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.”
By the late sixties, Barbaro had become a firm believer in the power of organizing. He eventually entered politics and served in the New York Assembly, where he championed important pro-labor and tenants rights legislation. While an assemblyman, Barbaro led a rent strike in the city, and when he was later elevated to the state Supreme Court Justice, he wrote opinions that he proudly recalled safeguarded due process rights for the accused. But it was on the waterfront where he sunk his progressive roots, learning the “absolute necessity of building a people’s movement–to be a countervailing force” to corporations.
Now Barbaro faces a four-term Republican incumbent, Vito Fossella, who Barbaro calls “a total political opportunist” who has ignored his constituents and instead done the bidding of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Fossella has indeed amassed a shameful record. He turned his back on Staten Island’s veterans, supporting Bush’s 2003 budget that cut veterans benefits by $14 billion. He voted against putting more cops on the beat, and supported Bush’s massive tax giveaways to corporate America. “Vito is silent,” thundered Barbaro at his announcement rally, when it comes to ensuring that New York firefighters and other first responders have “functioning radios” and the equipment “to fight bio-terrorism, [and] dirty bombs.”
Barbaro believes that local interests–from Staten Island’s Advance newspaper to the borough’s business community and even some Republicans–are tired of Fossella’s incompetence and inability to assist his district. “If you don’t want to work, get out of the way,” Barbaro has said. One of his slogans is: “Veto Vito!”
Above all, Barbaro takes the fight for social and economic justice as a lifelong task, and he’s running at age 76 because he wants to give Staten Island and Brooklyn’s residents their fair shake, and to send a wake-up call to the country.
“Large monies are essential to run campaigns” nowadays, “and the Democratic Party has moved to the right” in recent years, Barbaro argues. “If you stay in the middle you really don’t stand for anything.” If Barbaro defeats Fossella, he intends to fight “without fear” for unabashed progressive values and goals: healthcare for all; union power; tax justice so corporations pay their fair share; and a full, independent investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. “[I will fight to] redefine the “mission and philosophy of the Democratic Party,” he promises. One of his first orders of business will be to gather grassroots progressives and union organizers to figure out better ways of spreading the populist agenda across America.
Barbaro is running not just on the Democratic ticket but also on the Working Families Party line, which sees in Barbaro an exemplary vessel for its core mission “to inject the concerns of working-class, middle-class, and poor people into the public debate.” Dan Cantor at WFP explained Barbaro’s appeal: “If Paul Wellstone was a 78 year old Italian from Brooklyn, his name would be Frank Barbaro.”
A bold and passionate advocate, Barbaro says “my greatest accomplishment is my belief in America and belief in economic and social justice and my belief in staying the course. [I have] unwavering confidence in the American people that they will, in the end, do what is right for America.”
To wage this tough fight for Congress, Barbaro needs progressives to rally to his cause. Click here if you want to support a lifelong fighter for liberal values and a man who never forgot his working-class roots and make a contribution today. With your assistance, Barbaro could launch a movement that will sweep George Bush and Vito Fossella ou