New York City Council member Charles Barron

New York City Council member Charles Barron Credit: Getty Images

Democratic heavyweights are scrambling to shore up Brooklyn Assemb. Hakeem Jeffries' bid for Congress in the face of an unexpectedly strong challenge in next Tuesday's primary from Charles Barron, a City Council member with a reputation as a radical.

When Rep. Edolphus Towns announced his retirement this spring after 30 years, Jeffries, 41, a product of Crown Heights with experience as a corporate lawyer, emerged as the party favorite for the 8th Congressional District and, many thought, a sure win.

But Barron, 61 -- a former Black Panther who has stirred controversy by praising dictators such as Libya's late Moammar Gadhafi and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and once saying he wanted to "slap" the closest white person -- has become a serious competitor.

"Barron isn't the odds-on favorite but he could win," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in Manhattan.

Barron got the endorsement of Towns despite trying to unseat him in the past. He also is backed by the city's largest municipal union, District Council 37.

"Jeffries was almost coronated when Towns resigned," Barron said in an interview. "Now everyone is panicking, calling me names, getting scared. It's interesting. I don't have any money. What are they afraid of?"

One worry for mainstream Democrats, said Muzzio, is that if Barron wins the primary, Republicans would spotlight his controversial views in the national campaign this fall.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) threw his support behind Jeffries last week, painting him as a friend to Israel, whose government Barron has called "the biggest terrorist in the world." Former Mayor Ed Koch, who attacked Barron as a "snake," recorded robocalls to voters on Jeffries' behalf.

Jeffries denies his camp is worried but admits Barron isn't merely a fringe outsider. Citing the endorsements Barron picked up, Jeffries said in an interview, "He's morphed into an establishment candidate and seems to be in denial."

Jeffries, 41, has a bigger war chest -- he has amassed $770,000, according to recent filings, while Barron says he has raised $70,000. Jeffries is using his cash advantage to flood the community with mailers.

He also has the backing of the unions for transit workers and hospital employees, lending his campaign a strong voice in the largely working-class district. The major newspapers in the city have endorsed him, as have most local Democratic leaders.

Barron's strengths include a strong following in his East New York district and among blacks who see him as an anti-establishment politician sympathetic to their plight. Barron called his views "radical progressivism" in a Politico interview last year.

"It will come down to whose base is more motivated," said political strategist Evan Stavisky, adding "anyone who didn't expect Charles Barron to be a serious threat wasn't paying attention."

Barron concedes there are too many unknowns in this race to predict a winner.

As the state's first June primary in 40 years, turnout is expected to be low, making any outcome hard to determine. To complicate matters further, the district was expanded in the 2010 census to include parts of Queens, including Howard Beach, as well as the middle-class enclaves of Gerritsen Beach and Brighton Beach and parts of brownstone Brooklyn.

It was once an overwhelming black district, but African-Americans now make up about 53 percent of voters while 22 percent are white and 18 percent Hispanic.

Political consultants agree that a Barron in Congress could please voters who enjoy his outspokenness. But bringing home funds and projects to the district could suffer because, as Muzzio puts it, "he doesn't play well with other pols."

Barron argues he's been able to work successfully for his city council constituents, and playing nice isn't what matters.

"Congress needs a fighter, not another get-along, go-along politician," he said.

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