Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Harlem's new political elite

With old-guard figures like Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charles B. Rangel under fire, the time seems right for the next generation to step in. But they aren't as interested in running for office.

The other morning, while tourists were lining up for an early lunch at Sylvia's soul food restaurant in Harlem, Rodney Capel and Basil Smikle were finishing breakfast -- and dissecting the travails of the local political machine.

Usually by now they'd be chewing over lists of Democrats eager to jump into primaries this fall and scoping out Republicans hinting at making a run.

"But everything is in limbo, seized up," said Smikle, sipping his coffee. "It's just such a weird time."

In the span of a few months, the ground seemed to open up and swallow New York's first black governor, its black powerhouse in Congress and a beloved elder statesman, all products of the Harlem machine that for decades forced whites in New York and leaders across America to accept blacks as full-fledged partners.

The collapse of this dynasty has pained Harlem, and there are no rising stars to carry on. The new political elite is less interested in getting elected than in having influence in a broader sphere of the community. With their Ivy League educations, button-down shirts, blazers and jeans, the next generation represents a victory of sorts for the previous one, because the younger men occupy a place in society that the old guard could not have imagined.

They're busy as consultants to black and white politicians and as lobbyists. They teach at majority-white universities and are regulars on political talk shows. They're connected to an array of ministers, educational reformers, community leaders, politicians and entrepreneurs across the city, not just to a handful of men from central Harlem.

Several of these younger Harlem activists cringed early this month when a meeting of black leaders was arranged at Sylvia's, a longtime hangout of black politicians, to discuss whether to prop up embattled Gov. David Paterson. The convener was the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Harlem-based advocate for black causes who has had little success at the polls.

"It's so old-school and somewhat insulting," Smikle said, "to have a 'summit' like that when much of the electorate does not live in a world where they blindly abide by decisions made in smoke-filled backrooms by a few people."

It's not that Smikle and Capel, both 38, aren't regulars at Sylvia's. They takeclients there to talk politics and devour fried chicken and waffles and pancakes swimming in grits.

But they don't have the absolute political sway of their elders. Presidential hopefuls don't feel obliged to sup with them the way they did with the influential quartet of Rep. Charles B. Rangel; Basil Paterson, the governor's father; former mayor David Dinkins; and the late power broker Percy Sutton. (Even Barack Obama paid a courtesy call at Sylvia's during the 2008 presidential primary season when the Harlem machine snubbed him in favor of Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Though Smikle, Capel and their friends with a taste for politics acknowledge a debt to the men known as the Gang of Four, they also hold them accountable for not cultivating new talent.

"In Harlem, there were never enough seats in this game of who is going to run for what," Smikle said. "There was always someone ahead, and my generation hasn't had people saying, 'I'll make you the next me,' so no one our age is stepping up to the plate now."

Over the last five decades, Harlem groomed just about every trailblazer in black politics in New York: Dinkins became the first black person to be mayor of New York City; former Comptroller H. Carl McCall was the first elected to statewide office; Herman D. Farrell Jr., a state assemblyman, was the first to chair the state Democratic Party; and David Paterson was the first black lieutenant governor and, later, governor.

Yet the election of the first African American president happened in spite of Harlem's clubhouse -- and was a sign of its power fading. The landscape had been shifting for years. Black voters had been moving to the outer boroughs and suburbs, and Harlem's political heirs came to prominence in places like southern Queens and central Brooklyn.

Still, both Capel and Smikle were attracted to Harlem politics and its storied tradition.

Capel grew up in the thick of the dynasty in Lenox Terrace, a 1950s-era apartment complex close to Sylvia's. It was one of the few middle-class enclaves in Harlem, and many political families lived there and, like Capel, still do.

"I knew what it meant to grow up around black royalty," Capel said. His father is Rangel's chief of staff and worked with the Gang of Four. "They were all my heroes."

After college he was drawn into the family business, so to speak, and after working on McCall's successful campaignbecame the first black executive director of the state Democratic Party. Capel considered running for the state Senate in 2006 but said he was told he couldn't jump ahead of older black officials.

