Reporting from New York — 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.