One of the funniest people in America will be in New York City tonight, holding a fundraiser for a long-shot Democratic candidate waging a primary battle against an entrenched incumbent.
Rep. Edolphus Towns narrowly survived arguably the greatest scare of his career in Congress in 2006. Towns defeated City Councilman Charles Barron and Assemblyman Roger Green in the Democratic primary with just 47% of the vote, capping off a series of close elections for the incumbent, who has served in Congress since 1983.
All things considered, there are a lot of worse Democrats in Congress than Ed Towns, but none of them represent D+41 districts (yes, you read that right). As NY-10 is the third-most Democratic district in the country, it is perhaps not surprising to see primary campaigns against an incumbent who voted for the bankruptcy bill, the estate-tax cut, and has been questionable at best in pursuing revitalization in his district. Towns has generally been solid on foreign affairs, but holds a few positions that are just bizarre, like when he lobbied the Clinton Administration to declare the Republic of India a "terrorist nation":
In July, Towns published a list of attacks on Christians indicating "the pattern of Indian terrorism against its minorities" and demanded that "India should be declared a terrorist nation." Towns, who is regularly provided material by the Council of Khalistan headed by Gurmit Singh Aulakh, alleged that the Chattisinghpora massacre was the handiwork of the Indian government. (The White House dismissed the allegation saying there is absolutely "no credible evidence" of any government involvement in the massacre.)
With Barron opting against another run, choosing instead to run for Brooklyn Borough President, the man opposing Ed Towns this year is Kevin Powell.
Powell is a former contestant on MTV's "Real World", activist, writer, and hip-hop authority. He staged an aborted campaign for the seat in 2006, and dropped out due to a slow fundraising pace and lack of campaign infrastructure.
He has also blogged several times at Huffington Post, on such issues as FISA, and ending violence against women (referencing his own history of four domestic-violence incidents between 1987 and 1991).
He has raised about $100K so far for the campaign, which he began in April. He hopes to raise and spend about $400K by the time of the September 9 primary, which will be a tall order, but he'll have the assistance of comedian Dave Chappelle, who will hold a fundraiser with Powell on Tuesday.
Towns has apparently come under fire for having endorsed Hillary Clinton (as did every other member of the New York Democratic delegation, of course). It seems that Powell's supporters are hoping to exploit this:
For Mr. Towns in Brooklyn, leftover tensions from the Clinton-Obama battle seem especially strong. An emerging young black political class is seeking to assert the neighborhood's power against what it sees as an older establishment, based in Harlem, that has long exercised disproportionate influence in New York. The younger Democratic activists link Mr. Meeks and Mr. Towns, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper and a 25-year veteran in Congress, to that structure.
Mr. Towns cannot afford to take the challenge lightly. Two years ago, he won with less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The man who is running against him now, Kevin Powell, is a community organizer who has the backing of celebrities like the comedian Dave Chappelle, who is scheduled to headline a fund-raiser for Mr. Powell.
Jordan Thomas, who led the organization Brooklyn for Barack, and Arthur Leopold, a fund-raiser for the Obama campaign, are backing Mr. Powell, as are several Democratic clubs, including the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, in part because of members' disappointment after Mr. Towns backed Mrs. Clinton.
Personally, I'm not especially persuaded by the argument that one should target their Representatives for having endorsed one Democratic candidate over another, except in extreme cases. Clinton is not Lieberman, obviously, plus she's the Senator from New York, and anyway it isn't as if there aren't a number of perfectly valid reasons to look at primarying Towns. Nevertheless, this particular issue has been fairly frequently bandied about in criticism of Towns (as with other New York Reps like Yvette Clark, Greg Meeks and even Charlie Rangel), and it could factor into Powell's long-shot upset bid.
So how strong a candidate will Powell be? It's difficult to say. He has a good bit of celebrity support, like Chappelle and George Soros, and that ought to help him raise money. He seems very intelligent, ambitious and has a fascinating personal story.
On the other hand, he has no existing political base in the district, as Barron and Green did last cycle. He has worked as a community organizer in the past, and seeks to register thousands of new voters for this election (Towns won with fewer than 20,000 votes last time), but given that he entered the race just four months before Primary Day, he has not given himself very much time in which to do that.
Now there are just two months before the election, and Powell's profile is still relatively low in the district, plus he has raised only a quarter of his target amount for the primary. It's never easy to knock off a 13-term incumbent - Towns has survived tough primary challenges in 1998, 2000 and 2006 - and the odds are against Powell here. It remains to be seen if he has the political skills to overcome them.
Regardless, this race is well worth keeping an eye on, if only to gauge Towns' vulnerability for 2010.