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Frank J. Barbaro: A Powerfully Gentle Giant

Frank J. Barbaro: A Powerfully Gentle Giant

Jerry Krase (September 19, 2016)
Campaign website photo of Frank J. Barbaro in his unsuccessful bid for the United States House of Representatives New York District 13 in 2004. It captures the smile I remember best.

Frank J. Barbaro passed on Labor Day Weekend. He championed progressive causes such as the rights of organized, unorganized, and even disorganized labor, government corruption, aggrieved tenants, small home owners, minorities, and anyone else who deserved, but lacked, a champion.


When I got the news on FaceBook that Frank J. Barbaro passed, I immediately thought back to the weekday evening when my best friend Mario DiSanto dragged me to Barbaro’s New York State Assembly office in Bensonhurst to enlist his help.

I had been denied (unjustly of course) tenure at Brooklyn College. It was 1975 and Mario, an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College, and fellow (in my case half-) Sicilian American community activist suspected, as did I, that “Something was rotten in Denmark.” as to my looming unemployment. It was an imposing 6’4” Frank, who, warmly and with a grin on his face, taught me the term that evening, “O pesce puzza da capa” --- “The fish stinks from the head.” Both Mario and I had been specks in the eyes of some of the more and less “regular” Brooklyn Democratic Party officials. In this regard, Barbaro was a beam.

             When I described the work I had been doing in Brooklyn's racially changing neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, Flatbush and Canarsie as well as with Mario for Italian Americans city-wide, he promised to support reconsideration of my case. Always the perfectionist when it came to justifying causes he repackaged my "subversive" community service as an expression of academic work at a public university.  In fact, he felt CUNY faculty should be required to provide services to the people who paid their salaries. Frank was a powerful progessive role model for my Italian American students when I directed the Center for Italian American Studies. Several became lawyers and political leaders in Brooklyn.

Frank Barbaro filled his life with causes large and small, and the small ones often became large ones. Most notably he ran against ethnically divisive Mayor Ed Koch in the 1981 Democratic primary. Remarkably fickle, Koch also had Republican Party support. As noted by The New York Times’ Sage of NYC Sam Roberts:

Outspent by a margin of nearly 10 to 1, Mr. Barbaro nonetheless ran a spirited campaign, vowing to “liberate the legend of Fiorello La Guardia from an impostor.” Far from being an heir to the progressive Mayor La Guardia, Mr. Koch, he said, was a union buster, an apologist for President Ronald Reagan, a racial polarizer and a “pipsqueak.” He derided him as “shifty Ed.”

Mr. Barbaro lost the primary with 36 percent of the vote. He continued his campaign in the general election through his independent Unity Party, but he got only 13 percent to Mr. Koch’s 75 percent.

Barbaro’s dad was a Calabrian immigrant fisherman who here became master butcher. His mother was from Sicily, so it was a kind of “mixed marriage.” The family first lived in Carroll Garden (really "South Brooklyn") and moved to Red Hook and (half-Italian/half-Jewish) Bensonhurst when economic times got even tougher. Barbaro attended Boys High in Bedford Stuyvesant which at the time was noted as a school for bright boys. It was there and on the docks that he befriended and starting working with and for Blacks and Puerto Ricans. He was U.S. Navy veteran who worked his way through New York University for his 1952 BA and then Brooklyn Law School from which he graduated in 1966 as class president. He was elected to the New York State Assembly from 1972 to 1996.  There he chaired the Labor Committee and championed progressive causes such as the rights of organized, unorganized, and even disorganized labor, government corruption, aggrieved tenants, small home owners, minorities, and anyone else who deserved, but lacked, a champion.

A warrior against racism, he was also a leader in the Anti-Vietnam War and other illegal wars movements. His first (unsuccessful) run for the Assembly, in fact, was as an anti-war candidate. After the Assembly, he was elected to a New York State Supreme Court seat in 1997 and served on the bench until 2004. He left after reaching the maximum New York State court retirement age of 76. Characteristically un-retiring, he ran (unsuccessfully again) for Congress the following year. His last tilt at windmills was as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.   

Francesco Joseph Barbaro died at the age of 88 of congestive heart failure on Labor Day Weekend.  He is survived by his wife Patty, three daughters and four grandchildren. Right now I’m sure he is not resting in peace but re-arranging the mansions in Paradise. 

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