OTP: The recent primary election only had about 15% of the electorate coming out. What’s going on and how can we change it?
Charles Barron: Number one, I think that a lot of voters feel they don’t have a reason to vote. They’ve been lied to so much by elected officials that there is a fair amount of despair and hopelessness vis a vis the electoral process, and we can’t blame it all on voter apathy. The other part is the candidate. There is a lack of sincere, down-to-earth, grassroots, for the people, candidates. So when you have candidates that are not committed to the people, and you have incumbents who have sold out the people, it’s very, very difficult to convince people to come out and vote because Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled for you to have that right. We ran that one down for a little while and it’s worked to an extent. Now people want to see some concrete changes in their daily living. They want to see things delivered and promises kept.
OTP: How do we convince people that there is a reason? I see folks out here who simply have no inclination whatsoever to go and vote.
CB: I think you have to do several things. Number one, as we’re doing with the Unity Party and the Mary France campaign, is to give people a reason to vote, to develop a new electoral movement. To revolutionize the electoral movement with people who are connected with grassroots people. I think once they see candidates from the community who have worked in the community, candidates they believe in, then I think we’ll have a better chance. Even though this last turnout was dismally low, I look at things like Barry Ford running against Ed Towns in the 10th Congressional District. Ed Towns got 17,000 votes and Barry Ford got 12,000 votes. That’s a lot for a person who was not known before this race. And when you add in the other guy, Ken Diamondstone, he got 4,000 votes. So there were 16,000 votes against Ed Towns. 48% of the district went against Ed Towns, a longtime incumbent. Well that’s a signal that people are dissatisfied with the kind of leadership Towns is offering and want a change.
OTP: What are the nuts and bolts of grabbing people and getting them down to the ballot boxes. How is that done?
CB: First it has to take place long before the election. I think that’s a mistake that a lot of grassroot candidates, insurgent candidates make. They take too long to run. They wait until the last minute to make that decision. To run, you need an expert team to get the signatures to get on the ballot. You need to raise enough money, and you have to be connected to the people. People are tired of folks coming around just on election day.
We have an election coming up in 2001 and we’re out here now, three and four years before the election, getting connected with our people. We have to see our folks where they are. We have to go into the barbershops when there are no elections and find out what is on folk’s minds. We have to go to tenant association meetings, block association meetings, churches, when there are no elections. Just to get involved in the everyday life of our folks and work on issues they care about. Rent control issues, issues in the housing developments, income caps. People are looking at subsistence education of their children and we have to address those basic issues. When people know that you are going to address the issues that impact their daily lives, and do it on a consistent basis, even before the election, then I think we have a better chance of getting them out to vote.
Just last night I was talking to five or six brothers on the corner, and one of them said, “I’m glad you stopped to talk. We saw your picture on the poster, but I’ve never met you. Now that we’ve met, you can rest assured you’ve got my vote.” I invited them to an organizing committee, Operation POWER. It’s an organization that came out of our campaign. So that’ll be four or five more people. I’ve got to do more of that. So do other people who are serious about transforming our communities and our people.
OTP: It’s not just the picture on the poster that gets the job done?
CB: No, you can’t just put the picture on the poster up a few months before election day, get the New York Times and the Amsterdam News to endorse you, some big name people to endorse you. You have to work hard everyday. You have to walk through the housing developments. See the folks sitting on the benches, introduce yourself and see what is on their minds. What do the people want? Of course they’re going to tell you “I need a job.” Of course they’re going to tell you they want the drugs out of the community. Then you have to see what level of commitment they’re willing to make, to cause that kind of stuff to happen. It takes leadership. There are two kinds of leadership, A transformative leader who is a change individual, trying to change the system so that a greater amount of goods and services are delivered to the greatest number. Then there are the other types of leaders who are into transactions. They cut deals. They make transactions. They get a small group of loyalists some jobs to keep them in office. I believe we need to move toward a transformative leadership for change, and away from transactional so that we can create a political movement.
OTP: There is always talk about how the incumbents have a built-in advantage. What are the mechanisms they use to enhance their reelections?
CB: There are three main things they do to get reelected. The first is mass mailing. Take my 42nd Council District. We have 54,000 registered voters. The incumbent, with the money in her city council budget, can mail to those 54,000 voters two or three times right before the election. So she’s already started off with three mailings to 54,000 people.
OTP: These are mailing paid for by the city?
CB: Out of the city council budget. It’s illegal to use the city council budget for a campaign and there is a law that you’re not supposed to do a mailing within ninety days of an election, but not many people adhere to that law. So what they’ll do is say they are just sending out a council report to the district thirty days before the election. So they get to do that three times. Then when it comes to the campaign, the incumbents are connected to powerful people, like the mayor in the case of Priscella Wooten in my district or the mayor and Ed Towns, so they get support from these power associations and developers, and corporations, so they have a lot of funds. So they take those funds and do two or three more mailings and add to the three they’ve already done. So now you have five different mailings to 54,000 people. Secondly, they do phone banking. The day of the election or a week before the election, they get the unions to give them access to very sophisticated phone banks. They are able have people work the phones. So now the voters are getting phone calls. Thirdly, most voters make up their minds the day of the election and the incumbents have the money to pay people to go out there with palm cards. They have the financing to put teams of people at each polling site. Priscella Wooten had five hundred people out to my one hundred. So it’s mailing, phone banking and election day operations with palm cards. That’s how the incumbent stays in office. And they already have the name recognition.
