Is Hakeem Jeffries Brooklyn’s Barack Obama?

The young New York assemblyman running for the seat held by retiring Rep. Ed Towns (D) shares some surface characteristics with the president.

“They’re both African-American, they’re both strikingly handsome, and they’re both highly intelligent,” said former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Jeffries supporter. “Both of them have wonderful smiles.”

But the echoes go further than that.

Hakeem Jeffries campaigns on April 15, 2012 in Brooklyn. (Photo by Michael Nagle) (Michael Nagle/Jeffries for Congress)

In 2000 and 2002, Jeffries took on state Assemblyman Roger Green (D). After those races, he was drawn out of Green’s district.

“I was victimized by the redistricting process,” Jeffries said. “I went to bed, I was in one assembly district, I woke up the next morning, I was in another district, and I hadn’t moved at all.”

Jeffries challenged Green again anyway, and lost again. But when Green left the assembly to run for Congress, Jeffries won the primary (and the general) easily.

Redistricting last decade may have hurt Jeffries, but this time around it could help him. The new congressional map adds some white, conservative neighborhoods to the new majority-black 8th district. His primary opponent, City Councilman Charles Barron, is an outspoken black nationalist.

A former associate of the Manhattan firm Paul Weiss, Jeffries has connections to wealthy donors and prominent politicians. (He roomed with former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty while getting a graduate degree at Georgetown University.)

Jeffries is “someone who works easily within both the black and white communities,” said Theodore Wells, who was Jeffries mentor at the law firm. “I think Hakeem represents a natural evolution in the background of African American politicians. The prior generation of African American politicians had their roots in the civil rights movements of the 1960s, but Hakeem's generation grew up in a more multicultural America, and in that sense their backgrounds and perspectives are different.”

Like Obama, Jeffries has earned some ire from liberals for his moderation. For example, he supports charter schools and has been vague on a controversial development project. He’s also been criticized by his opponent for lack of experience.

“My opponent has not gotten any votes outside of the district,” Barron said. “He hasn’t even run outside of his small assembly district.” While he’s been vastly outraised by Jeffries, Barron says that “money’s not going buy this election, you have to earn it.”

Barron did well with the district’s white liberals when he nearly beat Towns in the 2006 primary. But veteran consultant Jerry Skurnik says that was likely “more anti-old timer kind of vote” than an endorsement of Barron. 

Jeffries’ biggest accomplishment in the Assembly was aimed directly at minority youth — helping pass a law that keeps the police from keeping the personal data of people stopped by the police without any enforcement action taken (aka “stop and frisk”). He’s pushed to make marijuana possession a misdemeanor and advocated for more affordable housing. He’s more liberal than Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) on tax policy.

“He’s done things that are a little bit innovative — he’ll reach out to his constituents, regular town hall meetings, mobile offices outside subway stations, those are things that really set him apart from other members,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D).

A victory in the June 26 primary could be a major launching pad for a much bigger national platform for Jeffries — just the sort of thing that happened to Obama when he managed to win a crowded and costly Senate primary in 2004.

For his part, Jeffries says he doesn’t see the Obama comparison. “Other than the fact that we were both born on August 4, it’s not clear to me that there’s much of a professional resemblance,” he said. Yet.