News & Politics

Holy Crap, Ross Barkan Is Running for State Senate

“Will I become a swamp creature? I don’t want to”

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Ross Barkan, who has covered city and state politics for the Voice, the Guardian, Gothamist, the Observer, and other publications since 2013, published an article at Medium this morning where he announced that he was entering the 2018 race for Republican Marty Golden’s New York state senate seat, as a Democrat:

If you’ve read my columns in the Village Voice, the Guardian, Gothamist or any of the other outlets I’ve written for, you can imagine what this campaign will be about. My values have been laid bare and will guide everything I do. What I’m finding is, you can only try to hold the system accountable for so long from the outside. Sometimes, you have to break in and do it from the inside.

A political journalist running for office in New York is not entirely unprecedented — most famously, Jimmy Breslin ran for city council president in 1969 on a ticket with mayoral candidate Norman Mailer, on a platform of New York City declaring independence to become the 51st state. But where Mailer and Breslin’s campaign was largely a symbolic protest vote — one of their proposals was to ban cars from Manhattan and encircle the borough with a monorail — Barkan says he’s in this to win.

We sat down with Barkan to ask why anyone would consider giving up one of the least trusted professions in the United States for an even less trusted one.

What on earth possessed you to do this? It’s like a sports reporter sitting in a press box at a hockey game, watching a fight going on down below and thinking, “Hey, I could do that!”

I’ve been thinking about it for a number of months. I am a lifelong Brooklynite, covering city politics, state politics too, and watching how things operate and don’t operate. As the year wore on, I was getting increasingly frustrated with how the political class was acting to handle what I saw were very serious crises.

The big one for a lot of people in where I live in southwest Brooklyn, and in the city writ large, is transportation. I was just struck again and again by the gutlessness of Democrats and Republicans when it came to grappling with this major catastrophe. I mean, our subway system is literally crumbling before our eyes, and we’re arguing over whether the MTA is a state authority or not.

I’ve been very open for a long time about my positions on issues. I’m a reporter. I’m also a columnist — obviously for the Voice, and I do a weekly national column for the Guardian. So people know my values, they know where I stand. We see staffers and millionaires and businessmen and all sorts of hacks try to enter the political arena. Why not a journalist who’s covered the system, who’s scrutinized it, who’s held it to account?

I have no great illusions about this. This is going to be incredibly difficult. The incumbent is entrenched. You have to raise a lot of money. But I felt it was a good time to try something like this.

This is not something I ever dreamed about. This is not something I want to do the rest of my life. This is something that felt right for me right now.

When Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer ran for city council president and mayor in 1969, they were running to raise issues, but not necessarily to win. Are there examples of people who’ve come from outside the political structure who have been able to win elections?

The great Errol Louis ran for city council in 1997. He was very active in the community. I think he had founded a local credit union. I believe he’d been a journalist beforehand. He ran a serious Democratic primary. He did not win. I don’t know of journalists turned winners, but I’m not going to let that stop me. As we’ve learned from the 2016 presidential cycle, past is not prologue, and I don’t think it ever will be again.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to you or anyone who’s not from inside the political system?

The biggest obstacle by far is money — that goes without saying. State-level races have no public matching funds system, which is very unfortunate. There’s very little regulation on the size of donations you can take, so someone who’s very well-connected, who has a lot of rich friends or has sold out to the right people, can raise a lot of money quickly.

Obstacle number two is getting your name out there and raising awareness in the community. Since I have something of a following already, that may be a bit less challenging. But I have no doubt that while people in Bay Ridge may know me, it’s a big district that includes Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst and Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park and Manhattan Beach. And while I’ve spent a lot of time there and played in the parks and gone to the beach there, I’m not a household name in any of those places.

You’re going to continue working as a journalist as this goes on?

That’s the intent. Obviously, that’s up to the discretion of the people who I write for. If they’re cooperating, I’m happy to keep writing.

I mean, look, there are definitely challenges. What I would say is, I’m a bit unconventional in that I’m not your AP-style reporter with the allegedly neutral viewpoint who suddenly, ta-da, has opinions now. If you follow me on Twitter, if you read my columns, you know where I stand on the issues, and so nothing about that will change. I see the campaign as an outgrowth of my reporting and seeing these issues up close and scrutinizing them and getting really upset about how badly they’re being addressed.

