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

As Rep. Charles Rangel and Gov. David Paterson weathered allegations of misconduct last week, the news was shocking and disappointing to Harlem residents.
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

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?"

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company