Reading The Political Tea Leaves Of Harlem's State Senate Race

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Basil Smikle, left, is challenging incumbent Bill Perkins for the 30th District State Senate seat in Harlem.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Basil Smikle, left, is challenging incumbent Bill Perkins for the 30th District State Senate seat in Harlem.

When the New York Charter Parents Association (NYCPA) announced their endorsement of incumbent Bill Perkins in the 30th district State Senate race in Harlem last week, one of the most buzz-worthy assumptions about the race started to fizzle. The media had conjectured that charter-school parents might punish Perkins for having criticized those schools and reward his challenger, Basil Smikle, who bills himself as a charter-school supporter.

That still might happen: another group of charter parents – Parents for Smikle – disagrees completely with NYCPA, saying Perkins is the problem, not the solution. “As parents, we will not stand idly by and allow this man to continue his efforts to deny us our right to choose a great school for our children,” said charter parent Daniel Clark, Sr., in a press release. “He has been rude to us, he has worked against our children, and we simply won’t stand for it any longer.”

The group says it has 300 members, has knocked on over 2,500 doors and made more than 70,000 phone calls. It bills itself as “the only parent organization with any muscle” in the primary fight. But the endorsement by NYCPA—which says it has 300 members too—revealed some fissures in the charter school parent camp that could work to Perkins’ advantage.

“Education is an extremely important issue, but it's one of many,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that lobbies for good government. “It may very well be the case that a candidacy needs to be about more than one issue. There's been an effort to paint Perkins position on charter schools as against them. In fact, it's much more nuanced. This may be an acknowledgement of the fact that it's not black and white. It's not all for or all against.”

NYCPA’s unexpected endorsement of Perkins might not be the only surprise in store for people who have pegged Perkins as an incumbent about to be upset.

Because Harlem’s racial and income demographics are changing as more whites and affluent blacks move in, some predicted that Perkins might have a hard time selling his brand of traditional liberal politics in the community. Because Smikle is 38 and Perkins is 61, some predicted that the “Joshua generation”—the generation of African-Americans born after the Civil Rights Movement —would propel Smikle.

But as the September 14 Democratic primary draws near, some independent observers say those factors will likely by trumped by Perkins’ popularity in his district. “I argue that the framework that this race is being viewed through is somewhat skewed. To suggest that this is some generational, old guard conflict suggests a bit of naivet