new york state of politics

Anti-Israel candidate toppled in New York City Council primary

In second race, candidate who declined to condemn CUNY antisemitism loses to more moderate challenger

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Assemblymember Charles Barron speaks during a rally for reparations at the African Burial Ground National Monument on July 23, 2021, in New York City.

Jewish community activists are hailing the election results of two bitterly contested City Council races in Brooklyn this week, where an incumbent long accused of antisemitism is expected to be unseated and a lesser-known candidate who faced criticism over an endorsement from an anti-Israel union went down to defeat.

In East New York, Charles Barron, a self-described Black radical socialist who has made incendiary claims about Jews and Israel, conceded to Chris Banks, a Democratic insurgent with backing from organized labor as well as a powerful congressman. 

The stunning upset on Tuesday, which has yet to be officially called, was a forceful repudiation of a veteran lawmaker who has frequently antagonized the Jewish community. Throughout his decades-long tenure in public office, Barron, 72, has said that Israel should never have been created and suggested that Black people are the real “Semites,” among other provocations. 

Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jewish leader from Brooklyn who served with Barron in the state Assembly, said the councilman’s concession had come as a welcome surprise. “That is music to my ears,” he told Jewish Insider on Thursday.

Meanwhile, in South Brooklyn, Wai Yee Chan, a nonprofit director and former Democratic Council aide, lost by a decisive 30-point margin to Susan Zhuang, a former chief of staff to a sitting state assemblyman. Near the end of the race, Chan had drawn scrutiny for accepting an endorsement from the Professional Staff Congress, a union representing faculty and staff members of the City University of New York.

In 2021, shortly after the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza had ended, the union passed a controversial resolution condemning what it characterized as “the massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli state” and calling on President Joe Biden to cut off U.S. funding to Israel. The resolution, which was denounced by Jewish leaders, also conveyed interest in supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Zhuang, who had reportedly been trailing in the polls, began highlighting the endorsement in the final weeks of the primary, claiming that Chan had failed to “acknowledge and condemn the disease of antisemitism plaguing CUNY.” Her sharply worded comments came as the public university system was facing criticism over a law school commencement speaker whose remarks about Israel drew widespread accusations of antisemitism.

While Chan said the speech was “not acceptable,” she denied allegations of systemic antisemitism at CUNY and said she was not aware of the union’s resolution — provoking a backlash that influenced some Jewish voters to support Zhuang in what was ultimately a low-turnout election. “There were people definitely motivated, literally for just that reason, not to vote for the candidate who got the endorsement,” Hikind, an outspoken critic of CUNY, said in an interview with JI. “There were people who made efforts within the community to get people out to vote, making that the issue.”

The newly drawn district is majority-Asian but includes some Orthodox Jewish voting blocs in Borough Park and Bensonhurst, where turnout for Zhuang was robust. Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said that Zhuang had run “a smart race, building on her experience and knowledge of the voters in the district.”

“As an Asian-American, I understand discrimination and the horrific and chilling impact it has on our communities,” Zhuang, who is now facing a competitive general election, said in an email to JI on Thursday. “That’s why it’s so important for me to call out and strongly condemn antisemitism whenever I see it. We must have zero tolerance for hatred coming from radical elements at CUNY.”

Chan did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

Barron, for his part, was among several other candidates who also had backing from the CUNY union. But even if the endorsement was not a significant factor in his own race, KC Johnson, a professor of American history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said it was “entirely possible the issue had an indirect effect.”

“To me, Banks’ core argument was that Barron was out of touch and didn’t deliver for the district,” Johnson told JI via email. “That Barron spent time minimizing antisemitism at CUNY and kowtowing to the PSC rather than delivering for the district was one small, additional item that bolstered Banks’ message.”

Banks also received a boost from one of the councilman’s longtime enemies, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), whose political director, André Richardson, worked on the campaign. Jeffries, who ran against Barron in a contentious 2012 congressional primary, has long supported Banks, who has challenged Barron and his wife, Inez, multiple times over the past decade. 

In a statement to JI, Jeffries praised the projected primary winner as “a hardworking and committed community leader who represents meaningful, generational change in Brooklyn.”

“I look forward to working closely with Chris and I am confident that he will fight for every single resident in East New York, including the vibrant Russian-speaking Jewish community that is a part of the Spring Creek neighborhood we will jointly serve,” he said on Thursday. “With Chris in place, East New York will now be represented by a team of public servants at all levels of government who are committed to working together for the good of the people.”

Banks, who holds a seven-point lead over his top rival, could not be reached for comment. In recent interviews, he has largely attributed his long-awaited success to mounting frustration with Barron’s “lack of leadership” in a struggling district.

“Unfortunately, Barron’s years of bomb-throwing have not endeared him to anyone,” said Jake Dilemani, a Democratic strategist who did work for a labor union that supported Banks’ campaign.

Last month, one of Barron’s top allies on the City Council, Kristen Richardson Jordan, abruptly withdrew from a competitive primary in Harlem, where Yusef Salaam, a member of the exonerated Central Park Five, claimed victory in another upset over two veteran state lawmakers on Tuesday.

Jordan, whose positions on public safety and foreign policy had stirred controversy during her first term in office, said she would not seek reelection when she pulled out of the primary in May, even as her name still appeared on the ballot. But Barron, who is not leaving office voluntarily, seems unlikely to choose the same path, according to Moss, the New York University professor.

“The turnout was quite low, so Banks will need to maintain an active presence in the district since Barron will undoubtedly run again,” he told JI. 

Barron did not respond to a request for comment.

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