OTP: Now what does an insurgent have to do to overcome that?
CB: That’s why we have to start very, very early. For example, I ran once, we got four thousand votes. So even though Wooten is the incumbent and did all that I just said, and then some, she only got six thousand votes. So four thousand to six thousand. Now I have to work these next three years, to build an army for election day. To raise more money so that I can do more mailing and to get a phone bank going. I’ve got to spend the time expanding my base. You have to build a base. After the election, I didn’t go away. We’re going to work out there to expand our base. We’re going to go into the churches. We had several ministers working with us this time, and we’re going to increase that number. We are getting more into our youth. There are a lot of young people who are politically conscious, the Hip Hop Nation. Hip Hop culture is looking more toward politics. I’ve spoken with young people in the district who are looking to get involved as well. And then we are going to look more to expand toward some community-based organizations that were more fearful to get involved last time because there were purse strings attached. But with no incumbent in the next election, even though they will still have a machine coming at me, these organizations will have more courage to get involved. And then looking at the Tenant Associations and Block Associations Presidents. These are real local leaders. In our district we have about eleven housing developments. We had three or four tenant association leaders from those housing developments involved. We’re going to shoot for more and expand that. Then we are working with the Black Political Free Agents organization, the Unity Party, and Operation POWER which is a group we put together. And then we’ve been assisting other campaigns. In this past election we worked with three or four different campaigns and that gave us relationships with other political forces. That’s what we mean by expanding our base.
OTP: In this upcoming election for governor, what’s the lay of the land and what’s the role of the Unity Party and Mary France?
CB: We’ve really got to build an independent political movement, a progressive political movement. That is a major objective. We want to get 50,000 votes under the Unity Party banner, so we can build an independent political movement. Right now the two major parties either take us for granted like the Democrats, ignore us like the Republicans or use us like progressive white efforts. So we’re either ignored, taken for granted or used. The Unity Party brings us power, leverage and respect. Instead of an individual voting for Twiddle Dee Dee or Twiddle Dee Dum, that is Peter Vallone or George Pataki, they’ll have a real choice. Because those two are both so conservative their politics are very similar, it’s not going to make a huge difference who wins. The difference will be so marginal, you’ll be better off voting for Mary Alice France, with the Unity Party, so that you’ll have 50,000 people representing you. Because you need 50,000 votes to get an independent party line, when people seek elections with these major parties, they will look at you differently now because they are looking at 50,000 people instead of one person. Or instead of black people who are controlled by certain black leaders who the power structure is comfortable with, we’ll have an independent party that will give us more leverage. Having a Unity Party means that we can run our own candidates locally. So if I run in 2001 as a registered Democrat, I’m also going to be on the Unity Party line. So it really increases our opportunities on a local level, as well as gives us more leverage and power and negotiating power on the broader level.
OTP: Running on two party lines, how does that work?
CB: you can be endorsed by many parties. Peter Vallone is on the Working Families Party line in November, and the Democratic. In New York City, the Liberal Party, the so-called Liberal Party that’s actually very conservative under the leadership of Ray Harding, they wield a lot of power now because they support Giuliani. If that white vote is split, then the Liberal Party endorsement really means something. We can play that same kind of power politics if we had a Unity Party and continued to build it. There may come a time where we’ll run our own candidates for statewide office and keep building. But in the meantime, as we win local elections and become powerful, we can still make a difference in the gubernatorial election if the two main candidates are neck and neck, if we can come in with a hundred thousand, hundred and fifty thousand votes, it can make a difference. If you look at this last race for the Democratic Primary, Peter Vallone got 296,000 votes. Chuck Schumer won the nomination for Senate with 252,000 votes. That may seem like a lot, but you’re talking about millions of voters in the state. Remember that Al Sharpton got 187,000 votes when he ran statewide with little or no money. These other guys have millions of dollars. Sharpton got more votes than everybody else in those races but the two winners. Now that’s something to think about. He got more votes than Mark Green, more votes than Geraldine Ferraro, more votes than Betsy McCaughey Ross. When you look at the governor’s race, Peter Vallone got 296,000 votes. Betsy McCaughey Ross 112,000, James LaRocca, 41,000, and Charles Hynes, 84,000. Sharpton, with 187,00 votes in his senate race in 1994 got more votes than Hynes and LaRocca put together.
OTP: How much did Sharpton spend on that race?
CB: About $70,000.
OTP: How much money do these other guys spend?
CB: Millions. I know Betsy McCaughey Ross spent about $2.5 million and she only got 112,000 votes.
CB; So Sharpton spent $60-70,000 in that Senate race and he got 187,000 votes. Look at it this way. In his citywide run for mayor, he got 132,000 votes. That was more than Betsy McCaughey Ross got statewide.