Smikle was raised by his mother, a public school teacher from Jamaica. He grew up in the Bronx hearing about the Harlem gang "that had carved up the black political world and said, 'We'll own it.' "

After college he was determined to settle in Harlem.It was 1994, and the New England Journal of Medicine had reported that men in Harlem had a lower life expectancy than their counterparts in Bangladesh. The city owned two-thirds of Harlem, and much of it was abandoned or burned out. But Smikle was not deterred, not even by the crack dealers on his block.

"The brownstones were wrecked but they were great, and I dreamed of being a part of making a difference," Smikle said. At Columbia University, where he studied international relations, Smikle met Dinkins, who recommended him for a job revitalizing Harlem; he joined a historic Masonic lodge and a political club, where he met Capel.

It turned out they'd dated the same woman -- at the same time -- as undergraduates. "Neither of us knew," Capel said, smirking at his pal.

Over the last 15 years, Smikle and Capel have developed their own alliances with activists working on local, state and presidential campaigns. Capel was deputy state director for N.Y. Sen. Charles E. Schumer when Smikle held the same job for Sen. Clinton. They experienced politics at its most grinding and at its heights, traversing America with presidential candidates and accompanying U.S. senators on diplomatic missions.

Yet neither Capel nor Smikle nor their under-40 friends have shown much interest in seizing power from their elders. Certainly now would be an opportune moment.

The first blow came in December when Percy Sutton died at 89. He was a mentor to Gov. Paterson, not to mention Malcolm X's attorney. "After Percy died," Capel said, "it felt like everything else began crumbling."

After two turbulent years in office, Paterson, 55, was accused of intervening in a domestic violence case involving one of his aides and soliciting free tickets to a World Series game at Yankee Stadium. Under pressure from his party, he decided in February to end his campaign to keep his job for the next four years.

The same month, a congressional panel chastised Rangel, 79, for allowing a lobbyist to pay his way to a conference in the Caribbean. After losing the support of his colleagues, he resigned as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee while a probe continues into allegations of tax fraud and his use of four rent-stabilized apartments.

A 20-term congressman, Rangel was about the same age as Smikle and Capel when he took on -- and unseated -- Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a political giant who had been stripped of his seniority by a House panel because of an ethics investigation. But the younger men are too busy forging other paths to attempt what Rangel did to Powell.

Capel works for a lobbying firm; Smikle teaches public-sector marketing and communications to graduate students at Columbia and has settled in West Harlem on historic Sugar Hill, in the same 1936 building that was once home to Paul Robeson, the actor, civil rights activist and hero of Harlem.

"When I talk to kids about public service," Smikle said, "it's hard to create the impression with what's been swirling around that politics is so great. You can't defend the indefensible."

Capel is more sympathetic, particularly to Rangel for building coalitions in a district where blacks now account for only 3 in 10 residents.

"It's sad that Harlem won't have the historic leadership positions in government and politics, that raw, sexy, political power of the Gang of Four," Capel said.

Smikle jumped in: "But that doesn't mean that we won't have a Gang of Four in other fields."

Capel picked up: "There are a lot of black women in Harlem who own businesses. There could be a Gang of Four in banking, in law or entertainment from Harlem."

They live in a Harlem that has been revitalized by young professionals, both black and white, attracted to its renovated brownstones and less-expensive neighborhoods. This new Harlem is more a museum of black urban America than an epicenter of its politics.

As Capel and Smikle left Sylvia's, they passed tourists from Holland, Israel and Japan waiting for tables. A Dutch woman observed the two nice-looking men, both 6-feet-plus, and whispered to someone she thought might know, "Who are they?"

Smikle and Capel exchanged self-effacing looks. They don't have the celebrity or magnetism of the old gang -- but they are making their way nonetheless.

"I think Rodney and I are fortunate to be of a generation that doesn't have to seek one kind of success," Smikle said.

geraldine.baum@ latimes.com
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