This month, a self-described socialist candidate in Brooklyn will attempt a rare feat in New York political history: beating a Democrat with only a third-party ballot line.
Running solely as a candidate of the Working Families Party, Keron Alleyne, a young activist in East New York, will seek to fill the assembly seat once held by Charles Barron, an early member of the Black Panther Party, and his wife, Inez. The Barrons are political royalty in the area and proud radicals, advocating for free public college, reparations for the descendants of slaves, anti-Zionism, and defunding the police long before they became familiar positions among leftists. Alleyne, who ran unsuccessfully for state senate in 2020, is very much their protégé, a neighborhood activist embracing the Barron ethos.
The February 15 special election will be an uphill climb. Alleyne is pitted against Nikki Lucas, who has the full support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and Hakeem Jeffries, the congressman who is widely believed to be Nancy Pelosi’s successor. Jeffries, who represents East New York in Congress, won a lopsided but very bitter victory against Charles Barron for the House seat a decade ago. For Jeffries, clashes with the Barrons are personal: he has backed candidates against them, without success, before.
Lucas has the edge because she is the only candidate with the Democratic line in February. In a backroom process to determine who represents the neighborhood in the assembly — Barron vacated the seat to return to the New York City Council — Lucas triumphed over Alleyne, winning the backing of more Democratic county committee members. The Working Families Party (WFP) has backed many winning candidates, but almost always when they are running as Democrats under a process known as fusion. Getting Alleyne over the hump without the Democratic line will be difficult. (Letitia James, the state attorney general, won solely on the WFP line for a city council race in 2003, but was overwhelmingly backed by the Democratic establishment against a political gadfly.)
All will not be lost, though, if Alleyne is defeated this month. He intends, with WFP’s support, to continue campaigning in the June primary, where he could oppose Lucas again, this time as a Democrat. Lucas would be the incumbent but would only have a few months in office to build up additional name recognition. Already Alleyne has begun to pick up the support of progressives and socialists in office, including Jabari Brisport, one of two Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members in the state senate.
New York City’s DSA chapter is currently weighing whether to endorse Alleyne. If he manages to win in February or June, he would join a growing bloc of socialists in Albany who are fighting to drag the state legislature and the new governor, Kathy Hochul, further left. While Hochul has been more friendly to the left flank of the party than the man she replaced, Andrew Cuomo, she has fundraised aggressively from real estate and finance elites and is unlikely to back broader DSA goals like tuition-free public college, statewide single-payer healthcare, and public ownership of utilities.
WFP endorses widely, but DSA does not. This is in part because New York’s DSA chapter refuses to issue endorsements that will not come with the full weight of their volunteer base. The state legislative slate for 2022 is mostly set, and there are concerns, among some socialists, that there simply isn’t any more volunteer capacity left for Alleyne, who has banked about $18,000 so far to Lucas’s $26,000.
There is also the question of whether Alleyne will be more like a DSA socialist or Barron socialist. While the Barrons have a deep following in East New York, a black working-class neighborhood, they have failed to build a large-scale, viable political movement beyond their base. Charles Barron partners with politicians more than he is given credit for — he successfully brought new development to the neighborhood and helped prevent the privatization of an enormous subsidized housing complex — but he acts, more often than not, as a lone wolf, staging long-shot campaigns and symbolic protests, like his perennial votes against legislative leaders.
For DSA, the question is whether socialists should be supported if they aren’t willing to work in tandem as a clear slate. In Albany, DSA members hold weekly calls, issue joint statements, and ultimately vote together. Message discipline is vital for the organization. Neither Barron is an active member of DSA. Alleyne has applied for the endorsement, indicating he might be interested in the greater DSA project.
In a 150-member body, one lawmaker can’t make a tremendous difference. But the larger the bloc of socialists and leftists grows in Albany, the less clout outside interest groups will have. Traditionally, various well-heeled lobbies have determined the direction of bills, pumping state legislators with hundreds of thousand or millions of dollars. The new crop of leftists cannot be bought off so easily because they fundraise from small donors online. One marker of DSA’s maturation is the fundraising hauls of their current endorsed candidates for state office — at least one state assembly contender, running in Manhattan, has managed to raise more than $80,000 so far.
Alleyne may or may not be part of that slate. But he will, at the minimum, be an immediate priority for WFP, which lacks ground troops in East New York but may be able, with their online fundraising list, to throw more cash into his campaign. For Jeffries and the Democratic establishment, meanwhile, it will be a test of how much clout they really have in one of the city’s overlooked stretches.