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A changing of the guard in Brooklyn, with a lesson for pols

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/25/2012, 5:11 p.m.
It's time to make youth unemployment the focus of our national attention

There is a changing of the guard underway in Brooklyn politics. Edolphus Towns, a 30-year veteran of Congress, has decided to retire to allow new, younger leadership to emerge in New York's African-American political panorama.

It is a stunningly unusual occurrence, something that happens rarely, to say the least. Politicians tend to cling to their positions until their energy completely recedes or some worse fate befalls them. There seems to be something so completely intoxicating about political office that elected officials relish, remaining in their posts until they are in their 70s or 80s--or until they have arranged to have one of their children succeed them.

Still, it is hard to completely explain the decision of the 77-year-old congressman to retire as solely based on a desire to see new leadership come to the forefront in his Central and South Brooklyn district.

In many ways, Towns had some significant cards stacked against him going into this year's re-election race. For much of the last year, he had led many to believe he would run for re-election to a 16th term. But his fundraising had languished pitifully behind his chief rival, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

What's more, the 41-year-old assemblyman had amassed an impressive list of endorsements from unions and elected officials. City Councilman Charles Barron is also a candidate in the race, but he has done little in the way of fundraising.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of internal Brooklyn politics, an arena in which Towns has dealt with some staggering challenges. For years, many expected the congressman's son and longtime assemblyman, Darryl C. Towns, to succeed him. But the younger Towns seemed to have little interest in the congressional seat and took a position in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration.

That left the remaining Towns offspring to vie for the Assembly seat vacated by Darryl Towns. In a bruising election last September, Deidra Towns lost a race to Rafael Espinal.

That staggering defeat unveiled a punishing weakness in the Towns political machine, an operation that had kept the congressman safely in office for decades. If a member of the Towns family couldn't win a Democratic primary in the home turf of the congressman's district, many reasoned, how on earth could he survive a well-financed opponent?

The defeat of Towns' daughter was also a reflection of the contentious nature of Brooklyn's internal Democratic politics, where the party leader is Assemblyman Vito Lopez. The infighting in Towns' home turf was ferocious.

Then there is the matter of the district itself. The 10th Congressional District has been significantly reshaped, thanks to the reapportionment that redrew the lines of all of the districts in the state following the 2010 census. It left Towns with a newly configured district that included neighborhoods that were, essentially, foreign to him,

The circumstances notwithstanding, it is admirable that Towns decided to leave Congress after a long and notable career in office. He will leave office with dignity and the honor he deserves. It is a move that other members of Congress--particularly African-American officials in New York and around the country--might well emulate.

If so, they could be succeeded by aspirants with qualities like Jeffries, a one-time Manhattan corporate lawyer who gave up the trappings of a comfortable professional life to dedicate himself to uplifting people in his community. He is as bright a candidate as there is on the political horizon of New York. He has been a champion of challenging the New York City Police Department's horrendous stop-and-frisk practice, reducing property taxes for homeowners and providing additional funds for public schools.

If more longtime politicians would make room for candidates like Jeffries, our communities would all be tremendously well served.