It’s great that attention has been paid to progressives like Illinois’ Barack Obama, South Dakota’s Stephanie Herseth, and Pennsylvania’s Allyson Schwartz and Lois Murphy and Oklahoma’s Kalyn Free. All these newcomers to the national stage herald a fresh populism should a Democratic tide sweep over America in November.
And in my city of New York there’s Frank Barbaro, who’s running for a house seat from Southern Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York City’s closest thing to a red state. Barbaro, 76, is an unheralded star, a genuine working-class folk hero who deserves far more attention from the media than his candidacy has received thus far.
The 13th district isn’t exactly fertile territory for a 76-year-old Democratic candidate. In normal times, the 13th–composed largely of middle and working-class Italian-Americans–is a safe Republican seat having elected Republicans to the House at every opportunity since Reagan’s 1980 presidential landslide. The demographics are gradually shifting though as African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans now constitute twenty-six percent of the electorate, with the area’s Hispanic population growing considerably.
Barbaro, the son of Italian immigrants, lives in Bensonhurst smack in the middle of the 13th, where he opened a law practice. Despite the district’s conservative leanings, the very progressive Barbaro has a serious shot thanks, in large part, to a stellar resume and a patriot’s background. He joined the Navy after graduating from high school, and held jobs as an ironworker, cab driver and butcher. From 1952 to 1967, Barbaro worked as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Brooklyn, and his time on the piers profoundly shaped his philosophy. “My fifteen years on the waterfront were the foundry of my ideology,” Barbaro said in an interview last week.
He started at a time when McCarthyism was in the ascendance, and anti-communists were purging the ranks of unions of suspected subversives. Brooklyn’s docks were run by the mob, and the conditions were horrendous. Barbaro encountered “a total, utter disregard for workers,” and decided to stand for social justice. Enduring threats against him and his friends, Barbaro expressed his outrage at his coworkers’ exposure to dangerous asbestos levels in the ships and the constant hazardous waterfront tasks and mob intimidation of the AFL-CIO. One time, “4,000 pounds of concrete came pouring down on [Barbaro and his fellow workers],” and Barbaro spearheaded a spontaneous walkout, telling his bosses: “We’re not gonna work like animals.”