New York City

Charles and Inez Barron on their exit from politics (for now)

A conversation with the Black radical political movement’s power couple as they look back on 22 years in elected office.

Then New York City Council Member Inez Barron, right, celebrates the opening of the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center in 2018 with then-Assembly Member Charles Barron, left.

Then New York City Council Member Inez Barron, right, celebrates the opening of the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center in 2018 with then-Assembly Member Charles Barron, left. John McCarten

For the first time in 22 years, a Barron isn’t representing Brooklyn in the City Council or state Assembly. Charles and Inez Barron – the married East New York political duo who eschew the term “dynasty” – have served in (and twice swapped) the same City Council and Assembly seats since 2002. 

After four years in the Assembly and seven in the council, Inez Barron declined to run in 2022 for her old Assembly seat – the same one Charles was then serving in – ending her 11 year streak in office. And Sunday marked Charles Barron’s last day in the City Council, following his loss in the Democratic primary last June to Chris Banks – a repeat challenger who has criticized the Barrons as absentee leaders.

In addition to ending their decades-long streak, Charles Barron’s loss also removes one of the most outspoken – sometimes divisive – progressive voices from the halls of legislative power in New York. Both Charles and Inez Barron are proud Black radical socialists who rarely hesitated to take fellow Democrats to task for bowing to political power and interest groups, and who often courted controversy and criticism in espousing radical views. With Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan, an ally and mentee of the Barrons, declining to seek reelection last year, the Black radical ideals that the Barrons have long advocated for don’t have a clear champion currently in elected office. In his last speech before the City Council in late December, however, Charles Barron promised to come back “stronger than ever.” 

Just before the new year, City & State caught up with both Barrons to discuss what came of their 22 years in elected office, and the future of the Black radical movement in New York.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Both Barrons will be out of office in 2024 after two decades in elected office. Is this the end of the Barron dynasty?

Charles Barron: Well first of all, we’re not a Barron dynasty. We don’t associate with that term. We are a movement, a Black radical political movement, called Operation P.O.W.E.R. (People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect). The purpose of that movement was to bring radical politics into New York politics, in the state Assembly and in the City Council. And we fulfilled that purpose by doing several things. One, and most importantly, there was a reparations bill signed (by the governor) – that was my bill in the state Assembly. So we’re claiming victory, that’s my bill, even though they amended it and watered it down, and took the power away from the community to pick the commission. We’re going to call for our own conference on reparations and come up with a people’s commission. We also were able to get three political prisoners freed – Herman Bell, (Robert) Seth Hayes, and Jalil Muntaqim from the Black Liberation Army. We also are very proud to say that we had a very positive influence in state politics on the budget. A lot more progressive candidates got elected, and with the budget we got more money, during the COVID time in particular, for renters, landlords, migrants, immigrants. We got just a whole lot of progressive stuff out of the budget. And when it wasn’t right, Inez and I used to be the only ones that voted against the budget.  When I left the Assembly, 17 voted against the budget. And here in the City Council, for my first year back, six voted against it, and last year 11 (others voted against it). And it’s not just about voting against, but it's just making them do the right thing. 

Inez Barron: We’re so pleased to be able to say that for our community, we have demanded to only support those projects that developers have brought in housing that are affordable to us. We have told developers that we have a community that has a neighborhood median income of about $38,000 at this point, and we are only going to support those projects that bring housing in to address where the majority of the people living in our community are. So we have projects that provide housing for those who are formerly homeless, those with no income, but who have subsidies that they get from the city. All of the projects are affordable to us – not just affordable, but affordable to us. We’re talking about Ebenezer (Plaza), talking about Van Sinderen houses, we're talking about the incoming Alafia gardens, which is going to be a huge project.

CB: We have three new $88 million schools built. We have one library renovated, and another library going to be built from the ground up. Most people hear about (me), ‘Oh, he’s controversial.’ I am an unapologetically Black radical, revolutionary socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, Black power, unapologetically. But I wanted to show Black elected officials that you can be Black and radical for your people and liberation, and still deliver. Because most of them that suck up to the powers that be have not delivered as much for their communities as we have for ours.

Since 2002, one or both of you has represented your community in elected office. Are you concerned about what losing those positions means for what you’re able to accomplish? 

IB: I've been out of office for two years already. And what I've been able to do is to structure my day to be able to continue to work in the community via Operation P.O.W.E.R, and also to devote time to helping my children raise their children. So I've been able to have that kind of enjoyable time. So it's a combination. 

