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Charles Barron will never be an elected official. He says he'll be an elected activist if he wins his run for the City Council seat from the 42nd District. As a young Black Panther in the 1960s, Barron may have felt that "Black Power" meant storming City Hall. Now it means getting a job there.
The meaning of "Black Power" has changed significantly in recent years and Charles Barron has evolved along with it. His current campaign is part of what he terms an "inside/outside strategy" where infiltration and external agitation work hand in hand to make things happen.
Thanks to City Council term limits, Barron has a greater chance of making his blueprint for political power a reality this year than four years ago when he lost to Priscilla Wooten (now the outgoing incumbent) while pulling 40 percent of the vote. Barron still has a formidable opponent in the incumbent's son, Donald Wooten, a property manager for the city's Human Resources Administration and a member of District Council 37, which represents 125,000 city workers. "Somebody needs to tell Donald and his mother that this is a democracy, not a monarchy," said Barron recently.
At the Black Success barbershop in the heart of the district, one employee referred to Wooten's candidacy as "a joke," and another barber said he simply found Barron "better educated and more experienced."
Barron has built an extensive track record, which he seems to be getting across to voters. After his years in the Black Panther Party, he served as first chairperson of the National Black United Front's Harlem chapter, which, he said, became his "political and spiritual home," and also as the chief of staff to NBUF chair Reverend Herbert Daughtry, who is his pastor. In 1985, Barron founded Dynamics of Leadership, Inc., a corporation specializing in leadership training. In 1987, Barron was arrested along with the Reverend Al Sharpton and others during the "Day of Outrage" protests over the racial incident that resulted in the death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. Recently Barron has been involved in the growing movement for slavery reparations and the reinterment of slave remains at the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.
As head of his block association, the 18-year resident of Bradford Street helped to rid the area of drugs, and he successfully organized the community against what he terms the state's environmental racism by blocking the construction of an incinerator in East New York.
And this time around, Barron the underdog politician has emerged as a much stronger candidate. "Last time around we were up against the entire political machine out there, including the mayor and powerful unions. Mayor Giuliani came into the district three times. He hasn't visited the black community in ages, but when I ran, he wanted to protect the incumbent, Priscilla Wooten."
Despite the show of power from the local machine in 1997, Barron was able to gain 5000 signatures to get on the ballot and was able to remain there despite a legal challenge from the incumbent's agents. "They were so desperate to try to get me off the ballot that they said that I wasn't a citizen of the United States. I had to pay $10,500 [in legal fees] just to stay on the ballot."
Now, the picture has changed. "I have much more notability," says Barron. "There is no incumbent. The person who got the most votes last time who's in the race this time is me. I have more unions on board now than ever before."
So far, Barron has picked up endorsements from several unions, including the influential SEIU New York State Council and locals 1199 and 32BJ. He has the backing of several tenant and block associations, including the tenant associations of the Linden, Brownsville, and Tilden housing projects. And he maintains the support of Reverend Al Sharpton and Daughtry, as well as the backing of the Nation of Islam.
At the revival-like opening of his campaign headquarters August 4, Barron preached, "Reverend Sharpton says he's gonna get Russell Simmons on a flatbed truck with some rappers and some choirs, and we're gonna go through all the communities." And having raised sufficient funds to qualify for a four-to-one match in campaign financing from the city, Barron's coffers are a lot bigger than they were last time.
If successful, Barron wants to create a district with real economic opportunities and technological infrastructure. "White politicians are into policy and power. We're into programs and jobs," said Barron at the opening. "We gotta do something better than that. You get policy and power, and you'll have programs and jobs. Then we won't have to have a Rite Aid pharmacy come into our neighborhood. We'll have a 'Right On!' pharmacy that we own and operate."