For more than two decades, City Councilman Charles Barron has been a fixture of elected office in eastern Brooklyn, representing East New York, Starrett City and parts of Brownsville in District 42 across two levels of government.

Now in his fourth nonconsecutive term in the City Council, Barron is facing a Democratic primary challenge in a unique, off-cycle election later this month that is required by redistricting laws. With no Republican primary in this district, whoever triumphs in June will take office at the start of the next council term.

Chris Banks, an East New York native known for his work with community groups, is running against Barron for a second time, having lost to him in a 2014 bid for the state Assembly. 

Banks is running on a pitch for change, arguing that Barron does not do enough to partner with police to address public safety, secure new affordable housing for residents or prevent East New York from having a disproportionate number of homeless shelters. 

“I think the longevity has hurt,” Banks said in a recent interview in his campaign office. “And in our situation, it has been an impediment to the progress of our district. And people get comfortable, they get complacent. They build political machines.”

Barron says that his record — from renovated parks to low rents to new schools —  speaks for itself. 

“That's the same line they've been running for the last 20 elections: ‘We need new leadership,’” Barron said in an interview. “That's an old line that nobody's buying. The people rejected him all these years, and they will do it again.”

A third candidate, Jamilah Rose, a grant writer, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Observers say while Barron has built an undeniable political base in District 42, Banks has an opportunity to exploit a likely low-turnout race by beating Barron in door-to-door, get-out-the-vote efforts. But since the race is not occurring alongside a citywide mayoral election, it puts pressure on Banks to remind voters there’s something to vote for this June. 

“It really creates a situation where winning is based upon how much support you can drum up and how much attention you can draw to your campaign,” said L. Joy Williams, a political strategist and the president of the Brooklyn NAACP. 

As to who may have the momentum going into the final weeks of the race, Williams, who lives in the district, said no one knows for sure. 

“The tea leaves aren't clear,” she said.

Charles Barron questioned city officials at a meeting of the council's finance committee, May 23, 2023. (Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit)

Barron, a longtime activist around civil rights issues and Black cultural representation, served his first stint in the council between 2002 and 2013 before serving in the state Assembly for three terms. In between, he launched failed bids for Congress and the governor’s office. In 2021, he became eligible to rejoin the council. He ran again for his old seat and won.

His reputation in the council is as something of a firebreather, frequently taking agency commissioners to task over the police department's budget, lack of funding for parkland in majority-Black neighborhoods, or efforts to cut spending on social services. 

“I think he prides himself on being very independent and firm on his own beliefs, and not beholden to anybody,” said Tess McRae, a vice president at The Parkside Group, a political consultancy. "He's not afraid to say what's on his mind."

Barron and his wife, Inez Barron, have created one of the longest-running, seat-swapping political brands in recent city history. She previously held her husband’s former seat in the council while he served in the state Assembly — in the same seat Inez held while Charles was first in the council. 

Some of Banks’ supporters believe that the Barrons’ popularity in East New York is slipping, pointing to an Assembly race in February 2022. In that special election. Nikki Lucas, a longtime community activist, beat out Keron Alleyne, a top Barron aide. 

“That was a sign, because usually, who Barron sanctioned, that person won,” said Pamela Hardy-Lockley, the president of a large tenant association in the district, who said she supports Banks. 

The district won’t know, however, if Lucas’ win was actually a repudiation of the Barrons’ tenure until the results from the current race come in, said McRae

“A big factor here is that Charles Barron is an institution, and has been for decades,” she said. “And that is not something to be taken lightly.”

Banks said he speaks with voters about a variety of issues,  from affordable housing to public safety to preventing cuts to popular job and social programs brought on by the large costs of housing newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers. 

Another issue, he added, is that East New York has one of the highest concentrations of homeless shelters in the city. According to a 2022 tally by NY1 newsroom partner The City, the area has 15 shelters, the second-highest concentration in Brooklyn. 

“In the 20 years, or 22 or so years, of the Barrons being in charge, they have actually put up no type of real defense other than a cosmetic posture or approach, to blaming other folks, for the reason why shelters have come into the district,” Banks said. 

Barron said his office has moved hundreds of people out of homeless shelters into local, affordable housing, and secured millions of dollars for park renovations and CUNY scholarships. 

“Plus, we are a strong voice,” Barron said. “We speak out against the oppression of our people. We speak up for those who are speechless.”

In an area that already sees low voter turnout — in the November 2022 governor’s race, 28% of its registered voters came to the polls, compared to 36% citywide — Banks could eke out a victory with a relatively small base of support.

That possibility makes this race something of a tossup, McRae said.

“In a year where it's mostly not a ton of competition going around, this is one of the bigger ones to be watching,” she said. 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Inez Barron was running for a City Council seat in Harlem this year.