I want to keep being a watchdog and being a voice and just telling people what I think about things. I can go out and report, I can gather information, I can talk to people, and I can say, “You know what? This is how I have arrived at the truth.” I don’t have to do this false equivalency game of, “This side says this and this side says this and now we’ve come to a grand consensus.”

I’ve been a longtime critic of the Independent Democratic Conference, and my argument has always been quite simple: If you are a progressive Democrat, it makes literally no sense to support the IDC — it is cognitive dissonance. I’m a big proponent of single-payer healthcare. I think we can bring this to New York State. Cleaning up corruption — all these things that I’ve been espousing in my stories will be a part of the campaign, and also part of what I’m writing about.

I can understand people will go, “Well, that Barkan, now he’s just a hack politician, everything he writes is super-slanted and we can’t trust him.” I’m going to be very open and very transparent about what I’m doing. I hope to write about the inner workings of the campaign. I want people to understand how the political process works, because I don’t even entirely understand it. I think until you’re in the muck, you’re really sunk down deep, you don’t really know what it’s like to actually have to beg people for money, to actually have to go out on the street and talk to strangers.

I wonder if it will be an interesting challenge — let’s put it that way — when you come across topics where you’ll have to think about whether to present them in the way that is the most honest and most transparent for readers, or in the way that might make your campaign come across the best.

Yes. That’s a central challenge. You’re running for office, and you have to speak to or court these interest groups and modulate yourself. That’s at least the traditional approach: You have your private opinions and you have your public opinions, then you kind of try to reconcile the two. What I’m trying to do here, and I hope I’m successful, is bridge the divide between the private and public self. For me, what I believe privately will be what I am espousing publicly, and I’m going to be as brutally honest as I can about the political scene.

Now the good news is — and I go back to the presidential race a year ago — is that I believe people are looking for something else in their politicians. I believe they’re tired of the bullshit. I believe they genuinely want to see someone who is at least earnest.

I think that was the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign. And while we know Donald Trump is a compulsive liar, part of the populist appeal was that he seemed like someone who just spoke off the top of his head, really threw out all the pageantry of politics as we know it. I am certainly in disagreement with Donald Trump on literally almost every single issue. But I, too, am not a politician. Political consultants may not like me because they’re going to say, “Ross, you can’t fight for single-payer healthcare in southwest Brooklyn. What are you, crazy? It’s all right-wing nutjobs down there.” And I’ll go, “Actually, there’s a lot of good people who are looking for new ideas, and they will be receptive if you are honest and you explain exactly where you’re coming from.”

So, these are all going to be challenges. I’m not naïve about it at all. But I’m just going to keep doing my best and keep being as honest and forthright as I can be.

It raises that whole question of, not even just for the campaign, but even if you’re to win —

My dad said to me, “Watch out, if you win you’re going to have to go to Albany. You don’t want to have to actually go up there, it’s cold and yucky.” And I said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

It’s not just that it’s cold and yucky, but that we’ve seen tons of people who were perfectly legitimate human beings in normal life go into elected office, and it’s not like they all turn into monsters, but they —

Become hacks.

They play the game. How much do you expect that you can go in there and try to bring transparency and new ideas and new approaches, and how much do you think there is this institution that tends to change the people who go there more than the people change the system?

Well, obviously, the New York political class writ large is weak and lacks imagination, and the institutions are deeply, deeply flawed. The state legislature is maybe one of the worst in the country, and part of that is because of the culture; part is that the laws have not been changed in a very long time, and there’s been a lack of will to change them. So, one person going in there on his or her own is going to have an uphill battle to really change a lot.

Now, the question is, will I be changed? Will I wade into the swamp and become a swamp creature? I don’t want to, and I aim not to. I look at Bernie Sanders becoming the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, and being someone who’s really in the inner circle of Senate leadership in Washington, and to his credit he really has not changed his approach. He is still unapologetically himself. So I think it can be done.

Truth be told, we’ve had so many lackluster candidates who really weren’t cut out for changing anything in the first place. And that’s part of the problem, too. Who are the people who run for office? It’s someone who’s been on the staff for a really long time, and they wait their turn and then suddenly the opening comes and they run. Or you have the well-connected attorney who can raise some money and jumps into the fray, or you have a millionaire. And so I hope just by being an outsider, rabble-rousing journalist that, if I’m so privileged to get there — and it’s a very long road ahead — I will stay true to myself. I can only promise that I will be unapologetically Ross Barkan, no matter what happens over the next year.

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