One of the better cases for Harlem political continuity sits upstairs, in an office on the ninth floor. Keith Wright isn’t a visionary. But he has seen a lot of politics in his 55 years. A state assemblyman since 1992 and the leader of Manhattan’s Democrats since last year, Wright also comes from Harlem royalty, though with a twist. His father, Bruce, was a judge, an intellectual, and a fiercely combative man—qualities that earned him the nickname “Turn ’Em Loose Bruce” from conservative critics. Growing up in that household—and riding a bus to the Ethical Culture School with future powers like Patti Harris, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief lieutenant, and Nicole Seligman, a corporate lawyer and Joel Klein’s wife—provided Wright with an early education in Realpolitik. “My father was one of the only judges who was not a member of a party,” he says. “But he was Percy Sutton’s lawyer, and Percy said, ‘I can’t pay you, Bruce, but I’m gonna make you a judge. But before I make you a judge, I have to make my brother a judge.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Wright, who recently steered a domestic-workers’-rights bill into state law, has decorated nearly every inch of his office’s walls with plaques and photographs. One stands out, a black-and-white shot of five grinning young men in a restaurant: David Paterson, Scott Stringer (who’s white), Adam Clayton Powell IV, Geoffrey Garfield, and Wright. It was 1992, and they’d gathered in an Upper West Side Greek restaurant to plot Stringer’s run for the State Assembly. The relationships have grown considerably more complicated in the eighteen years since then. “That picture was taken before Keith went over to the dark side,” Powell says. “He’s a nice guy personally, but the insiders are trying to manipulate the process so Rangel wins this fall and then hands the job to Keith.” Wright dismisses the conspiracy theorizing as the desperation tactics of a long-shot candidate. “Adam ran against Charlie in ’94, got his clock cleaned, and I suspect the same thing will happen this time.”
Among the declared rivals to Rangel is Vince Morgan, a 41-year-old community banker and former aide to Rangel who grew up in Chicago and is a cousin of Harold Ford Jr. Morgan argues that Rangel is out of touch with Harlem’s grassroots concerns about education, jobs, and housing. “Over 40 years, there’s a wider and wider chasm between the people of the district and their representative in Washington,” Morgan says. “We have a tendency in our community to wait for the retirement service or the memorial service to start planning for the future. I don’t want to put the people of this district in harm’s way because Mr. Rangel’s ego is keeping him in office a little bit too long.”
Wright is willing to wait for Rangel to step aside. He claims that the old order, with new blood, can maintain Harlem’s distinctive power while delivering wider benefit. “The so-called demise of the Harlem political Establishment—I think that’s coming from other places,” Wright says. “The black elected officials from Brooklyn are always envious of Harlem, because they have more black folks out there but Harlem gets all the ink. Politics is not glamorous, and it’s still a chess game, and you need a sense of history—of Harlem’s history—to succeed at it for people here. I don’t think a lot of the younger folks have the patience to learn the game or an appreciation of what Harlem still means to black America.”
Increasingly it means nostalgia. Rangel’s district was 63 percent black when he was first elected; today it’s 37 percent black and 46 percent Hispanic. “Bensonhurst ain’t Bensonhurst anymore, and guess what? Harlem ain’t Harlem anymore, either,” says the Reverend Al Sharpton, who made the neighborhood his base of operations twenty years ago and is still resented as an interloper by many of the clubhouse stalwarts. “But a lot of Harlem politicians are just trying to hold on to something that’s not there anymore,” Sharpton says. “Somebody that puts together the new blacks and the Latinos and the whites is going to be able to flip the whole Harlem leadership.”
In Harlem, even the choice of lunch spot is political. Basil Smikle has picked Londel’s because the chicken wings and the crab cakes are terrific—but also because Londel’s isn’t Sylvia’s, the tourist attraction and bastion of old Harlem. A political junkie from the time he was growing up in the Bronx, Smikle graduated from Cornell, went to work for the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, and moved to Harlem while studying for a master’s at Columbia. After stints working for Ferrer and Hillary Clinton, Smikle set up shop as a political consultant, and last year he became one of the legions hired to help Mike Bloomberg win a third term.