Asked who was going to carry the torch for Harlem as the old political guard enters obsolescence, Governor David Paterson responded, as is his wont, with a joke.
As he walked out of a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at St. Bart’s church on 51st Street on March 17, Mr. Paterson told The Observer, “Somebody once wrote that you shouldn’t pity the community for wondering who its leaders are—you should pity the community that needs leaders.”
Mr. Paterson’s point was that the attention should be on Harlem’s problems, not its politicians.
But up there, right now, Topic A is David Paterson. And the conversation isn’t a happy one.
His improbable, fluky rise to the state’s top office one year ago came as Harlem’s longtime leaders neared the end of their careers, and as black populations and sway increased in the outer boroughs. If it wasn’t the dawning of a new era for the city’s traditional power center of black politics, Mr. Paterson’s ascendancy seemed, at least, to have staved off the dying of the light.
“People were elated,” said Bill Lynch, the city’s best-established black consultant, who is based
in Harlem and has advised Mr. Paterson.
The child of former State Senator Basil Paterson—who along with former Mayor David Dinkins, former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and Representative Charlie Rangel formed the legendary “Gang of Four” that ran Harlem politics for decades—Mr. Paterson was always an unlikely standard-bearer.
To avoid special-education classes for his visual impairment, he attended high school in Hempstead, not Harlem, before moving back uptown as a Columbia University student in the late 1970s. Even after he won election in 1985 to represent his father’s old Harlem district in the State Senate, he seized opportunities to distance himself from his father and the rest of the old guard, running without their approval and without their endorsement for public advocate, and then, again against their wishes, he left his post as Senate majority leader to run as Eliot Spitzer’s lieutenant governor.
Then the fates, acting through Mr. Spitzer’s libido, hoisted Mr. Paterson to the governor’s mansion. Harlem had found a new champion.
Except it hasn’t.
Mr. Paterson’s approval numbers are in the gutter and his administration has been a case study in chaos. Mr. Rangel and other old guard Harlem power brokers now sound eager, above all else, not to have Mr. Paterson’s problems reflect poorly on Harlem’s leadership as a whole.
Asked after a recent appearance at the Langston Hughes Auditorium of the Schomburg Center on 135th Street whether Mr. Paterson now represented political Harlem, Mr. Rangel, the reigning Harlem power broker and chairman of the House’s Ways and Means Committee, responded, “I don’t think so.”
“Because remember,” said Mr. Rangel, “Dave Paterson was a senator in the minority for most all of his political career and when things started changing. It changed so fast that he was hurtled into the actual political leadership, because he’s governor. But it’s not as though as senator he was that much more ahead of a Bill Perkins or Keith Wright.”
Mr. Rangel had just participated in a panel discussion with those Harlem assemblymen on how best to capitalize on federal stimulus money, during which he had spoken of “our great governor, David Paterson.”
Outside the auditorium, Mr. Rangel said the very idea of a torch-passing to Mr. Paterson was a false construct.
“I don’t think old-timers like me sit back and say, ‘Now which one of these will receive the torch?’” he said. “I don’t think Adam Powell was waiting for someone to come. I don’t think most communities do that. I don’t know whether they’re looking for a Bill Perkins, or Inez Dickens, or Keith Wright, but these are the leaders that we have in our community; I know our community’s looking for them.”
Then again, as charter members of Harlem’s political elite readily acknowledge, that community has changed.
“Look at the demographic shifts,” said Carl McCall, the former state comptroller who became the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002 after a botched primary challenge from Andrew Cuomo. “Harlem got the attention, because of its location in Manhattan, because of its access to the media. Harlem was always considered sort of a premier black community in the country, but now if you just look at the numbers, the only minority we are talking about running for mayor is Billy Thompson, and he’s from Brooklyn.”
“There are competent black people who hold office in many other boroughs,” said Mr. Dinkins. “It’s not limited to Harlem, as once was the case.”
Mr. Dinkins, who called himself “a friend and a fan of the governor” who he’s known “since birth,” challenged the notion that Mr. Paterson should even be thought of as a leader for Harlem.
“He holds a statewide office, and it is unfair or inaccurate to think of him only as a Harlem leader. He’s a whole lot bigger than that,” said Mr. Dinkins.
“When Governor Paterson was catapulted to the governorship, he, quote unquote, left Harlem as a representative,” said Mr. Lynch.
Before the March 13 panel began, attendees networked and talked about stimulus dollars over a spread of croissants, muffins, orange juice and coffee. A poster of Barack Obama in the corner of the lobby advertised an upcoming exhibit called “Becoming American: African Americans and American Politics.”
