Ethics clouds over Rangel and Paterson are the talk of political Harlem

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; A01

NEW YORK -- Few will deny that the political landscape here in Harlem has yielded rich and galvanizing story lines. The arcs of those narratives have been taught and shared in classrooms across America.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Charles B. Rangel became chairmen of powerful congressional committees. David N. Dinkins became the first black mayor of New York City, and David A. Paterson became the state's first black governor. Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson, David's father, became genuine power brokers, rolling between downtown and uptown with a sophisticated ease. The accomplishments gave Harlem a swagger and also a sweet pride.

Then came last week.

In what seemed like a double-barreled whammy of political shock and setback, Rangel stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee because of an ongoing ethics investigation and Paterson's reign took on a tick-tock, tick-tock echo as many -- supporters and foes alike -- called for his resignation because of allegations that he interceded on behalf of a staffer in a domestic abuse case and accepted free tickets to a baseball game.

"I think it's been catastrophic for the black community in America and particularly in Harlem," said Bill Lynch, a political consultant who played a major role in Dinkins's historic 1989 election victory. "Harlem's seeing their political favorite sons go down. And what I'm worried about is that this could set our community back decades."

One could roam around the wind-whipped avenues and boulevards of Harlem in the wake of it all and sense a grave uncertainty about the political future. Emotions ranged from shame to embarrassment to pity. From stoop to street corner, from office tower to diner, from living room to the famed Showman's Cafe, the mood was alternately one of anger, defiance and soul-searching.

"Republicans may have gone too damn far, and people are looking at this," said Inez E. Dickens, a City Council member who represents Harlem. Her father, Lloyd Dickens, had backed political candidates going back to the days of Powell. Dickens was sitting in her living room one afternoon fielding calls from constituents worried about the fates of Rangel and Paterson. To yet another caller: "Honey, I hear you. Write those letters! The congressman needs you now more than ever."

'They are Harlem'

It was in 1941 when the young New York minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr., with several aides in tow, made a pilgrimage to Albany to convince Gov. Herbert H. Lehman of the need to carve out a tight congressional district for the black residents of Harlem. The move played out beautifully for Powell, who became the first black congressman from the Northeast when he won election in 1944. Just as important, it began the mobilization of the community as a political force.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a coterie of figures -- Rangel, Dinkins and Sutton, among them -- had won election to the State Assembly. They served their apprenticeships in Albany but cut their political teeth in the competitive political clubhouses of Harlem. The community was truly on its way to deepening its political influence.

By the time Rangel had ascended to his chairmanship, and Paterson took over for Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer -- who was forced to resign the governorship after revelations that he had been cavorting with call girls -- Harlemites also felt they could stem the black political flowering in Brooklyn that had been taking place for years. The black and Caribbean population there is larger than Harlem's population.

"When you talk about Rangel and Paterson, well, they are Harlem," said Denise Williams, a 54-year-old who is unemployed, and suffering from a disability. She was on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, leaning on her cane. "And now they want Paterson to go. For what? A few baseball tickets?" She huffs. "Now, I am mad at him for the domestic-abuse story. Because he's been on top of domestic abuse for more than a minute."

She scans the street and says what many have been saying for years: Harlem is more multicultural than ever. The gentrification alarms her and some others. "Ever since Clinton came to Harlem," she said about the former president, who has an office on 125th Street, "the well-to-do have taken over. I loves me some Clinton. Cotton comes to Harlem. But where does all this leave the rest of us -- especially if Rangel and Paterson leave?"

The young haberdasher at B. Oyama was expecting a visitor last week. It's where Paterson shops. (He didn't show.) "So many people were looking for Paterson to be a hero," said Damien Brown, 20. "People wanted to see him have a long and successful career. It's all so shocking. Why is it that it's always the people who are closest to you who will bring you down?"

Not far away, at her own shop, Montgomery Harris was folding pieces of her elegant clothing, some of which are vintage. She has a picture she shows of Rangel, Basil Paterson, Sutton and Dinkins when they were young and on the march in Harlem. The scandals have unnerved her.

"It has created a situation where our black leaders have lost credibility," she said. "And credibility on things that make them seem like nickel-and-dime thieves. When you weigh it against the kind of power they had, it's sad. Rangel sat with King and Malcolm X. How could you be present for that and fall so short now? You had clear blueprints. Who and what will replace them is really the concern for the future."

There are white linens on the tables at Laila Najieb's nearby Tea & Things of That Kind. "It's so easy to fall from grace now," she said. "There's no middle floor. You are up high and then you just fall to the ground."

'Actually quite selfless'

Lloyd Williams has known both Charlie Rangel and David Paterson for years; Sutton was his godfather. Williams worked in banking before joining the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, of which he is now president. He spent a good part of last week shuttling in and out of meetings where the discussions revolved around Rangel and Paterson. Williams himself had been in the Caribbean with Rangel, whose sojourn there has come under intense congressional scrutiny.

