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The Sharpton Generation

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On the second floor over El Barrio Laundromat on Luis Muñoz Marin Boulevard (116th Street), in the heart of Spanish Harlem, is the district office of City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell. The door at street level reads, A.C.P. POWER FOR THE PEOPLE. Up one flight of narrow, dingy stairs, the glass door has red iron grating on it and has to be buzzed open.

The office wall is filled with memorabilia of Powell's famous father. There's a record cover from a 1967 live recording called Adam Clayton Powell's Message to the World—Keep the Faith Baby, and there's a drawing titled Equal Justice for All that combines portraits of the elder Powell, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. In New York politics, being Adam Clayton Powell in 1994 is a double-edged sword.

"Sometimes I wish my name were David Powell. I would still get the benefit of the Powell name but also credit for what I do," says Adam IV. "People have difficulty looking at me for myself." He is trying to change that, and part of the plan is to win back the congressional seat that Charles Rangel wrested from his father in 1970. Though he hasn't officially decided to run, he's been busy looking and talking like a candidate.

"I believe over the last 24 years Rangel's been in Congress, he's done very little for his community," Powell says. "Yes, he's very powerful in Washington, but what good does it do if you can't bring that power back into your own district? This man goes around walking and talking like he shouldn't be challenged. Like, 'How dare this guy Powell try to challenge me?' What arrogance." Rangel's blithe response to Powell's attack is "With his name and his looks, I'm surprised it took him this long."

Bill Lynch says all of the party's organizational forces will come together behind Rangel. "There are some of us who understand what real power is," he says, "and it cannot be tampered with. We cannot just let that power be fritted away."

While it may not be Powell's time yet, H. Carl McCall is overdue. McCall, at 56, straddles the old generation of black leaders and the new. His race for controller this fall is the most important one for black Democrats.

"Don't ascribe conduct to a race, of people [Jews], because that's what's been done to us," says David Paterson.

McCall views his contest as a referendum on what sort of racial politics will prevail. "I'm not dealing with social issues," he says. "I'm at the heart of the economic and financial issues affecting the state of New York. I think the people of New York have an opportunity to make an important statement. I've done everything you've asked me to do. I've gone to all the right schools; I've played by the rules. I've had significant positions in both the public and private sector. My candidacy is important because it's really a test of whether experience and qualifications count, or whether it will become a matter of race."

At a little past 8:30 on a cold Sunday night, Al Sharpton is sitting in the front seat of his black Ford Crown Victoria on the New York State Thruway. He has just finished delivering a sermon as guest preacher at the A.M.E. Zion Church in Newburgh, where he was received like a prophet. But now, Sharpton is stuck in traffic, surrounded by skiers returning to the city, and he is already half an hour late for his next appearance. Calmly he begins to work the car phone. First, he calls the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church to let them know he'll be late. Then he calls his wife in New Jersey (he has an apartment in Englewood and one in Crown Heights). Then he dials the Park Lane Hotel and asks for Jesse Jackson. No answer. Then he checks on David Paterson, whose wife is three days overdue, to see whether she's gone into labor. Yes, he's told, the baby is a boy named Alexander. Excited for his friend, Sharpton calls several people to let them know.

This is Sharpton's personal time. Instead of being at home with his family on a Sunday night, he talks to them from a dark car because he is obsessed with getting his message out. "What a lot of people don't understand," he says, addressing all the criticism he gets, "is that I don't have to do this. I could just preach and have a big church and live a very comfortable life. There are plenty of guys who live a real nice life who don't preach nearly as well as I do. See, people don't support me just because I criticize the status quo. They support me because they know I have fought and sacrificed to fight. Say that I make mistakes, say that I make misjudgments, but I took a knife in the chest, so at least give me credit for being committed." How perfectly modern: Al Sharpton, the first virtual martyr.


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