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Knocking on Harlem's Door

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The Original, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1965.  

Another signature Rangel accomplishment, the low-income-housing tax credit, has helped rehabilitate and develop thousands of units of inexpensive housing, not just in Harlem but also across the country. Yet today many longtime Harlem residents complain bitterly about gentrification and the explosion in rents and housing prices, while the local public schools continue to lag. To critics, the Gang of Four seems to have existed merely to perpetuate its own power. Fuchs takes a broader view. “They came out of the civil-rights era, and their elections in and of themselves were significant,” she says. “Then they had to deal with the basic decline of the American city and the concentration of poverty in black and low-income neighborhoods. When politics was about trying to get federal and state dollars, these guys fought as hard as anybody. David Dinkins is responsible for the beginning of the reduction in crime, and when the tide starts to turn, these four guys were there making sure investment came to Harlem. There was something in Harlem to rebuild and redevelop because of these guys; in a lot of neighborhoods, there’s nothing. In the periods of positive transformation, Harlem is the center. It’s not Brownsville or Bed-Stuy or Melrose. People still want to put their money and their ideas to work in Harlem, and they deserve credit for that.”

“They’re saying, ‘You gotta wait your turn,’ ” says Basil Smikle. “No, I don’t want to wait my turn. Did you tell that to Barack? Did he wait his turn?”

The gang’s also displayed a genius for containing intramural disputes. “What’s been characteristic of the Rangel-Sutton dynasty years—and was more Percy’s achievement than anybody else’s—is teamwork, instead of the divisions of the Powell years,” Rodney Capel says. Capel, a political consultant, straddles the old- and new-guard camps. His father is Rangel’s longtime chief of staff, and he is a close friend of Smikle’s. Capel, 38, has had a prime vantage point on the downside of the gang’s concentration of power: that it stifled a generation of aspiring leaders. “The biggest thing you’re seeing now,” Capel says, “is that unity breaking up. Everyone’s doing their own thing. Everyone’s shooting at each other, and it’s uncharacteristic of what we’ve seen for twenty years.”

Harlem’s second-generation black politicians have struggled mightily with their inheritance. David Paterson, who alternately embraced and spurned the Gang of Four’s help on his rise through the State Legislature, gained statewide office by defying his elders’ wishes and accepting a spot as Eliot Spitzer’s lieutenant governor. When Paterson was stunningly elevated to governor, the office Paterson’s father once seemed destined to occupy, he had another chance to make them all proud—and instead stumbled so badly that he was forced to quit the 2010 race for governor.

Paterson, as a lame duck, has rebounded somewhat by getting tough on the state budget. Adam Clayton Powell IV is still searching for redemption. Powell IV, also known as Adamcito, is the son of Powell Jr. and his third wife, who was Puerto Rican. One afternoon this summer, Powell IV is in his State Assembly district office, on East 116th Street, but he wants to talk about his quest to unseat Rangel. Election rules require keeping campaign business separate from his day job representing East Harlem in Albany, so he leads the way out onto the sidewalk, five paces down the street, then up two narrow, twisting flights of stairs. Here is the Powell for Congress campaign office: a card table and a couple of folding chairs.

It’s always good to pay attention to the arcana of election law, and Powell has a particular sensitivity to judicial details. In 2004, he was accused of rape by two different women; no charges were filed. In 2008, he was arrested on the West Side Highway and charged with drunk driving. Earlier this year, a jury acquitted him of driving while intoxicated but found him guilty of driving while impaired.

Now Powell, 48, has declared the fight of his life, a bid not simply to move up in electoral prestige but to avenge the loss that ended his legendary father’s political career. The stakes are significant, the story lines rich. But IV seems, well, kind of bored. “I represent the people, not the clubhouse,” he says languidly. “There’s something else important at play here. Rangel is not asking for people’s votes for the next two years. There’s rampant speculation he’s trying to win and then manipulate the process to choose his successor.” Speculation? Can he back it up with any specifics? “Everyone is talking about it,” he says. “Everyone knows.”

Several blocks northwest of the campaign office is a statue of Powell’s father, depicted as he strides gallantly forward, a bronze coat billowing behind. It’s in the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office building, where for months the sculpture was hidden behind plywood to protect it from repair work on the drab building.


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