CB: Her 112,000 with her millions. Look at the Senate race. Charles Schumer got 252,000 votes with over ten million dollars. That’s not cost-effective with Sharpton getting 187,000 votes for $70,000. [ed. Note: These figures work out to approx. .37 cents a vote for Sharpton, $22.32 a vote for Ross, and $39.68 a vote for Schumer]. Mark Green had 93,000 votes. Sharpton had 187,000. Geraldine Ferraro, the woman icon, vice-presidential candidate, she had a few million, 132,000 votes. The Geraldine Ferraro vote statewide was only as much as Sharpton got citywide, 132,000. So we have the potential to really build a party, an alternative to the two party system, and really have a major impact. And then look at some of the local stuff. The local races. When I ran against Priscella Wooten, I got 3,990 plus votes. Four thousand. Clarence Norman, Jr., the most powerful black Democrat in the State. He received 3,313 votes. Do you hear me? We got four thousand.
OTP: And the populations are the same?
CB: We have a larger district. There are several assembly district in the council district. But look at it this way, I got three thousand votes from just the 40th Assembly District. That covers East New York, the other thousand came outside of East New York.
CB: He got three thousand three hundred. I got three thousand in the 40th , one Assembly District. I probably could have beaten Assemblyman Griffith if I would have wanted that seat, because he’s vulnerable and we’re building a machine out here. Take the case of James E. Davis, Officer Davis.
OTP: Oh yes.
CB: He doesn’t have any real solid base. Two thousand seven hundred and thirty-three votes against Clarence. He got 45% of the vote against Clarence. Look at Ed Towns with millions of dollars and out here for sixteen years, he got a total of 17,990 votes. Barry Ford, a virtual unknown, 12,610 votes, 36% of the vote. Kenneth Diamondstone, 4,000 votes. If you total Kenneth’s and Barry’s votes, which is an anti-Towns vote, it’s 16,610 to Towns’ 17,990. 48% to Towns’ 52%. What message is the electorate giving to us? They want these guys out. They will go with anybody to get them out. But we have to build our bases more, and build our relationships more.
OTP: What can the individual person do who says, “Hey, I want to make something happen.” What can they do?
CB: I don’t think there should be an individual black person in this city that is not a part of some organization. The first thing all of us have to do with our families is join an organization. We cannot do this thing alone. Then once you get involved with an organization, you have to push that organization to be progressive. To link with other organizations that have similar goals, so that we can build progressive and independent coalitions to launch an electoral movement. Movements change things. Campaigns put individuals in office. Movements change things systemically. Movements build platforms. Campaigns build a person. We have to get beyond the idea of running campaigns as individuals and look at building movements and coalitions for independent progressive policy that will be more issue-based and platform-based, organizational-based, and system fighters. We can’t just look at somebody with a name, and put them in office. They have to be committed to an agenda, an organization, and be system fighters. Not afraid to fight against white supremacy. That’s one of our major problems. White male supremacy. Most of the parties in this state, if not all, are lead by white males. Whether they’re progressive parties or liberal parties, or conservative parties, they’re lead by white males.
OTP: Conrad Muhammad has an interesting group called A Movement for CHHANGE that he is developing.
CB: Yes. I think that’s an excellent group that has a world of potential. Conrad Muhammad has a real challenge before him. He’s going to have to sustain a movement, and develop the resources. But we need training. Groups like that need training. Not only young people, but all of us need training. I’ve put out a call to Conrad already. We at Dynamics of Leadership, are certainly willing to provide that kind of training. People will gather with you early, but to sustain a movement like that, you’re going to have to obtain some power real soon, and obtain resources in order to do fundamental things. You have to find a building, a base, that you can organize in and have people come to. In addition to the money, you have to have the training to go along with that so that you’ll know what the political landscape is in New York.
OTP: When we were speaking at the meeting, I was lamenting on the poor turnout and you said words to the effect, “Do not despair.” Do you remember that?
CB: Yes. You know, I’m an eternal optimist and a realist. I’m not one who is an idealistic optimistic in an unreal way. But I’m certain that during slavery days somebody told Harriet Tubman that she was out of her mind. That slavery was here forever, so why would she try and do something about it. But Harriet did it, despite of all that was around her. And slavery doesn’t exist anymore in that form. I’m sure somebody told Marcus Garvey that he couldn’t build the things he wanted to build. A steamship company in 1920. Black people would never give him enough money to build the Phyliss Wheatley Hotel, and the Universal Grocery Store, and the Universal Restaurant. But Marcus Garvey said, “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.” And he did it. I’m sure people thought that Jim Crow would be around forever. George Wallace said, “Segregation now, segregation forever.” He just died himself, as did segregation. I’m sure someone told Nelson Mandela, “well you might as well just give it up. You’re going to be in jail forever. He sat in there for twenty-seven years. Never giving up hope, always having a vision for a new South Africa. Apartheid is dead and Mandela went from the prison to the presidency. If that could happen in South Africa, if that could happen on the plantations, then we who have so much more, should do equally as well, if not better. And any leader who comes before us and tells us that any form of our oppression is permanent, that’s a leader not fit to lead.