"No one has said, 'Can we look at Charlie's itinerary while in the Caribbean?' " said Williams, sitting in a conference room at chamber headquarters. "I had a problem with Charlie down there because he didn't take any breaks. Okay, that picture of him on the beach: They called him a whale! The things they say about people of color."

He goes on: "When we were in the Caribbean, Charlie would come in at 11 at night and be up at 8 in the morning for a meeting, then have another meeting at 11, then do a working lunch at noon. Then a early dinner and more work. Then a reception at night. That was his day."

Williams fears there will be those eager to tarnish Rangel's legacy as he has come under siege, citing the congressman's involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, the Congressional Black Caucus, and closing the technology gap with inner cities. "In Brazil they know Charlie Rangel. In East St. Louis they know Charlie Rangel. Despite what people think, he is in a different universe than David Paterson."

It is not lost on Williams that the political dynamic of Harlem has been shifting in recent years to Brooklyn. "We are going into a different era," Williams concedes. "When an era ends, something else comes up. We don't have Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis now. Someone replaces them. You have Anthony Hamilton. You have Wynton Marsalis. When Adam Clayton Powell Jr. fell, people said it was the end of an era."

The Powell saga has been on the lips of many here this past week.

The congressman rose to chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and was a major force in President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. But he was stripped of his chairmanship in 1967 and eventually refused his seat due to ethics violations. Powell took his ouster to the Supreme Court, which, in a major ruling, declared the House had wrongly ousted him. Powell eventually returned to Congress, but without his powerful chairmanship. Rangel defeated him in 1970.

Staffers proclaim Rangel to be upbeat. He was talking to producers of the Jay Leno show late last week about making an appearance. "Why not?" said Emile Milne, a Rangel aide. "Let him go and talk and explain himself."

The congressman is on the phone. "Every since I thought I was going to die in the Korean War, I promised God I would never complain about anything," Rangel said. "When I lost my brother, then my mother, I wanted to complain but didn't."

He shifted more forcefully to the investigation. "I believe I'll be exonerated. Now, is all this embarrassing? You bet your [expletive] it is. But I'm still on the Ways and Means Committee. I still will be working for jobs, jobs, jobs, for the people of America and the people of Harlem. I'm not just some guy off Lenox Avenue talking about health care. I've got 40 years in Congress. People say to me, 'Why'd you step down from the chairmanship, Charlie?' Well, my colleagues think it's actually quite selfless. I don't want them fighting over my chair while they're trying to get reelected."

'We will tell people'

In Harlem, it could well be the summer of the long political knives. The hubbub in the Democratic clubhouses here is that someone will emerge to take on Rangel. Dickens, the councilwoman, is a leader of the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club. She vows total support for Rangel but is also a realist.

"There will be opportunists" who might run against Rangel, she said. "They don't have the guts to stand up for him. Don't forget Charlie campaigned for a lot of Democrats around this country and helped them get into office."

Dickens wonders whether Rangel's political skills are being underestimated. "Charlie Rangel came off the streets of Lenox Avenue. He knows how to fight. Let me tell you something: The people in the clubhouses are talking about Adam Clayton Powell Jr. a lot, making comparisons to him and what's happening to Charlie. People in Harlem feel that when Rangel is attacked, they are attacked."

Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV -- son of the congressman -- has squared off against Rangel before, suffering an ignominious defeat. He has not ruled out another run at Rangel, but the latest developments have him feeling a twinge of sympathy for the veteran congressman. Powell suffered his own spotlight tumult in 2004 when two women, at separate times, accused him of rape. One woman recanted her story, and the district attorney declined to bring charges in the other incident.

"The mentality out there is relentless against politicians," Powell said. "If they indict Paterson, some will feel it still is not enough, and they will want to behead him. The whole concept of being innocent until proven guilty has gone down the drain."

One of the old lions of Harlem remains hopeful. "I think the people of Harlem are resilient and will rebound no matter what," said Dinkins, the former mayor. "I'm not satisfied that people can sound the death knell on Rangel and Paterson just yet. Harlem is such a special place."

Bill Lynch -- Dinkins's former wizard, who is determined to keep Harlem politically relevant -- feels confident he can summon some of the old magic to at least save Rangel.

"Our strategy as we run his campaign will be simple," Lynch said of Rangel. "We will tell people what he's done. He's been responsible for bringing a billion dollars a year into New York since he's been chairman. We're going to get that message out on every street corner. Let me be clear: I believe we can win in the fall. We're going to run like insurgents. And we'll crush anyone who runs against us."

The wizard would not offer any forecast about Paterson's fate.

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