Wayne Barrett: A Brilliant New York Beacon and Political Warrior for Justice


The evening before he became the nation’s most powerful Democratic official last week, Chuck Schumer pecked out a couple of tweets in honor of a veteran city journalist who had breathed his last just an hour earlier. “If Heaven has a flaw, we’ll find out soon,” wrote the minority leader of the United States Senate. “Wayne Barrett will have a detailed, impactful story on it in a wk.” Barrett, he added moments later, was “a brilliant NY beacon, cleaning up our politics.”

The notes might have been just a careful pol’s nod to a popular constituent. But, as with almost everything involving Wayne Barrett, the Voice‘s mightiest and longest-running warrior of investigative reporting, there was a backstory.

Schumer long ago acknowledged that it was Barrett’s last-minute reporting in the Voice in 1998 that gave him the narrow edge he needed to overtake Al D’Amato, then the three-term Republican incumbent and a poster child for the politics of deals and patronage. D’Amato had made great hay about Schumer’s many missed votes as a congressman during the campaign, needling him in ads for “putting political ambition over the people’s needs.” Meanwhile, D’Amato’s Nassau County pals had done their best to hide the attendance records of the board of supervisors where D’Amato had been a member when he first won election to the Senate in 1980. But using a combination of tips from county insiders and his intrepid army of interns, Barrett managed to track down minutes showing D’Amato had missed more than six hundred votes while campaigning, an absentee rate of 91 percent. The story ran on election eve, but not too late for Schumer to trumpet Barrett’s report in his own TV ads.

Barrett, however, was always an equal-opportunity muckraker, and there was another reason to appreciate the Senate leader’s gracious words, this one buried even deeper in the Voice‘s archives: Back in the late 1970s, Barrett and his mentor, the late Jack Newfield, had hammered away at then–state assemblyman Schumer’s own political maneuvers, showing how his legislative staff had managed to log many hours on his congressional campaign. The stories prompted some uncomfortable prosecutorial scrutiny of Schumer until the probe was eventually dropped. But for Schumer, the experience had to make Wayne’s fourth-down rush at D’Amato all the more appreciated.

There were many marvels about Wayne Barrett, who died on January 19, at 71, from complications of a lung disease that plagued his last years. One of them was his remarkable ability to rekindle relationships with those he had skewered in print. Despite his often ferocious takedowns of those he felt had violated the public’s trust, his focus was almost always on the sin, not the sinner. And there was always an open door at Barrett’s crowded office for those seeking redemption or bearing credible evidence of unreported malfeasance.

Thus it was that in his final days Barrett found himself in friendly chats with some of the worst wrongdoers cited in City for Sale, the seminal account of corruption in the administration of Mayor Ed Koch that he and Newfield authored in 1988. Thus it was that Koch, years later, came to publicly dub Barrett’s journalism “superb.” Thus it was that a top state official, one often excoriated in Barrett’s columns and later a guest at a state correctional facility, was a regular visitor to the Windsor Terrace limestone where Barrett was investigative-reporter-in-permanent-residence after the lung ailment hobbled him.

Another ardent admirer, despite Barrett’s lances, was Andrew Cuomo. Barrett had merely put him on the Voice‘s front page as the man who sparked the nation’s mortgage meltdown by way of his actions as Bill Clinton’s HUD secretary. Cuomo followed in the footsteps of his dad, who enjoyed calling Barrett at home in the morning to tweak him about his writings. Mario Cuomo would often renew his offer to Barrett’s wife, Fran, that should she ever decide on divorce, he would happily represent her for free.

Barrett’s last outing before his final trip to the hospital was to the New Year’s Eve party held by Andrew Cuomo in celebration of the opening of the Second Avenue subway. In a wheelchair, Barrett rolled through a crowd of well-wishers, many of them pols who wanted their picture taken with him. The city’s foremost political scalp-taker, as he laughingly told me later, was treated like a rock star, even by leading members of the tribe he had long pursued.