“He needs everybody’s support. If he doesn’t have everybody’s support, it’s not going to work,” said Martin Smith, who handed out cards describing himself as the Democratic Male District Leader of West Harlem.
Some Paterson supporters, like Geoffrey Eaton, an N.A.A.C.P. vice president, rallied behind the governor (“he is the leader and he’s going to lead”), but other attendees seemed ready to concede, regretfully, that Mr. Paterson was not going to be the answer to Harlem’s declining influence.
“I know his dad, I love him,” said Alvin Reed, the 69-year-old owner of the storied Lenox Lounge in Harlem. “But I don’t think it’s him.”
Mr. Reed, who has neat gray hair and wears black-framed glasses, picked at a bowl of fruit as he expressed some frustration that the same politicians, like Mr. Rangel, had held a stranglehold on power in Harlem for ages.
Asked who the future of black leadership in Harlem would be, Mr. Reed said, “That’s what everybody’s wondering.”
The organizers of the meeting called everyone into the auditorium (“any seat after row four is yours, baby”), and Mr. Rangel made his grand entrance, squeezing palms with one hand and holding a white Styrofoam cup of coffee with the other. Leaning against the stage, Councilwoman Inez Dickens said Mr. Paterson’s ascent had surprised everyone.
“Who knew what happened was going to happen?” she said.
She said that she fully supported the governor, who, she said, had inherited an awfully tough economic situation. She said it was no more clear now who would emerge as the next recognized leader of Harlem than it had been in the 1960s, when “it was not clear” that Mr. Rangel, Mr. Dinkins, Mr. Sutton and Basil Paterson were amassing power and influence.
What was known, she said, was that “they were young, they were ambitious.”
Down the block, outdoor furniture had started appearing on the balconies of the sprawling Lenox Terrace luxury apartments, where Mr. Rangel, Mr. Paterson, his father, Basil Paterson, the former Borough President Percy Sutton and several other Harlem leaders have residences (some at particularly low rents). A plaque honoring Marcus Garvey, for whom Mr. Paterson’s paternal grandmother worked as a secretary, was mounted next to the front doors of the complex’s Devonshire apartments, where uniformed doormen bid good day to the people coming and going.
Bill Jackson, a longtime resident, returned home carrying a Daily News and wearing a beat-up Yankees cap. He said that he could see “some type of power shift” happening away from Harlem and expressed disappointment that Mr. Paterson’s popularity “took a dive” after the senate selection process, which he called “horrible.”
The governor, he said, had “gotten caught up in the power stream.”
As far as identifying a new leader for Harlem, he said, “I can’t think of anyone who comes to mind on the state level.”
Further down on Lenox Avenue, regulars and tourists and political operatives sat down for breakfast at Sylvia’s, surrounded by framed and aged photos of Mr. Rangel, Mr. Dinkins and other members of the old Harlem leadership. At the front counter, Raymond James, a 47-year-old corrections officer wearing a wool hat pulled down to his ears, ate a plate of salmon cakes and scrambled eggs.
Mr. James, who lives in Harlem, said he liked Mr. Paterson but noted that he held his current position because of an “accident,” and offered that he didn’t think the governor was up to the job.
“I think he’s trying to be fair,” Mr. James said, “but Carl McCall might have been better because he was more mature.”
Still, Mr. James said, the field was wide open for the next wave of Harlem leadership, because the old guard was about done.
“Rangel’s on his way out,” he said.
Or maybe the idea of any sort of cohesive political “Harlem” is already an anachronism. Certainly, that’s the reality that leading black officials from the more demographically significant outer boroughs are already operating under.
“As far as culture, as far as being historic in nature, Harlem will always play that role, but as for black politics, black politics is different than what it was,” said Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens. “Harlem is not going to have a Gang of Four anymore, just for Harlem. Those days are over. If there is going to be a gang of anything, it’s going to be multi-borough.”
Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn agreed.
“In the black community, you see more coalition-building as opposed to one particular power center,” said Ms. Clarke over coffee at a midtown deli. “There is a changing of the guard.”
At a press event on the morning of March 16 to highlight the completed renovation of the South Ferry Terminal station, dozens of television cameramen and still photographers squeezed like rush-hour commuters into a car of the No. 1 train and took pictures of Governor David Paterson, who stood silently in front of a subway map, waiting for the maiden voyage from the revamped station to begin.
Councilman Alan Gerson, who had a staked out a spot nearby, broke the silence by suggesting that the governor, instead of exiting after the photo op one stop later, ride all the way uptown “for old time’s sake.”
Mr. Paterson broke out with a smile.
“There we go!” he said.
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