Forty years ago, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the African-American political establishment in New York was dominated by a cadre of men in Harlem dubbed the “Gang of Four” – Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson and David Dinkins. Among their accomplishments were becoming a long-serving U.S. Representative, the first black Manhattan borough president, the first black Secretary of State for the state of New York, and the first black mayor of New York City, respectively.
Even against the backdrop of late 1960s and early ’70s currents of Black Power – from the Nation of Islam to the Black Panther Party; from poet Sonia Sanchez to Brooklyn Congresswoman-turned-presidential-candidate Shirley Chisholm – it was the “Gang of Four” that principally shaped the African-American presence in New York’s political landscape for decades.
And last year, as the historic presidency of Barack Obama got underway, the rising prominence of two seasoned New York Democratic party pols provided evidence that “the gang” still wielded sway over contemporary politics: Rep. Rangel, who in 2007 became chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was expected to achieve increased influence with a Democratic president and new majority in Congress. And Paterson’s son, former Assemblyman David Paterson, became New York’s first black governor two years ago when Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s surprise resignation catapulted him out of the relative obscurity of lieutenant governorship.
But the ascension of Rangel, 79, and Paterson, 55, has suddenly come to a halt. (Meanwhile, Dinkins and Paterson the elder are living lower-profile lives, and Percy Sutton died last year.) Paterson is now being investigated by the state attorney general’s office over allegations of interfering in a domestic violence incident involving an aide. And last week, Rangel agreed to temporarily step down as chair of Ways and Means after the House Ethics Committee determined that he was improperly reimbursed for two working trips to the Caribbean. He’s also the subject of ongoing probes into various other alleged ethical violations.
A changed landscape
Now tainted by scandal, the careers of both men hang in the balance. According to a number of political observers, so does the future of black leadership in New York.
“One of the tragedies with what we’re seeing happen to Charlie and David is that it’s long been known that the older generation of leadership has largely failed to nurture young talent,” says Basil Smikle, a black political consultant who has advised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his most recent run (against, perhaps ironically, a black candidate: former comptroller William Thompson). “We may not see another black governor in New York for another 20 years. And you may not see another person of Charlie’s stature elevate to become a significant black leader from this state in Congress for another 20 years, too, because it’s all about seniority.”
H. Carl McCall, the former state controller who ran for governor in 2002 and whose long political career was closely linked to the “Gang of Four,” is more optimistic. “Obviously, right now we’re facing a terrible loss with respect to David. We’re not sure of his future, but the fact than an African-American got to that position was a big step forward,” said McCall. Like numerous other black public figures, he has publicly urged Gov. Paterson to stay in office; indeed, none have publicly called for him to step down. “Even if David is no longer governor, we have other African-Americans who are in positions of authority.”
That much is clear: in Albany, Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson now serves as the state legislature’s Democratic Conference leader – and both houses are peopled with many representatives of color. Elsewhere, Byron Brown was re-elected last year to a second term as mayor of Buffalo. And the city’s congressional delegation includes black Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks, and Brooklyn Reps. Yvette Clarke and Edolphus Towns, who now chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (A Towns staffer tells City Limits that the congressman, at 75, has yet to decide whether he’ll run for re-election this year.) And for the first time ever, blacks, along with Latinos and Asians, have made whites a minority on the New York City Council.
Responses to the crisis
The once indomitable Rangel may face a significant challenge in the Democratic primary later this year. Thus far, the most visible candidate has been ex-Rangel aide Vincent Morgan, a 40-year-old executive with the New Jersey-based TD Bank. “I commend [Rangel] on his decision to step back from the committee,” Morgan says. “He’s a formidable candidate. But when I travel across the district, people are telling me that he’s disconnected from the pressing needs of the community after 40 years in office.”
It’s a charge that challengers have brought against veteran pols for years – but incumbents almost always win in New York. Yet for the first time in years, political observers note, that premise will be put to the test as Rangel prepares for re-election in what will undoubtedly be a closely watched race.
Equally revealing has been the reaction to the controversy swirling around Gov. Paterson among New York’s black politicians. Following the resignation of several top officials last week, and now facing increased pressure to vacate office, Paterson has received strong public backing from most of the city’s traditional black political establishment. But that’s also being tempered by a more nuanced perspective among some post-“Gang of Four” politicians.
“I don’t want to minimize the serious nature of the domestic violence charge,” says Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James, now beginning her third term on Council, of the incident in which Paterson aide David Johnson allegedly assaulted his girlfriend last year – and the governor allegedly urged the woman against taking legal action against Johnson. “I want to wait until the investigation is concluded, but I don’t believe that it’s in the best interest of New York for David Paterson to resign at this time.”
Meanwhile, as the era of “the four lions” – another moniker for the powerful Harlem coterie – gradually fades into history, the broader question as to the future roles assumed by black elected officials in New York remains an issue of great concern among some observers.
Nick Perry of Brooklyn, the Jamaican-born Assemblyman who was first elected in 1992 and chairs the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators, contends that recent political scandals coupled with media coverage is hampering efforts to attract qualified black candidates for public service in New York.
