He rides a motorcycle, has a degree from Columbia University, and sometimes wears a purple suit.
And he wants to represent Harlem.
Basil Smikle, 38, an experienced political operative whose clients have included Hillary Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Fernando Ferrer, has formally announced he’s challenging state Senator Bill Perkins, a fellow Democrat. Perkins is a longtime district leader and former City Council member who has been in the state Legislature since 2006. Recently Perkins has emerged as the most vocal opponent of lifting the cap on the number of charter schools the state can open, incurring the wrath of Bloomberg and some education activists.
Into the fray comes Smikle, an Ivy-League-educated young professional who is openly raising questions about whether the black political establishment is ready to embrace a new kind of politician.
On a recent Friday, Smikle was sitting at the bar in Londel’s on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where the walls are covered with black-and-white photographs of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.
“I think this race will mirror Cory Booker’s,” said Smikle, referring to the young, Ivy-League-educated African-American who succeded Sharpe James as the mayor of Newark. James is part of the old guard, rising to prominence in New Jersey in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
The first time Booker challenged James, according to the portrayal of the race in a documentary, Booker’s supporters were bullied, police acted as James’ enforcers, and Booker’s videographers were prevented from filming public events. But by the next election, James was plagued by a series of embarrassing accusations about criminal and unethical behavior, and Booker took the race.
The state Senate district Smikle is hoping to represent is in the heart Harlem, and has been the anchor of New York’s black political establishment. The city’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins, was a member of what became a powerful coalition in Harlem. The dean of New York’s congressional delegation, Charlie Rangel, who until recently was the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, was another member of the group, as was Basil Paterson, father of Governor David Paterson. Before he became Eliot Spitzer’s lieutenant governor the younger Paterson was, for two decades, the state senator from Harlem.
Smikle openly acknowledges that he will campaign largely on the issue of charter schools, which he supports. That in itself implies that Bloomberg will be supportive–directly or indirectly.
It’s also in Smikle’s favor that despite Perkins’ long years of service, he’s recently alienated many of his Democratic colleagues. He openly flirted with the idea of running for Congress when Rangel’s fate was unclear (due to alleged ethical problems), and he called for Paterson to step down as governor immediately after The New York Times reported that state police interfered with a case brought by a domestic violence victim seeking protection from one of Paterson’s top aides.
Smikle said he’s confident a majority of voters in the district support charter schools, and by extension will support him. But he acknowledges another issue may work against him.
“In the first race against Sharpe James, he [Booker] was painted as this outsider who had all these white friends, and white people wanted him, [but] black people–Sharpe claimed that he had no connection to the black community,” Smikle recalled. “I think this race is going to be very much like that.”
“And,” he said, “I think what is going to happen is people are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s an outsider, he has all these relationships, he doesn’t really care about us.’ Really? I lived here for 16 years. I go to Ralph & Sons barbers. His son used to cut my hair, but his son left, so I go to his son down the block. I’m at Londels all the time. I got to the gym on 125th street. This is my home.”
“I’ve had an apartment and gotten robbed in this neighborhood, and I’m still here,” Smikle said for good measure, pounding his palm against the bar’s wooden counter. “My apartment got burglarized twice in a week, and I’m still here. Yeah, it was when I first moved here. I bought some things to replace what was stolen and they came and took that.
And of course, Smikle says, there’s the president.
“If you look Barack’s initial support among African Americans,” Smikle said, it was among people who were “generally higher educated with higher income. If you remember, a lot of the older African-Americans that were solidly behind Hillary Clinton called him elitist. ‘The guy is not really black.’ In some ways, I understand that. Interestingly, Cory, because he won, has turned people away from that. Barack, in his winning, has turned people away from that, and now he’s a legend. I’m not them, but I wonder, if and when New York has that moment, maybe this race is that moment.”