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The Anti-Sharpton

Calvin Butts, Harlem’s Reverend Inside, thinks black New York needs new leaders. (Reverend Outside begs to differ.)


On a damp, dreary night when the fog rolling in off the Hudson River gave the village of Ossining, New York, the gauzy, eerie look of an old vampire movie, the Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts parked his Cadillac near the railroad tracks on the edge of town and got out carrying a well-worn, leather-covered bible. He took a deep breath, turned up the collar of his trench coat, and walked through the blue-black darkness toward the octagonal guard towers that loom over the front gates to Sing Sing.

Butts, who is pastor of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, had come to this notorious maximum-security prison where more than 600 people have been electrocuted (including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) to minister to a group of twenty prisoners. The men, who ranged in age from 20 to their mid-forties, had been convicted of crimes varying in severity from robbery to murder. What made these men unusual was that they were all working to turn their lives around: finishing college and even becoming seminary students while in prison.

Once inside Sing Sing’s decrepit check-in room, with its metal detector, stark fluorescent light, and thick iron bars, Butts, in a snappy brown suit, sea-blue shirt, and white pocket square, waited while his identification was verified. Standing amid the bulky, pasty-faced guards and a handful of people emptying their pockets as part of the security ritual to get into the 173-year-old prison, Butts looked around and began to shake his head gently from side to side. “This,” he said as his still-boyish face gave way to a broad smile, “is the work I was meant to do. This means something.”

Barely an hour before, as we began the trip to Sing Sing, driving along Lenox Avenue, across the Harlem River, past Yankee Stadium, and on up into Westchester, the pastor of the great Gothic fortress on 138th Street had been talking passionately about the other work he feels increasingly called to do: run for public office. In fact, his soul-searching about seeking a bigger pulpit is so well known, even the prisoners he visited that night asked him what’s up with politics, when is he going to become a candidate?

“It may be now that there’s some transition -- not away from the church because I’ll always want to preach -- but it may be that the Lord has prepared me for something else,” he said, filling the car with his sonorous voice. “I’ve wanted to be mayor of New York since the third grade. And I’d like to be a U.S. senator at some point. That’s very clear to me. But what you wanna be and what you need to be are two different things.”

The imperative to do something now, however, extends beyond strictly personal considerations. Butts knows there is a serious black-leadership vacuum in the city. In the post-Dinkins era, no one has yet stepped up (which is the only reason it’s still referred to as the post-Dinkins era). State comptroller Carl McCall, already 62, has shown no real interest in developing a higher profile. State Senator David Paterson seems to covet higher office but not quite enough to really go after it. C. Virginia Fields, the newly elected Manhattan borough president, so far seems by temperament more legislator than leader.

And despite the Reverend Al Sharpton’s showing against Ruth Messinger last year, serious questions remain about his potential to broaden his appeal. So when Butts, 48, looks at the political horizon -- say the Rudy-free mayor’s race in 2001 -- he surely sees as clear a field for a serious black contender as there may ever be. Whether the goal is City Hall or Charles Rangel’s congressional seat, this may be the optimal time for Butts to finally find out what kind of support he really has.

“He ought to be in government, because he’s a guy who likes to deliver and he could do it on a grander scale,” says veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Is it time for unusual kinds of political leaders like Calvin Butts who don’t come up through the normative channels? The answer is probably yes, because there’s a change going on in how we determine what makes a leader and what we expect from them. He’s very smart, and he shares the values of a lot of middle-class people.”

It’s easy to forget that Calvin Butts is the minister who once said then-mayor Koch was “worse than a racist”; who blasted David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel as “timid politicians” who “settle for crumbs”; and who snapped during a visit by Nelson Mandela in 1990 that New York was “one of the most racially divided cities in the world.”

Butts has come in from the cold. Where once he happily stood outside the system, tossing rhetorical cluster bombs, he now operates with significant grace and skill on the inside. He was a member of Governor Pataki’s transition team (Republican governor Pataki) and serves on the board of the Empire State Development Corporation. He lunches with Chase Manhattan chairman Walter Shipley. He’s partners with megadeveloper Bruce Ratner on a commercial project on 125th Street. He’s courted with parties and fund-raisers by wealthy socialites. He’s got a Sunday-morning radio show on KISS-FM. He’s on the board of the United Way and the Central Park Conservancy. He was recently chosen to head New York’s influential (and white-dominated) Council of Churches. And he counts among his close friends and advisers American Express president and COO Ken Chenault, Travelers Group vice-chairman Tom Jones, United Way president Ralph Dickerson, and Time Warner president Richard Parsons.

Not only is Butts the pastor of Abyssinian, the 190-year-old Harlem church that is a center of spiritual and intellectual activity for blacks from all over the tri-state area, but he is a reformer, an administrator, an organizer, and a developer. He has, through the Abyssinian Development Corporation, built millions of dollars worth of housing for homeless people, senior citizens, and moderate- and middle-income families. He is in the process of renovating and resuscitating the Renaissance Ballroom, once a locus of Harlem nightlife. And by the sheer force of his will, he has brought the first major commercial development to 125th Street in more than 30 years, a 53,000-square-foot Pathmark supermarket.

Now the once-militant minister, who’s had a longstanding friendship with C.Vernon Mason and who, along with several other Morehouse College students, tore up the streets and firebombed a store in Atlanta on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, believes he has built enough bridges, mended enough fences, and amassed enough of a record to demonstrate he is qualified even to run New York City.

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