Next week, Democratic voters in Harlem and upper Manhattan will do something they haven’t done in a long time: vote in a congressional election that doesn’t include Rep. Charles Rangel.
After more than 40 years, the lion of Harlem is retiring.
Without an incumbent, the race in the 13th Congressional District is more competitive than usual, though it's still taking place somewhat quietly.
Traditionally low turnout even in competitive congressional races means that each vote carries extra weight. No matter who wins, Rangel’s replacement will mark a shift for a changing district.
A change in representation for a changing district
Walk down the street in the heart of Rangel’s district and you'll find plenty of love for Rangel, even if for some that love has faded in light of the “old man’s” long service and 2010 censure for ethics violations.
“He’s almost like a grandpa to the community,” says Andre Murray, 50. “Him and Al Sharpton together in this area. If you need something done, run to them.”
“One of the best,” says Tony Ledesma, 58, smiling at the memories of meetings with the congressman, who has always “taken care of seniors” and worked to increase housing.
Rangel won Harlem’s seat in Congress in 1970, defeating civil rights legend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., himself engulfed in scandal. Rangel eventually became the first African-American chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Back when Harlem was far less of a site for real estate speculation, he bolstered the district’s housing through low income housing credits, and worked to help improve the neighborhood’s economy through creation of the Harlem Empowerment Zone in the 90s. In an era of higher crime in NYC, he also supported President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs.
Rangel is leaving a different district than the one he originally represented.
First of all, its boundaries have shifted, most notably after the 2010 redistricting that increased the number of Hispanic (in particular Dominican) voters in the district by incorporating a stretch of the Bronx. It is a region with even more immigrants, not just from the Americas, but also parts of Africa. Gentrification has also brought more whites into what remains a storied African-American neighborhood.
Despite this change, there are a number of familiar names among the candidates running to replace Rangel, chief among them Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the congressman who Rangel defeated. Current Assemb. Keith Wright, who has Rangel’s endorsement, is the son of a famously lenient state supreme court judge (once known as “Turn ’Em Loose Bruce”).
Both candidates have run against Rangel in the past, as has State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who had seemed poised to knock Rangel out of office in the wake of his ethics censure and the district's growing Hispanic population.
Also running are Clyde Williams, an adviser to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; Suzan Johnson Cook, a faith leader and former United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; current Assemb. Guillermo Linares, who in addition to his long political career has been a teacher and worked as a taxi driver to pay his way through college; Mike Gallagher, a relatively recent arrival in the district and stay-at-home dad; Yohanny Caceres, a tax preparer; and Sam Sloan, a chess aficionado light on publicity though he is also, lest you missed it, running for President of the United States.
Many of the nine have tangled in the past, in the shark-infested waters of New York City politics, and old injuries are brought up anew.
What does Harlem need now?
To Walter Emane, 51, Harlem’s changes follow a simple trajectory which he watched since the day he first moved to Harlem some 20 years ago.
He remembers coming to an intersection at 135th and 2nd Avenue, when someone came up to his car and started pulling his windshield wipers up — an infamous squeegee man, one of the stock symbols of New York’s crime-infested, out-of-control past. Not knowing what was happening, Emane ran the light.
Since then, safer streets led to businesses coming to the district, and more jobs, Emane says.
But many in the district feel left behind by that improved economy, and particularly so when it comes to housing.
Michelle Kelly, 28, marveled that a studio now started at $1,300 a month in her building. A single room, says Jonathan Cruz, 30, is now the price of what a studio or one-bedroom used to be — a mark of the slow creep of luxury development.
The challenge for Harlem’s next lion will be to continue Rangel’s work, but also find new ways to address problems that even Rangel’s successes have been unable to confront. Solving that conundrum will be worthy of a new legend being born in Harlem.
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Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to "Suzan Cook Johnson"; the candidate's name is "Suzan Johnson Cook."