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Seven months into his first term, he invited Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to speak at city hall. Thirty-six councilmembers boycotted the event, to protest Mugabe's wretched human-rights record. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate at the time, said in 2008 that his decision to attend was "a mistake. . . . I feel ashamed of it."
Barron calls Mugabe one of his heroes, alongside Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kwame Nkrumah, Muammar Qaddafi, and other 20th-century revolutionaries. He has less respect for the men considered heroes to most other American politicians. When he discovered his seat in the chamber placed him beside a towering bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson, he unsuccessfully lobbied Speaker Christine Quinn for a move away from a monument to, as he phrased it for reporters, a "slave-holding pedophile."
In his ninth month in office, during a speech proposing reparations for descendants of slaves, Barron declared, "I want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health." Barron is not the type to slip into political blunders. He does not back down; he doubles down. So when he defends the line by calling it "hyperbole," he adds, "They're lucky we're talking about a verbal slap. They murder us, lynch us, still shooting us down, and you're talking about me saying some damn rhetoric about a 'slap'?"
His stubbornness has left him isolated. He stopped going to meetings of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus several years ago because he didn't feel his colleagues adequately represented the city's minorities. In 2010, Quinn, with the council's support, removed Barron from his chairmanship of the Committee on Higher Education, reasoning that the panel needed a "unifying force." In an editorial applauding the speaker's move, the New York Daily News deemed Barron's rhetoric "far out of step in a country struggling to get past race as a defining characteristic in the age of President Obama."
Barron's constituents have paid for his antics. Though the 42nd District has one of the highest poverty rates in the city, Quinn consistently allotted Barron little more than the bare minimum in discretionary funding. From 2009 to 2012, for instance, the speaker granted Barron a total of $11.2 million, third least among the 51 districts; the councilmember at the top of the heap brought home more than $60 million.
Not surprisingly, Barron has been in a poor position to climb the political ladder. Twice, he challenged Quinn for speakership. He lost 48-1 and 50-1, winning no vote other than his own. He launched similarly impossible runs for mayor and governor, protesting that "white men have too much power in this city."
His strongest bid for higher office came in 2006, when he took on 24-year incumbent U.S. Congressman Edolphus Towns. Barron lost by just 8 percent, so when he ran to replace the retiring Towns six years later, the city was on notice, particularly when the departing congressman lent his endorsement. Weeks before Barron's Democratic primary contest against state Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a group of city leaders held a press conference to denounce the councilman. They reminded voters that Barron had called Israel "the biggest terrorist in the world" and had described the Gaza Strip, which he'd visited with the Free Palestine Movement, as "a virtual death camp, the same kind of conditions the Nazis imposed on the Jews."
Former New York mayor Ed Koch attended the event and described Barron's rhetoric as vile and vicious. Councilman David Greenfield called Barron an anti-Semite, a hatemonger, and a bigot. Congressman Jerry Nadler said anyone who does what Barron did "has no right to be in civilized society, never mind in Congress." In the month leading up to the election, Jeffries's campaign received $470,000 in contributions, 60 percent of which came from donors outside the city. Barron's war chest contained a paltry $50,000. He lost in a landslide.
So he returned to city hall, and after the council extended term limits in 2008, Barron won the 42nd District election for the third time. His neighborhood still loved him. The bulk of the city knew Charles Barron best for his headline-grabbing quotes, but the residents of East New York knew him for all those photo ops.
'Capitalism is a failure!" says Barron, pacing through his district office. "The elites have enjoyed it and everybody else, the 99 percent, has struggled to say the least. Some have suffered severely in the most powerful, richest country that the planet Earth has ever had."
The décor is minimalist, but the furnishings have been carefully selected. On the wall behind his desk hangs a framed photo of Malcolm X. A poster on another wall shows before-and-after shots of Linden Park: patchy dirt swath in 2002; green turf with football goalposts in 2005. A similar one features Robert E. Venable Park: empty concrete lot in 2002; jungle gyms in 2010. On the desk sits a scale model of the Spring Creek Community School campus, which opened in 2012.
"I'm not in this to be careful," Barron says. "There's a lot of politicians — when they talk, they talk all slow and hesitantly, 'cause they're always thinking about who they might help or hurt or offend. I try to speak truth to power. Oftentimes, people aren't ready for that. I didn't come here to be a coward or a political punk."