They ran the city, represented Malcolm X and were black pioneers who put Harlem on the political map. The “Gang of Four” were kingmakers who built Harlem’s political dynasty into an empire. But with high-profile body blows this week to one member and the son of another, the group’s legacy is in disarray.
It seems unlikely that Gov. David Paterson could have become the state’s first black governor without the groundwork laid by the group – and the connections that came with being the son of Basil Paterson, one of the quartet along with Rep. Charles Rangel, political power broker Percy Sutton and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
But with the younger Paterson ending his election bid following a scandal over an abuse complaint against his aide, Rangel facing accusations of breaking House rules, the death of Sutton in December and the aging Dinkins fading from public view, the power base that made Harlem a launching pad for the state’s black leadership seems to be dissipating.
“In a sense, their day has passed,” Baruch College politics professor Doug Muzzio said of the elite group who led Harlem’s political heyday. “It has not gone on to a second generation. … You will no longer have such geographically and personally concentrated influence within the black community.”
Sutton was a civil rights trailblazer who represented Malcolm X and a media mogul who served in the New York State Assembly and as Manhattan borough president. Dinkins became the city’s first black mayor.
The four nurtured a generation of African-American leaders, including H. Carl McCall, the first black person to win statewide office when he was elected comptroller in 1994. On Friday, McCall said he owed his start to the foursome.
“They had a real impact,” he said. “They were the kind of people who were out front and served as models for others, not only of Harlem, but throughout the city. People looked up to them and came to them for advice, came to them for support.”
The foursome helped open doors not only for political leaders such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, but also for African-American businesses, McCall said.
The neighborhood birthed a number of political luminaries. Hulan Jack became one of the nation’s most prominent black politicians when he was elected Manhattan borough president in 1953 after serving several Assembly terms from his Harlem district. J. Raymond Jones, a city councilman, organized Harlem Democrats and mentored Dinkins and others. Fritz Alexander II was a deputy mayor under Dinkins and became the first black judge to sit on the state’s highest court for a full term.
Standing across the street from the historic Apollo Theater on Friday, Harlemite Malik Doyle bemoaned the loss of strong direction for the neighborhood and said he worries the area’s young people will suffer without clear role models.
“As far as new political leaders, I haven’t heard of any,” said the 30-year-old, who was handing out restaurant fliers in the snow. “Every new generation needs a person who understands that generation, that grew up with that generation, that speaks to that generation.”
It seemed the neighborhood’s old guard was being felled by the most undramatic of misdeeds, Doyle said. Besides the governor’s woes, the House ethics committee accused Rangel on Thursday of breaking House rules by accepting corporate money for trips to conferences in the Caribbean. He is facing calls for his removal as chairman of the chamber’s influential tax-writing committee.
“I don’t know if it’s so much an end of an era for Harlem politicians as it is Harlem politicians getting caught doing what all politicians do,” he said.
Among those considering a run to replace Rangel is Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of one of Harlem’s early political talents and the state’s first black congressman – himself expelled from the House in 1967 in a corruption scandal. The younger Powell has a pending case for a drunken-driving arrest in 2008 in Manhattan.
McCall argued the city still has strong black leadership, although the highest-profile figures are now coming out of Brooklyn and Queens.
“There’s good young people, new people and new voices emerging from other parts of the city, so I don’t think this is something bad, that Harlem is the only place for leadership.”
And that’s exactly how it should be, said another neighborhood old-timer.
Cedric Wilson, the 78-year-old manager of an office building on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, said he has little nostalgia for the past, when drug dealers lined his street, and is eager to see young people step up.
“We’ll have different people with different ideas. Let them come,” he said. “It’s their time now. I’m on my way out.”
SAMANTHA GROSS, AP