CB: The organizing I’m going to do now – my universe is broader, my outreach is going to be broader, and we’re going to build our organization more. Because we were kind of stagnant in terms of Operation P.O.W.E.R. because we were so successful. We won the council seat, the Assembly seat, we won the male leader and the female leader. I’m still the male leader. We also won a district judge, and we have our appointments on the community board. We beat one of the most powerful machine clubs in Brooklyn. When we run, it’s not the candidate we have to beat. We’re running against Hakeem Jeffries, against (former Rep.) Ed Towns, against Frank Seddio, against Rodneyse (Bichotte Hermelyn). We run against that powerful political machine, and we beat them for 22 years. In this last election, only 6,000 people came out, and they got (3,100 votes) and we got 2,600, and they got the seat back. But you know, it’s a blessing in disguise now that I’ll be freer to do broader organizing. And I know all the commissioners, I know all of the executives’ folk that I’ll still have access to. I know all my colleagues in both state and city. And then I’ll be going across the country, building a Black radical political, electoral movement, and getting more independent Black radicals in the electoral arena. 

Would either of you consider running for office again?

CB: We leave all our options open. We have a collective decision-making body. We’re training other people, like Keron Alleyne, he’s going to be an excellent candidate, he is phenomenal. Melinda Perkins. We’re looking at Alice Lowman. Because we were so successful, they had to do community work and not run against anybody. They couldn’t run against us. So we plan on getting those seats back. We’ll get them back sooner than when people think. But it will be a collective decision made by Operation P.O.W.E.R. 

Council Member, you said in an interview with Gotham Gazette in the last couple of years that your biggest goal was to build a “powerful, independent, Black, radical political movement for the liberation of Black people in communities where we constitute the majority.” Where do you think that stands right now, and who will lead that movement if both of you are out of office? You mentioned Keron Alleyne, who lost to Assembly Member Nikki Lucas in the 2022 election.

CB: Yes, it’s across the country. It’s not just here. But in New York City, we have people in Bedford-Stuyvesant. We’re working with organizations in Bedford-Stuyvesant like the December 12th Movement, they have young people. We’re working in Harlem, we’re going to work closely with (former Council Member) Kristin Richardson Jordan – who also will be leaving with me, but she has people around her as well. And I have people across the country. We just recently had a national Black radical political convention in Baltimore. And about fifty, sixty people showed up representing about 10 different states. So this is a movement that's going to take off. 

After your exit and Richardson Jordan’s, will there be elected officials currently in office who identify as Black radicals – or who, even if they don’t identify that way, champion some of the same ideals? 

CB: We do know that we had an influence on the policies, but there are no individuals that are identically like Kristin and I.

IB: I think the fact that we have been models of independence, models of being unbought and unbossed, has perhaps planted a spark in some of our colleagues. Because we’ve been able to say the things that they know to be true, and have been demonstrated and proven to be factual, and yet, at the same time, while bucking the establishment and the Democratic Party, have been able to get accomplishments. So we hope that we’ve been able to be that little spark to give them something to consider as they move forward in their progress to being progressive.

Progressive and even some socialist candidates have seen some electoral success in New York in recent years, both at the city and state level. To what extent did you partner or build coalitions with those other elected officials while in office?

CB: We definitely formed a solid relationship with them. I was a part of the Progressive Caucus in the City Council, and all of the progressive legislators, we got together and pushed a budget and pushed legislation forward. And some of them were strong believers in Black radicalism. See, Black radicalism doesn’t mean isolation. I was in the Black Panther Party, I’m still a Black Panther to my heart. And we connected with the Young Lords, the Latinos, the progressive, radical whites, the Chicano Movement, even the Gray Panthers, the elderly. We believe in having a Black radical base, but then form alliances and coalitions with other groups. That’s what we did in Albany, and that’s what we did here.

IB: Talking about piquing the consciousness and sparking it and increasing it – look at the fact that we were able to have a resolution passed by the City Council, which talks about Cuba no longer being ostracized and being punished. That’s a very bold move that happened. And also, we’ve worked with people such as former Assembly Member Dick Gottfried, talking about health care for all. That’s a basic regard of the socialism position.

You seem to function as a team. Are there any issues on which the two of you disagree, or different approaches that you take?

CB: No, we are one!

IB: We have the same ideology, the same objectives, moving towards the same goals. And just have an understanding that we have a merging of different kinds of strategies and tactics to use at a given time. 

CB: I always tell people, I am Mr. Inez Barron, proudly. We have the same everything (but) we have a different style. When Inez deals with you, it will be the same Black radical powerful edge. You won’t see the blow coming, because she’s cool, calm, collected, smiling. But she’s delivering the blow. You won’t realize you got hit until you get home and you say, “Oh my God, who did this?” Whereas me, you’re going to see the punch coming right away. You’ll know I did it on the spot. But both have the same end result.

What should New Yorkers, and residents of your districts in particular, expect to see from the Barrons out of office?

IB: They can expect to see us as they have in the past – walking the streets, walking through our community. In the community meetings, in the senior centers. Being the same (people) that we have been, doing the same work, just without the title.

CB: Inez said it well; we don’t need a title to lead. We didn’t have a title before we got in and we were organizing. We stopped an incinerator from coming in. We made them get out the coal-fired furnaces in our public schools. We did that without being council members or Assembly members. East New York is on the rise, and we’re going to continue to organize. 

Ending on a rhyme there. 

IB: Watch out, he’s got a rap that he does when he goes to children’s schools. Don’t get him started.