Former 'Real World' member running for Congress

August 28, 2008 11:10:19 AM PDT
A longtime Brooklyn congressman who has gone most of his career without ever facing much of a re-election challenge is facing an aggressive fight this year from a former "Real World" cast member. Community activist Kevin Powell, 42, is trying to paint the 74-year-old Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns as part of an earlier generation of elected officials who have become ineffective as he tries to stage an upset of the 26-year incumbent in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary.

Powell, who went on to become a well-known writer and public speaker after rising to prominence on the first season of the MTV reality show in 1992, has been trying to convince voters that Towns has severely neglected the district and allowed problems to fester.

He's never held elected office, but has been able to draw on his own fame from "The Real World" and pull in celebrity supporters such as Chris Rock, George Soros, Dave Chappelle and Gloria Steinem.

"I have deep respect and appreciation for the civil rights movement," Powell said one recent morning after greeting commuters outside a Brooklyn subway station. "But far too many of that generation who've been in office far too long have a sense of entitlement and privilege.

"This is someone who is completely disengaged from and invisible in the community," Powell said of Towns, adding that the incumbent has failed to address affordable housing, the mortgage crisis, HIV/AIDS, and unemployment.

Towns, a former Baptist minister from North Carolina, said he "works hard to provide services to the district." As an example, he said he introduced a bill to keep the 5,881-unit Starrett City, the country's largest federally subsidized housing complex, affordable.

Towns also attacked Powell's lack of legislative experience. "He's never served in a legislative body," Towns said. "He's never been elected to the school board or even attended a PTA meeting. He has no idea how these things really work."

"It's no time to have a startup" representing the district at a time when Democrats could win the White House, Towns said. With a Democratic president, Towns said he hoped to get legislation passed faster.

The candidates are vying to represent the 10th Congressional District, a solidly Democratic section of Brooklyn with about 685,000 residents. The district is so Democratic that the winner of the primary is essentially guaranteed victory.

While Powell has brought an element of fame to the race, his resume extends beyond "The Real World," a series set in different cities over the years with a cast of sometimes likable, sometimes not-so-likable strangers.

He briefly ran in the primary in 2006, wrote several books and earned acclaim as a writer for Vibe magazine, including an exclusive jailhouse interview with Tupac Shakur in 1995. He also has protested apartheid in South Africa and helped organize college students to volunteer along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

"My real calling is public service," said Powell, adding that he's undaunted by the fact that he's never held an elected office or by the disparity in funds he and Towns each have raised.

Between January 2007 and June 30 of this year, Powell received $46,607 in contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission. (Powell said upcoming filings will show his campaign has raised closer to $200,000.) Towns' campaign raised $975,367 during the same period, the FEC says.

But while Towns has raised significantly more money than Powell, his share of the vote in the primary has been dropping since 1988, when he received 76 percent of the vote. In the 2006 primary, Towns received 47 percent of the vote in a three-way race, compared with 57 percent in 2000. He has run unopposed in six of his 13 primaries.

Noel Anderson, an assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College, said while Powell's ability to galvanize younger voters was impressive, "the power and the base are behind Towns."

"I think he's got an uphill battle," said Anderson.

But as gentrification spreads through the district, changing class dynamics are "shaking the base of the traditional political guard," Anderson said.

"I think he has potential if he continues this run" beyond 2008, the professor said of Powell. "He represents a kind of next phase of young politics not only in this district but nationwide."