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Harlem's new political elite

With old-guard figures such as 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.

March 23, 2010|By Geraldine Baum

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.


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