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Knocking on Harlem's Door

As Charlie Rangel struggles, a new generation of insurgents is jockeying for position.


From left, The New Blood, Basil Smikle; The New Old Guard, Keith Wright; The Challenger, Vince Morgan.  

It’s a campaign-kickoff rally straight out of the playbook: festive red-white-and-blue posters, lapel buttons featuring the smiling candidate, a soundtrack of upbeat and strenuously unobjectionable tunes. Yet the prevailing feeling is of a living museum, a walking and talking historical diorama. Partly that’s because of the setting, a college campus’s courtyard flanked by gray, somber Beaux Arts slabs. Looming at the top of the exterior wall is a ribbon of chiseled names from the ancient explorers’ hall of fame—MAGELLAN, COLUMBUS, MARCO POLO, PTOLEMY—and of storied Native American tribes—ALGONQUIN, IROQUOIS, SIOUX.

What truly establishes the out-of-time vibe, however, is the composition of the crowd, a parade of Democrats past (Denny Farrell, Freddy Ferrer, C. Virginia Fields), present (Governor David Paterson), and eternal: Charlie Rangel, who, while closing in on his 80th birthday, is here to officially announce his run for a 21st term in Congress. “Let’s give Charlie Rangel one more term!” booms the master of ceremonies, State Assemblyman Keith Wright—who then pauses awkwardly, seeming to realize that he’s hinted at Rangel’s retirement. “He can have as many as he wants, as far as I’m concerned!” Wright shouts more loudly.

Yet even in this show of force and confidence by the uptown political Establishment are hints of the changes shaking their world. First is the location: Though Rangel is the dean of black city politics, he’s come to Boricua College in Washington Heights, one of the fast-growing Latino sections of his district. The second, more subtle sign comes when Rangel ends his rambling, combative speech and calls for all the elected officials and Democratic functionaries to join him onstage. It makes for a happy, crowded photo—and leaves about 25 lonely people in the audience, mostly reporters and small children.

And Basil Smikle. Throughout the rally, Smikle’s hovered at the edge of the crowd, smiling and shaking hands; a political consultant and adjunct Columbia professor, he is now a candidate for the State Senate, running against incumbent Democrat Bill Perkins, who has become the prime target of Harlem’s charter-school backers. Yet Smikle also represents a challenge to Rangel and the rest of the Harlem Establishment. He is 38 and was educated in the Ivy League, not the neighborhood clubhouses. Rangel—resplendent in a white sport coat and matching blue tie and pocket square, with a gold pin cinching his collar—arrived today by Town Car. Smikle wears a navy pin-striped suit with no tie and travels by motorcycle.

Smikle is hardly a radical. He has spent his entire adult life working as a strategist for mainstream New York Democrats. Yet Smikle can credibly claim to be an “insurgent,” which is a testament to the insularity of the old guard he’s threatening and to the new forces roiling the Harlem political order. “This uneasiness in Harlem comes because [the old guard] hasn’t passed the torch, and so now, people are trying to seize it,” Smikle told me earlier. “They’re saying, ‘You gotta wait your turn.’ No, I don’t want to wait my turn. Did you tell that to Barack? Did he wait his turn? We can do it whether they say so or not.”

That boldness is also a distant echo of the man whom Charlie Rangel beat to get into Congress, the man who launched the Harlem political epic more than 60 years ago.

The end of an era has been declared repeatedly ever since the death, in December, of Harlem political patriarch Percy Sutton and the political demise of Governor Paterson this winter. Yet the more accurate, and complex, tale is an unfinished one. It starts in 1944, when a brilliant, singular personality, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., became the first person elected to represent a congressional district created to empower central Harlem. By 1970, Powell was sick with cancer and brooding on a Caribbean island, and was knocked off by Charlie Rangel, who has become the consummate Washington insider, steering tens of millions of dollars to the district and making Harlem a force in city elections. Now, though, in an echo of the financial and legal messes that brought down Powell, an ethics investigation has forced Rangel to give up his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee; last week, a congressional panel accused him of multiple ethics violations.

Racial politics in New York and nationally have shifted to the point where the machine model that served Rangel so well has grown creaky. No one knows what the new order will look like, but the struggle to define it is under way in the cradle of black politics. The battle isn’t simply to follow Rangel in Congress—the district’s next congressman could as easily be white or Latino as black—but to determine what style of politics will control Harlem in the future: a revitalized, updated clubhouse, a reform movement in the Obama mold, or perhaps something in nobody’s mold, like the freewheeling pioneer who’s the father of Harlem politics.


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