In the Arena

Harlem Politics…Golden? No.

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As an old New York political reporter, I have to dispute Karen’s “golden era” reference to the Harlem political machine below. These were, for the most part, dreadful people–who offered the residents of Harlem all the worst aspects of machine rule, with few of the advantages. Basil Paterson, David’s father, was probably the best, but the least well-known of the bunch. Charlie Rangel–he of the multiple rent-controlled apartments and Caribbean hideaway–is a charming guy, a Korean war hero…and a worthwhile successor to Adam Clayton Powell, another rogue who took care of himself and not his constituents. Percy Sutton was a businessman more than a politician.

David Dinkins is in a category all his own–the worst mayor of New York since the Tweed era, a total reactionary who ran the city for the benefit of its employees rather than its citizens. He hired Robert Little, Malcolm X’s brother, to be his Human Resources administrator. At a moment when children were dropping like flies in foster care–dozens were dying–Little said oversight of the program was “racist.”

And that was the cynical heart of the enterprise: accusations of racism were always on the low boil, ready to be doused with gasoline whenever the incompetence and corruption of the Harlem gang was exposed. Even though I disagreed with the more radical Brooklyn African-American leadership, I certainly respected their integrity…and I was even more impressed by Queens leaders like Floyd Flake, who were the predecessors of the Obama, Artur Davis and Corey Booker generation.

So there’s no nostalgia here for me. Just relief that the old-fashioned, plantation style politics of the Harlem gang is slipping into the past…and the African-American residents of that neighborhood, and of New York State, may finally get the representation they deserve.

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