Harlem Losing Its Place As Center Of Black Politics

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From the New York Times:

For decades, Harlem has been the lodestar of black politics in New York City and beyond. From Harlem came the city’s first black mayor, David N. Dinkins, the state’s first black governor, David A. Paterson, and generations of other influential black politicians and operatives. To Harlem went presidential aspirants and other future stars of the Democratic Party, eager to pay homage and seek blessings.

But now the once-vaunted Harlem political machine is on the verge of collapse. After 19 tumultuous months in office, Mr. Paterson has been urged by White House aides to abandon next year’s election, a potentially mortal blow to the already embattled governor.

RELATED: Harlem Congressman Rangel Forgot To Pay His Taxes

Charles B. Rangel, Harlem’s elder statesman and congressman for 40 years, has been weakened by investigations into his unpaid taxes, unreported income and other ethical lapses; last week, House Republicans tried to remove him from the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee

Nationally, Harlem is increasingly eclipsed by Chicago, the home base of President Obama and much of his inner circle, while the power Mr. Rangel and others once wielded in New York City affairs is rapidly dispersing to Brooklyn and Queens, home to a younger generation of elected officials eager to assert themselves. If Mr. Paterson goes, some black leaders say, the Harlem machine goes with him.

“Harlem was a pretty considerable political dynasty that is now on life support,” said Hakeem Jeffries, a freshman assemblyman from Brooklyn. “It will probably never be replaced, and I don’t think it should be.”

Few could deny the power of Harlem in its heyday. After Mr. Rangel was elected to Congress in 1970, the so-called Harlem Clubhouse — a fraternity with Mr. Rangel, Mr. Dinkins, Percy E. Sutton and Basil A. Paterson, the governor’s father, at its center — racked up a formidable record of firsts. Besides Mr. Dinkins and the Patersons, H. Carl McCall, Boston-born but Harlem-groomed, became the first African-American to fill a statewide elected office when he became state comptroller. Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr. became New York’s first black state Democratic Party chairman in 2001.

But while Harlem and its voters remain influential, Governor Paterson and Mr. Rangel have few heirs. The president pro tem of the State Senate, Malcolm A. Smith, is a product of southeast Queens. His likely successor, John L. Sampson, the Democratic leader in the Senate, hails from central Brooklyn, part of a close-knit group of younger black lawmakers with overlapping districts and ambitions. The party’s standard-bearer in this year’s New York mayoral race, William C. Thompson Jr., is also from Brooklyn, as is the chairman of Albany’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, Assemblyman Darryl C. Towns.

“When Paterson leaves, I don’t see a statewide elected official coming from Harlem for at least 20 years,” said one black political consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to cause trouble for his clients. “I think the next black mayor will come from the Bronx or Brooklyn. It’s almost like they’re starting from scratch in Harlem.”

Some say the decline of Harlem as a political force began in 2002, when Mr. McCall, the Democratic candidate for governor, won less than a third of the vote in a three-way race. For others, the signal moment was the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, when Mr. Rangel — along with most elected officials in the state — threw his support behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, then New York’s junior senator. Joining him was Mr. Paterson, who campaigned for Mrs. Clinton in Iowa.

Relatively few older black elected officials believed that Mr. Obama had a chance of winning. They also saw little upside to crossing Mrs. Clinton, a powerful figure in the state.

RELATED: Harlem Protesters Say American Apparel Disrespected Malcolm X

“That was gut-check time for everybody,” said Mr. Jeffries, one of a handful of lawmakers, mostly from Brooklyn and Queens, who backed Mr. Obama. “No one believed that Barack Obama had a chance to be successful, let alone among those who are in Hillary Clinton’s own home state. The black machine in Harlem made it very clear that in their view, the only choice was Hillary.”

Though Bill Clinton’s administration relied heavily on Mr. Rangel as its proxy in New York politics, Mr. Obama and his aides have built relationships with a broader array of black officials and power brokers, many of them nearer in age and temperament to the president than the Harlem old guard. It did not escape notice in black political circles that when the White House sought to convey its concerns to Mr. Paterson, the intermediary Mr. Obama’s aides chose was Gregory W. Meeks, a Queens congressman of the president’s (and the governor’s) own generation.

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