Harlem Politics: A Shabby End To A Golden Era

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In an excellent story for TIME.com, our colleague Alex Altman looks at what two scandals say about the storied political launching ground for trailblazing African-American politicians.:

Rangel and Paterson’s father Basil were members of Harlem’s Gang of Four, along with Percy Sutton — a civil rights activist, lawyer and local power broker, who died Dec. 26 at 89 — and David Dinkins, who served as mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993. The group inherited a tradition passed down from trailblazers like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whom Rangel unseated in 1970, and together shattered scores of racial barriers, attaining offices once dismissed as off-limits and paving the way for the ascension of black leaders around the country. In the process, they turned Harlem — long the epicenter of African-African culture — into a political mecca, its pull strong enough to entice former President Bill Clinton to base his foundation headquarters on the district’s main thoroughfare of 125th Street. But with Rangel, 79, giving up his gavel, the Paterson era in Albany lurching toward an end and Dinkins having long since stepped away from the scene, Harlem’s political might has diminished.

But the story also speaks to a brighter note of generational change:

Instead of coming up through Harlem’s political machine, the newest batch of African-American leaders — stars such as Obama, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Representative Artur Davis, Rangel’s colleague on Ways and Means — have risen through the traditional channels of the U.S. meritocracy, says David Bositis, an expert on black electoral politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “These guys are Ivy league, corporate-law-firm types,” Bositis says. “You’re talking about a very different political system than what Basil Paterson, Dinkins and guys like that grew up in.” Going forward, he adds, there will be “competing centers of black leadership around the country, but they’re not going to occupy the same level of status that [Harlem] did.”

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