That professional pedigree, of course, isn’t what Candidate Smikle wants to emphasize. “My parents came here in 1970 from Jamaica,” he says, “and my father worked multiple jobs; there was a time we were on public assistance. It was never easy. So while I have this blue-chip education, I don’t have a blue-chip background. Both of those will be beneficial in making my case to voters, and in the kind of public official I’d be.”
His opponent, Bill Perkins, is a favorite of the teachers union and has been highly skeptical of the wave of charter schools opening in Harlem. Smikle’s campaign has enjoyed donations from some of the biggest charter-school operators, but he’s eager to insist he isn’t a one-issue wonder. “Look, charters are the galvanizing issue in Harlem, and clearly people are taking sides, but it’s not the only issue,” Smikle says. “The charters, because of my position on them, I’ve immediately lost the majority of union support. And it’s unfortunate. Because I’ve supported unions all my career, my parents are union members—one of them still is; my mother’s been a UFT member for 26 years.”
Smikle sees his candidacy in grander terms than spats over school reform. “I’m not Barack, and I’m not Cory Booker, but in many ways this is the same race,” Smikle says. “The same race, but in Harlem. I’m going to be painted as an outsider, as the guy who spends most of his time around white folks and big money—which is not true, but whatever. And you know what? The majority of the new residents of Harlem have the same type of socialization.”
Kevin Wardally has heard this kind of talk before. “We call it the ‘young, gifted, and black’ syndrome,” he says with a sly smile. “People from our community get an opportunity, go to Harvard or Yale, then come back to Harlem and say, ‘You know what? I should be congressman because I’m smart and I went to Yale Law and I worked on Wall Street for a couple of years. I know more than the guys in these seats, and I should run.’ ” Wardally shakes his head. “But those folks didn’t win.”
Wardally knows plenty about the realities of winning. He has been Bill Lynch’s right-hand man for ten years, though his roots in Harlem politics run far deeper. “Bill’s wife was my kindergarten teacher, and my mother was a community organizer who was close to Dorothy Height during the Poor People’s Campaign,” he says. At 38, Wardally is of Smikle’s generation, and they’ve been friendly for years. But Wardally is of a different vintage when it comes to his political worldview. “Look, I come from the clubhouse model: I’ve been a member of a political club since I was 14 years old,” he says, sitting his office, one block up the street from Sylvia’s. “And maybe one day I’ll be wrong. But these people who think that Charlie and everybody else has gotta go forget that the machine helps people’s lives. I sat at the front desk when I worked in Charlie’s office, and I got people’s lights turned back on. And got their heat turned back on. When people had problems with food stamps and immigration, we helped them. These folks out here are not an organizing tool for you to get into office. That’s why these new guys always lose.”
Wardally’s mission now is not just to give Rangel another term in Congress but to restore Rangel’s reputation. He’s especially incensed by a 2008 Post front-page photo that showed the portly congressman asleep on a beach chair. “It’s sad. There’s no criminality here—clearly no criminality—it’s more paperwork than anything else,” Wardally says about the ethics accusations against Rangel. “Yet when folks go home to their low-income housing, they’re not going to remember to thank Charlie Rangel, but they’re going to remember a picture of him on a beach because a bastard reporter chose to take a picture. He can’t have a vacation like everyone else can?”
Rangel has consistently denied any wrongdoing. He bristles at mentions of the ethics investigation, pointing out—correctly—that much of the fuss was fomented by a conservative group. “I stepped aside [as Ways and Means chair] because Republicans were making Rangel the issue instead of dealing with health care,” he says. Yet he compounded the trouble with risible explanations of his failure to pay federal taxes on a Caribbean villa. More disturbing are allegations that he solicited donations to CCNY’s Rangel Center for Public Service from an oil company lobbying for a tax break.
Plenty of other politicians would have enriched themselves far more during a 40-year career, and Rangel rejects any parallel to his predecessor’s scandals. “I don’t see it the same way,” he says. “There is a comparison, that Adam was under severe attack by the newspapers, but he contributed to that by staying away from the Congress and the community. So I don’t think I am as vulnerable as Adam was, but I tell you one thing, I’m making clear that I’m not going to be caught unprepared, and I am preparing for the roughest type of campaign.”
The dean of New York’s congressional delegation will get his retirement, forced or voluntary, soon enough. The machine Charlie Rangel helped run is also coming to a fitful end, having opened up educational and economic doors for the new class of eager young leaders who don’t feel the need to follow the traditional paths. “This is what they wanted us to be,” Basil Smikle says. “They wanted to see us in corporate America, having opportunities. All we’re saying is we want to come back and find a way to be helpful.” Which is a nice sentiment and a worthy goal. Harlem’s political old guard, for all its imperfections, delivered more than simply good intentions.