Brooklyn Race A Generational Battle

A Democratic primary in Brooklyn is turning into a race between the hip hop generation and the gospel generation. Kevin Powell, a former star on MTV's Real World, is trying to unseat 13-term Congressman Ed Towns.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton buried the hatchet weeks ago but the tension from their primary race lives on, at least in one New York congressional district. In Brooklyn, a black congressman who supported Senator Clinton is facing an unusual primary challenge from an Obama supporter who made his name on MTV as the star of a reality show.

NPR's Robert Smith has the story.

ROBERT SMITH: Kevin Powell does not wait for voters to come over to him.

Mr. KEVIN POWELL (Congressional Candidate): How are you doing, my dude. Kevin Powell for Congress.

SMITH: Get within 30 feet of the man and he'll rush over to talk to you.

Mr. POWELL: You look beautiful. I like your hair.

SMITH: On this day he's working a corner in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, but it's like this every morning and every night for Powell. He's trying to unseat a 13-term Congressman, Ed Towns, and he's got to show some hustle.

Mr. POWELL: They call me the kid, a lot of the old-school black electives in New York. And guess what, I'm 42.

Good morning. Kevin Powell running for Congress.

SMITH: It's hard not to think of Kevin Powell as a kid. Sixteen years ago he became famous on MTV's first season of "The Real World."

Unidentified Man: We're (unintelligible) was Kevin.

Mr. POWELL: I almost fainted. I was, like, my God. What is this? Fantasy Island?

SMITH: They still replay the episodes and people still recognize him on the street.

Unidentified Woman: Very first episode, right?

Mr. POWELL: Yeah, first season.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. POWELL: What you watching MTV for?

Unidentified Woman: Because you're on it.

Mr. POWELL: Okay. God bless you.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

SMITH: Since then Powell has been a journalist covering hip-hop, a community organizer and a motivational speaker. He usually gets paid to talk about himself but on this street corner he mostly wants to talk about his opponent.

Mr. POWELL: Mr. Towns does not show up for work. You know, he's been in office for 25 years. He's gotten very comfortable. You know, the fact that he's missed about a thousand votes since 1993 says that this man does not take his job seriously nor does he take the people of this community seriously.

SMITH: Powell and Towns don't disagree on many issues. They're both liberal Democrats in a mostly African-American congressional district. But as Powell likes to point, Congressman Towns supported Clinton in the primary while the district went for Obama.

Mr. POWELL: Barack has really opened the floodgates of black people in this country and this community, saying, you know what, enough of people who we're going to vote for. We're going to vote for who we feel is the best candidate, you know.

SMITH: And so Powell says it's time for a member of the hip-hop generation to represent Brooklyn in Congress. He doesn't just pass out flyers on the street; he has a mixed CD of rap music combined with excerpts of his best speeches.

Mr. POWELL: Yes, we need to say it: racism is alive and well in America. Yeah, and I'm aware that America is not the country it used to be; not the country it used to be.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: If Kevin Powell wants to represent hip-hop then his opponent, he is the gospel candidate.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Last Sunday, Congressman Ed Towns gave the sermon at the Grace Baptist Church in East New York, and although it wasn't billed as a campaign speech, it was easy to hear a little contempt for his much younger opponent.

Representative ED TOWNS (Democrat, New York): We are raising a generation of young people who want everything right now. And that is a serious problem, church. They want instant everything. They simply do not want to wait.

SMITH: Towns is 74 years old. Two years ago he barely eased out a win in the primary and he admits that perhaps he hasn't been the best at communicating his successes.

Rep. TOWNS: I have not been a guy who pushed in getting and try to get in front of cameras and I have probably not even talked about a lot of the things I've done.

SMITH: Is there some bitterness about your support for Hillary Clinton in this district?

Rep. TOWNS: Well, there are some people that are upset about it but here again, you know, my word is my bond. I gave her my word and even before I even knew Barack Obama was going to be a candidate, yes, there's some feelings but the point is we're working through that.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Outside the church you can see the advantage of being the incumbent. Congressman Towns has sponsored a street fair with free health screenings and free barbeque dinner. And everyone knows who to thank. Marie Adams(ph) moves in to shake his hand.

Ms. MARIE ADAMS (Fair Attendee): Far as I know, Ed Towns is doing a great job and he's experienced.

SMITH: Even though Barack Obama's mantra of change is in the air here in Brooklyn, it's still enough to (unintelligible) of Kevin Powell. There's no harder electoral trick than unseating an incumbent in a primary. The real world of politics might just trump the real world on TV.

Robert Smith, NPR News.

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