He made a point of telling the governor that his clemency announcement the day before, including the commutation of a life sentence for Judith Clark, the fourth-longest-serving woman in the state’s prisons, was one of the finest deeds he’d ever done, one that would have made his late father proud. The governor embraced him, planting a kiss on his cheek.

Days later, when the governor called him at the hospital to wish him well, Barrett delighted in suggesting to him that the pneumonia he’d developed may have been the result of that Cuomo kiss. It wasn’t true, of course, but it was the last great laugh I saw him enjoy.

Another marvel of the life of Wayne Barrett, one less apparent to his readers, was that this reporter — whose focus on the inequities of race and poverty shaped every story he ever tackled — was a white import from the South. Born on July 11, 1945, he was raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, home base of Jerry Falwell and his far-right empire and a place deeply steeped in segregation. Barrett managed to avoid the worst of that foul practice in the Catholic schools he attended. He also absorbed the lessons in Christianity and brotherhood offered there.

But the racism was inescapable. In his first foray into journalism, as a summer reporter-trainee at a local newspaper, Barrett turned in a story about an upcoming hog show. An editor looked at the story, looked at Barrett, and asked: “Is this a white hog show or a colored hog show?” Barrett said he wasn’t sure what color the swine were. After it was established that the story he had composed focused on an event for the town’s black farmers, he watched as a group of cackling editors made their point by ripping his copy into small pieces.

When he moved to New York, he and Fran chose Brooklyn’s Brownsville, Lynchburg’s polar opposite. Overwhelmingly African-American, it was then the city’s poorest community. Barrett’s first journalism reflected what he saw there: the local vassals of the borough’s Democratic political machine who siphoned off all they could from any funding trickling in to its mean streets; the costly day care center leases that enriched connected political donors and shortchanged families; the public school boards dominated by a teachers union focused more on the needs of its members than its students; the housing and subways allowed to decay as City Hall officials openly discussed the possibility of simply “shrinking” places like Brownsville out of existence.

There was only one journalism outlet in those days receptive to the torrid words Barrett began pounding out. Voice senior editor Newfield traveled to Pitkin Avenue to hear Barrett’s primer on local poverty barons. When Newfield failed to recall the name of one such offender, Barrett’s eyes bulged. “You haven’t listened to a single word I’ve said!” he fumed. Newfield, thankfully, recognized a gem when he saw one. Barrett’s first cover story for the Voice appeared in May 1978. Co-authored with his friend and future newspaper publisher Andrew Cooper, “Koch’s War on the Poor” was a scorching condemnation of a then-brand-new mayor’s policies.

The temperature never fell over the next three-plus decades. He mined the city’s contracts, budgets, and legislation, emerging with nuggets unnoticed by other scribes. He wasn’t only the first to spot that brash young developer from Queens using his father’s money and Mob-tied lawyers to bully his way into wealth and city prominence. He was also the first to recognize the hacks appointed to city posts where they could feather the nest of their political sponsors while paying little heed to their public mission. When bricks fell from a schoolhouse roof in Brooklyn in 1998, killing a fifteen-year-old girl walking below, only Barrett noticed that the man responsible for monitoring construction there was the husband of a local political district leader. Records he dug out showed that the man’s past arrests should have prevented him from ever getting his job.

That was Wayne Barrett, whose idea of a day at the beach was literally to relax in the sun with a stack of campaign contribution filings. The Voice‘s decision to dispense with his services in late 2010 was simply the worst of many self-inflicted wounds by the paper’s former owners. It signaled that Barrett-style deep investigative reporting was no longer considered a premium. If he wasn’t good enough for the paper, I reasoned, why stick around?

Naturally, he never stopped working. In his final bedridden weeks he was digging away at another bit of journalistic gold, this one an astonishing item from the presidential election, again unnoticed by others. As Fran and his son, Mac, drove him to the hospital he was on the phone, conducting yet another interview.

Tom Robbins is the Investigative Journalist in Residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He worked at the Village Voice from 1985–88 and 2000–10.