“I think that our farm team is rather skimpy. We’re really at a crossroads,” Perry says. “I try to keep my eyes open for leadership prospects in my community. But when you sponsor legislation that touches so many lives and you barely get covered unless something bad happens, then the question becomes: ‘Why would you want to do that?’”
Historically, African-American Democratic Party candidates for electoral posts in New York have long relied upon the city’s deeply-rooted network of black churches, labor unions, clubhouses, closed-doors dealmaking, and support from the “Gang of Four” circle along the campaign trail. But that model is changing.
“When David Paterson stepped away from running for governor again, it’s because he sat down with a bunch of black leaders that included people like David Dinkins and Al Sharpton,” explains Jose Sanchez, an associate professor of political science and chair of urban studies at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus. “In the past, many political leaders either came out of the churches or through a variety of non-profit organizations that they developed and could use to bring out the vote. But many of those organizations have been disappearing with nothing quite as strong to replace them.”
Also experiencing change are traditional African-American enclaves like Harlem – which is no longer majority black – and areas like Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, which continue to undergo rapid demographic shifts, with new residents from elsewhere in the city as well as Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. As a result, reaching out to a broader base – as opposed to falling back on identity politics as a driver of votes – will increasingly become decisive for black political candidates across New York.
“The tide is changing and the ground is becoming the determining factor for leadership,” says Erica Ford, who is black and founded the youth advocacy group Life Camp in Queens eight years ago. “If all else fails, conditions on the ground, whether it’s violence in the streets or the state of the economy, will determine what happens to our elected leaders.”
In 2001, Ford – a respected figure in the hip-hop community – placed third in a primary bid for a Queens City Council seat. “Elected officials are not omnipotent,” she adds. “But leadership requires them to directly address the conditions on the ground. And we need those conditions to change because people are hurting in so many ways right now.”
In recent years, a number of New York’s longtime black elected officials have faced vigorous primary challenges. But, many observers have long complained, incumbents’ typical strategy eroded the potential for cross-generational consensus building in the interest of short-term political gains. “When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and ’88, you had an explosion of black talent running for elected offices across the country. Jesse may have lost, but he helped to train people who obtained key positions of power on the state and federal level,” explains Smikle, the political consultant. “But when you look at these local races in New York, you see how the paradigm had shifted as a number of individuals who got to where they were because someone once nurtured them, began to say that, ‘we won’t nurture you.’”
Still, Una Clarke, 75 – who was a Brooklyn Democratic City Councilwoman from 1991 to 2001 – contends that elected officials themselves aren’t wholly to blame. “We can’t always put it on the politicians. People who are interested in politics have to do something for the community that they wish to serve, and then the job will be there.”
It’s a lesson that the Jamaican-born Clarke learned firsthand when she tried to launch an insurgent campaign in 2000 against then-Congressman Major Owens, who is black, by tapping into long-festering frustrations among an emerging constituency in central Brooklyn. “The minute you take your eye off the things that are important to the community, then somebody should fill that gap,” says Clarke. “When I ran against Major, I felt that many of the interests of the Caribbean residents were not being met. No, I didn’t win. But I realized that as communities reorganize themselves, you have to understand the people who are in that community and consistently represent their interests.”
These days, observers are looking to the grassroots for prospective black political candidates. It’s a place that newly elected Brooklyn City Councilman Jumaane Williams, 33, is familiar with. For years, Williams was a community organizer who worked on affordable housing issues in East Flatbush. After launching a challenge for the Council seat held by incumbent Kendall Stewart, who was also tainted by scandal, Williams won by more than 1,100 votes in the Democratic primary and is now one of the city’s youngest legislators.
“I didn’t come from nowhere,” says Williams. “The community that I represent was tired of the leadership that we’ve had in New York City and they spoke loudly. I’m proud to be a small part of that and hope to live up to what the people voted me in to do.”
For Councilwoman James, whose background includes a stint as a public defender, local community-based service is an important proving ground for wannabe pols. “I know we’re seeing plenty of individuals with strong ties to the banking industry who want to run to the front of the class. I have a problem with that,” says James, echoing complaints about former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., a relatively new New York resident who considered a bid to challenge New York’s junior U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “There are already people who have been doing the advocacy work on the ground for a significant amount of time. And as the civil rights generation retires, they’ll be serving to carry on the legacy.”
But Vincent Morgan (who, among those rumored to be gunning for Rangel’s seat, is the only one presently admitting to his ambitions) sees his banking resume as an asset for public service, and insists that his candidacy represents an urgent need to bring new leadership to central Harlem. “It’s not about folks getting elected and retiring in office,” he says. “We need to get away from that.”
Ultimately, political experts point out, New York’s black electoral candidates – incumbents and newcomers alike – increasingly won’t have a choice. “Just supporting the person who’s black may have worked 40 years ago, but the mindset of voters is changing dramatically,” says Smikle. “The candidates of the future won’t have that element of personal nostalgia to draw upon. Voters will be looking for one thing regardless of what you look like – results.”
Correction, March 12: City Councilwoman Letitia James is now in her third term on Council, not her second as previously reported. It is her second full term, as she was first elected in 2003 to fill the unexpired term of assassinated Councilman James Davis, then re-elected in 2005 and 2009.