New York On My Mind

Posted: Thu, 03/04/2010 - 6:32pm

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the vagaries of New York politics, even though I was born there. I have enough trouble keeping up with the cabals and the vagaries of Capitol Hill and White House politics. (Rahm Emanuel, anyone?)

That said, I have been watching the apparently unraveling careers of two Empire State stalwarts - Governor David Paterson and Rep. Charles Rangel -- with special interest.

That’s because both Paterson and Rangel play roles in a national political narrative described in my book – “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

It’s not just that both are African American. It’s that they both broke through, flourished for a time, and then allegedly became forgetful about what is expected from those who get to the other side.

At 79 years old, Rangel – known as “Charlie” even by strangers – is part of a fading wave of elected officials who came to power at the cusp of the 1960s civil rights movement – first in local, then state, then national politics. He represents a swath of northern Manhattan that includes historic Harlem, and succeeded legendary Adam “Keep the Faith, Baby” Clayton Powell Jr.

In his twenty terms in Congress, Rangel has never been as flamboyant nor as ethically challenged as Powell was, and has been immensely well-liked by his colleagues. At home in New York, he was a charter member of a powerful quartet of Manhattan politicos dubbed the “Gang of Four.” The group included broadcaster Percy Sutton, David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, and Basil Paterson, a former New York Secretary of State. They were breakthroughs of another generation, one that is being gently retired as new aspirants come along.

It is Basil Paterson’s son David who finds himself in hot water now. After succeeding Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in the midst of a sex scandal, Paterson, 55, never quite gained the footing or acquired the stature he yearned for as New York’s 55th governor.

First, President Obama tried to nudge him aside, then he was forced to end his week-long run for election after The New York Times reported he had intervened on behalf of an aide accused of domestic violence. Then just this week, the state’s ethics commission began investigating whether he improperly demanded free tickets to attend a Yankees World Series game.

The Patersons occupied a portion of my book devoted to the relatively new phenomenon of black political dynasties. I noted the rise of legacy politics within a community that was still relatively new to political power. But, looking back, I realize I missed something else.

The most effective breakthrough leaders, it turns out, are often not the ones who had the path greased for them. Governor Paterson assumed the governorship, in part, with the conviction that he was stepping into a role his father was denied many years earlier. Being a ward of the Gang of Four did not afford Paterson protection.

Being the son of a longtime member of Congress did not save Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick when he stepped over the line and was ejected from office. And being the son of the 41st President of the United States did not stop the 43rd – George W. Bush – from leaving office as one of the nation’s most unpopular Presidents ever.

Charlie Rangel may survive. There are other serious investigations underway, so he had little choice but to relinquish his gavel. David Paterson may survive, but if he does it will be one of the most stunning political recoveries ever.

But for both men – one with decades under his belt; the other with years – one thing remains true. There are no shortcuts in politics.

Updated: 3/12/2010 12:25PM