Interviews & Profiles

Beating the Barron: a Q&A with council candidate Chris Banks

It was Banks’ fourth time running against Council Member Charles Barron, or his wife, in East New York.

Chris Banks, consultant André Richardson and Assembly Member Nikki Lucas, outside Banks’ campaign headquarters on primary night.

Chris Banks, consultant André Richardson and Assembly Member Nikki Lucas, outside Banks’ campaign headquarters on primary night. André Richardson

For Chris Banks, the fourth time may very well be the charm. The community organizer has gone head to head with either longtime East New York political representative Charles Barron or his politically powerful better half,  Inez Barron, on four separate occasions since 2012. But despite Banks’ efforts – be it capturing an Assembly or City Council seat – it was a Barron who ultimately emerged victorious. Until now.

In perhaps the biggest upset Tuesday night, Banks led Barron by around 7 points, having captured 50.5% of the vote with 99% of scanners reporting in District 42. While the race has yet to be officially called, the numbers all but guarantee that Barron will lose his reelection to the City Council, marking the end of more than two decades in which the former Black Panther and self-described Black radical socialist has represented East New York. And with no Republican candidates running, that means Banks will likely experience smooth sailing into the City Council. 

Banks, whose campaign was buoyed by a swell of support from organized labor, has worked with a variety of nonprofits over the years. He’s currently the executive director of anti-poverty program East New York United Concerned Citizens, which he founded in the early 2000s. And no – he isn’t related to Adams administration power players Phil and David Banks.

City & State caught up with Banks the day after the June 27 Primary to discuss why he decided to run, how he assembled such a strong coalition of organized labor, his relationship with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and what factors he feels helped him topple Barron’s twenty plus reign in East New York. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you decide to challenge Barron for the seat?

I was frustrated with what was going on in the community. I had run before in (2012) – not against Charles, but against his wife, who was an Assemblywoman at that time. Then I ran against her again in 2013 for the City Council, because they had lost seats and later, I ran against Charles in (2014) for the Assembly.

With all the issues that we were dealing with, especially organizing around the oversaturation of shelters in the district, we just said, listen, we're sick and tired of the lack of leadership that was coming from our local electeds and we decided to take them on to provide new leadership and to seriously address some issues and concerns facing the district.

What do you think was different this time around that allowed you to successfully challenge Barron? Did you try a different strategy? Do you think the community had gotten to a point where it was more ready for change?

It was a build up. It takes time for communities to figure it out. I think there was frustration over some of the things that have been going on in the community and after door knocking on thousands of doors in the district, we really found out that Charles was out of touch with the residents. We constantly heard “oh my god, he’s still in office? I thought he was retired?” It was just a constant flow of “oh he’s been in office too long. Why is he still there? He doesn't have the energy? That was a constant, and we drove home that message. 

I would also say the strong union support – we were able to get the support of eight unions, which is huge. These are unions that in the past all endorsed either his wife or the council member in their races. The unions recognized that they had a fighter that can go and represent their rank and file members in the City Council. We also made the argument to the unions that they helped create this monster of complacency, and that they had an obligation to help save their rank and file members from this – in that case, by supporting a candidate that wasn't out of touch with the district.

Why do you think organized labor resonated with you so strongly? 

I think Council Member Barron put his foot in his mouth quite a few times throughout the screening process, making all types of charges against the union saying that leadership was out of touch with rank and file members. And just the arrogance of thinking that he had everything locked up.

I think we were able to make a very convincing argument that we were the better alternative and that changing the course would lead to uniting the political representatives and our community – especially knowing that I have a great working relationship with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Assemblywoman Nikki Lucas and also Senator Roxanne Persaud.  It is needed to have the council person on board to deal with the complicated issues that are facing our district and I think that resonated with union leadership and rank and file members. 

What’s your relationship with Jeffries? Were you close before your run?

Yes, the congressman has been a steady friend and supporter over the years. When I first ran in 2012, he was running for Congress at that time. He endorsed me actually when I had run for the New York state Assembly in 2012 and since then, I gave him my support, my loyalty. He has been a constant friend and supporter in my political endeavors to help me build partnerships in the 42nd Council District.

There are rumors of an upzoning planned for Starrett City. Tell me about that, and what would be your priorities there, as a Council member?

We are going to hit the ground running, but we're looking at everything that is being looked at to happen in our community. We’re gonna assess everything and see what is best according to the tenants in Starrett City and we're going to put the people's agendas first, making sure that their needs are met and what will protect the face of our community. Once we get into the council seat we will be able to lay something out for you.

You voiced concerns about the over-saturation of shelters within your district and went on to form the Greater East New York Coalition, which sued the city to enforce the Fair Share clause. Do you intend to continue tackling this issue in the council? 

Yeah, hopefully. We did sue the city and obviously, we weren't successful at the time because (Superstorm) Sandy had just taken place and the city had gained these emergency powers to place shelters anywhere in the city, so we lost the case. Nevertheless, we were still committed to our goal and mission statement that East New York had been a dumping ground proportionately to more affluent communities. Compare a community like Howard Beach – there’s not one shelter near Howard Beach.

We definitely are going to tackle the Fair Share clause, which we want to reform. We want to increase notification from 30 days to 90 days. We want to look at possibly strengthening local community boards, because currently when these facilities do come into the community, the board is just given a notification as opposed to input on the process. I also want to provide more oversight over these agencies who are providing shelter, and really look at their deliverables and hold them accountable for the things that they did not do. That's basically making sheltering a big business and it's just a revolving door, keeping poor people poor and not truly addressing mental health issues and other things of that nature. When you speak to us in the community, that's a major concern outside of some of the other major concerns that they have talked about.

I just want the people to know that they have a fighter. This has been a long time coming and I want to let them know as we go forth into this general election that they are going to get the representation that they’ve longed for and that is needed to address the current convoluted issues that the district faces. We will have a united front when it comes to working with our local electeds.