By Sandhya Subbarao
Startled by the prospect of a defeat to Charles Barron, Democratic leaders and Jewish supporters pumped up their canvassing and fund-raising efforts for Jeffries.
In early June, a few weeks before New York’s primary election, the Democratic Party’s political elite suddenly awoke to the significance of the race in Congressional District 8. There, Hakeem Jeffries, 41, a State Assembly member with the reputation of being a moderate, was facing City Council member Charles Barron, 67, a former Black Panther with a track record of controversial statements assailing Israel and commending certain dictators.
If Barron won in this predominantly Democratic district, it practically guaranteed him a national forum for his divisive rhetoric and would embarrass the Democratic Party.
Charles Barron had once called Thomas Jefferson a pedophile, expressed his desire to slap “the closest white person,” called Israel a “terrorist state” and likened Gaza under Israel control a “concentration camp.” He also has praised the late Libyan ruler, Moamar Ghadhafi and Zimbabwe’s autocratic president, Robert Mugabe.
But worse still, if Barron won the primary, there was a distinct possibility that the Democrats might lose the seat altogether in the general election – a major blow in the party’s effort to recapture a majority in the House of Representatives.
New York’s Democrats are all too aware of the significance of the Orthodox Jewish vote in Brooklyn. In the 2011 special election, the Democratic Party had lost Congressional District 9 for the first time in 80 years, when Rep. Robert Turner, a conservative Republican, defeated Democratic David Weprin. Turner won by exploiting President Obama’s perceived anti-Israel stance among the Orthodox Jews in the district.
This year, re-districting has lowered New York State’s representation in the House, from 29 to 27, and increased the pressure on the Democratic Party to win every possible race, in the hopes of retaking control of the House, or at least not falling deeper into minority-party status there. On a national level, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee faced a $19 million deficit and needed to raise $150 million to regain the House. Party leaders were looking for candidates with strong fundraising skills, and Jeffries caught their eye.
Then, in the first week of June, Barron received the endorsement of Rep. Edolphus Towns — the retiring Congressman from District 10, whose seat was being contested. He also got the endorsement of the city’s largest public employees union, District Council 37.
Senior members of the Democratic Party knew they needed to act swiftly and publicly support Jeffries, with the primary election looming on June 26. Although Jeffries had already received support from some Democratic leaders in the borough, the risk of his losing to Barron helped generate four key endorsements between June 12 and 15. They were from former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat and a staunch supporter of Israel, who had crossed party lines to endorse the Republican Turner in 2011; Senator Charles Schumer, who had never before sided with a particular candidate in an open primary; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; and Governor Andrew Cuomo. In their public statements recommending Jeffries, many of these politicians also denounced Barron’s anti-Israel comments. Major newspapers, including The New York Times endorsed Jeffries, and some even ran editorials decrying Barron.
On June 26, Assemblyman Jeffries won 72 percent of the votes and became the Democratic nominee to represent New York’s District 8. Contrary to speculation that he might not defeat Barron, the Assembly member beat Barron in every Assembly district, including Barron’s own district and the one led by his wife, Inez Barron.
Barron paid a heavy price for his rhetoric. But Jeffries did not win the Democratic Primary merely because Barron lost.
During the campaign, Jeffries proved himself to be a prolific fundraiser. He outraised Barron seven-to-one. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Jeffries took in more than $1.2 million. Five percent of that total came from small contributions while large contributions from professionals at law firms, investment banks, hedge funds and corporations accounted for 86 percent of Jeffries’ intake. Employees of Paul Weiss, the law firm where he had worked, made a bundled contribution of $62,000. Nine percent came from out-of-state contributions, primarily from Washington. And, with an unspent $192,000 in the bank, Jeffries is on a firm footing for the November election, in which he will face the Republican candidate, businessman Alan Bellone.
Jeffries had also received the support of several unions including the Service Employees International Union – 1199, the Transport Workers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and the Communication Workers of America. A notable endorsement that provided his campaign with volunteers to assist in turning out the vote came from the Working Families Party, a third party that has been an effective player in city and state elections. According to a campaign report filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Jeffries campaign paid $57,000 to the Working Families Party to canvass voters on his behalf.
Jeffries for Congress received $25,000 from Democratic office-holders in the House, State Assembly and the City Council. House Minority Whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Ameri PAC, a political action committee founded by him, accounted for 28 percent of that sum. As Minority Whip, Rep. Hoyer is facing opposition from the House’s Republican majority in his efforts to get President Obama’s legislation passed, in particular the American Jobs Act, which will cut payroll taxes for some businesses and create incentives for new hiring. Jeffries has endorsed the measure.
