals, using senior teachers to mentor new teachers instead of outsourcing to consultant, and starting new initiatives to incentivize good parenting.

“A portion of the principal's money should go to parents who are [active], and we should shed light on these parents and we should really let people see these are the 'parents of the year',” she says.

Candidates will share their positions at a candidate forum on Saturday August 10th at 11 a.m., hosted by the East New York Homeowners Association at the New Lots Public Library.

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