Jeffries is an advocate for public school reform whose children attend public school. While he does not support vouchers or direct subsidies to religious schools – which proliferate in the Orthodox Jewish portions of his district – he does say that he will try to find “creative solutions” to the “crushing burden” of private-school tuition. He had cited relief through the tax code as an example.
Traditional teachers unions, such as the National Education Association, did not contribute to the Jeffries campaign. According to the campaign’s filing with the Federal Election Commission, Jeffries received $10,000 from Democrats for Education Reform and $10,600 from StudentsFirstNY, a lobbying group focused on education reform.
Micah Lasher, former director of state legislative affairs in Mayor Bloomberg’s office, is now the Director of StudentsFirstNY. Lasher was responsible for negotiating the renewal of mayoral control and the agreement between legislators on the new teacher evaluation system in Albany. Jeffries also received $2,000 from Daniel Doctoroff, president of Bloomberg L.P. and former Deputy Mayor for Economic Development in the Bloomberg administration.
In his effort to defeat Barron, Jeffries also benefited from a demographic shift in Brooklyn. Census data shows that, while the borough’s population remains majority black, that share decreased about 10 percent over the past decade. Parts of Central Brooklyn have gone from plurality-black to plurality-white, with the influx of young, progressive residents from Manhattan. And the Jewish population, living in the New York metropolitan area, has also increased significantly over the last decade, with 83 percent of its growth occurring in the highly concentrated Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn, many of which are within the newly drawn 10th District.
Jeffries worked tirelessly to engage voters. His day would begin at 5 a.m. with a stop at a subway or train station, followed by visits throughout the day to community organizations, senior centers and Democratic clubs. Born and raised in the borough, and a regular churchgoer, Jeffries understood its significance to the black community. He visited at least two churches every Sunday, participating in the services and staying afterward to engage with voters.
Andre Richardson, the operations and field-manager for the Jeffries campaign, said it was the campaign’s goal to connect with at least a hundred people each day. The emphasis was on personal contact through direct mail, print advertising and phone banks. Toward the end, Richardson was managing over 850 volunteers, who distributed advertising material, accompanied Jeffries in his outreach activities, and performed any task that was required of them to further the campaign’s message and momentum. On the eve of the primary, Jeffries’s mother, Laneda Jeffries, sent out an email to neighbors mentioning her son’s “excellent listening skills,” “his loyalty and commitment to making his friendships last” and his sense of duty to give back to society.
Describing Jeffries as the “Barack of Brooklyn,” Richardson noted four similarities: “Both President Obama and Jeffries are fighters, both are pushing forth progressive legislation, both spend a tireless amount of time fighting for the middle and working class, and fighting for the most vulnerable citizens amongst us, and basically just trying to level the playing field for everybody.”
Jeffries also paid particular attention to the Orthodox Jewish community in areas like Coney Island, Seagate and Brighton Beach. In addition to caring strongly about Israel, these voters often share Republican values on issues such as gay marriage and vouchers for private, religious-school students. As such they are the swing voters who can significantly impact the outcome of an election, especially in the primaries, which have a low turn-out of the electorate.
Jeffries, who sees himself as a coalition builder, had studied Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial election, and spent time understanding the issues and concerns of the Orthodox community. He was evidently successful in courting this constituency as the National Jewish Democratic Council, a public action committee, encouraged voter turn out with an email appeal that had the subject line “An Anti-Semite Looms in Brooklyn.” The Sephardic Community Federation spent $15,000 on advertisements opposing Barron and the Assembly member received $35,000 from political action committees that focus on support for Israel, including the Mid-Manhattan PAC, World Alliance for Jews, World Alliance for Israel and NORPAC.
Israel is facing a grim political landscape in the Middle East. Iran continues to develop its nuclear program, despite economic sanctions, Syria is disintegrating into civil war and the political landscape has changed since the Arab Spring. America has always been Israel’s strongest ally, but President Obama has not visited the state since he took office.
In an election year, Jewish voters have become a key constituency for both parties with casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson promising to put as much $100 million into the Republican Jewish Coalition, a political action committee aimed at defeating President Obama.
The Jeffries race indicates that Democrats have learnt from Turner’s upset victory last year that a shift in the Jewish vote could have a major impact in the outcome of elections as Republicans make every attempt to peel off voters and gain control of Congress and the White House.
When asked about the significance of the Jewish vote to Jeffries’ victory, Lupe Todd said, “Hakeem won across all districts by a 44-point margin, including Barron’s own district. Given that the district is a Voting Rights Protected district and is now about 56 percent black, it can be safely hypothesized that, whether black or white, Jew or Gentile, everyone was voting for Hakeem Jeffries.”