The twilight of Harlem’s ‘Gang of Four’
They started their careers as bright young men in the Democratic precincts of Harlem. Each achieved great success.
David Paterson, has bowed out of the race for governor and, now, Charlie Rangel is stepping down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. There are new allegations about Governor Paterson’s office receiving World Series tickets and a drumbeat of editorials and columns demanding his resignation.
The governor is the son of Basil Paterson, former state senator and former secretary of state. Basil Paterson has achieved great success as a lawyer and, with his son’s accession to the governorship, it seemed like a dynasty was in the making. It was not to be.
Charlie Rangel back in 1970 toppled the then legend of Harlem politics, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, from power. Rangel became a legendary figure himself, rising ultimately to the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in Congress. And, now, under fire for accepting free business trips to the Caribbean, Rangel has stepped down he says, temporarily, from his chairmanship — even as the House Ethics Committee is looking into other charges against him.
Three years ago, Rangel’s book “And I haven’t had a bad day since….” was published. It was a memoir that told of his heroism in the Korean War when he led 40 men to safety out of a Chinese encirclement during three days of freezing weather. He won the Bronze Star With Valor and the Purple Heart. He was wounded by shrapnel.
Since that moment, he told a reporter, “I mean it with all my heart, I have never, never had a bad day.”
Percy Sutton, who died recently, was elected Manhattan Borough President, but lost when he tried to become New York’s first black Mayor. He changed careers, becoming a highly successful businessman. Along the way, he represented Malcolm X and, years later, I saw him work tirelessly to help Malcolm’s children and a grandchild.
Years after Sutton failed in his bid to become mayor, David Dinkins attained that position and he said then, as he says now, that he “stood on the shoulders of giants” to win the job.
The Gang of Four made Harlem into a bastion of black power — but the city’s black population has largely dispersed to Queens, the Bronx and the outer suburbs, and Harlem is no longer the center of African-American political leadership or electoral power.
It was a tough fight for the Gang of Four — but they managed to overcome great obstacles. I remember sitting next to Percy Sutton on a plane trip back from Minneapolis where he had attended the funeral of Senator Hubert Humphrey. He told me how upset he was that the voters had rejected him in the Democratic primary for mayor in 1977. He implied that racism might have been a factor in his defeat.
But prejudice against black candidates seems to be long gone. The problems of Rangel and Paterson seem to stem from other causes.
I spoke to Carl McCall, former State Comptroller and unsuccessful candidate for Governor in 2002. He said he was “very sad” about the latest developments. It comes, he added, at a very bad time, with the state facing an $8 billion deficit —and the budget deadline April 1st.
“I don’t think the Governor should step down—-but, in view of the distractions, I think the governor should turn over the budget negotiations to Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch, a man who enjoys universal respect,” McCall said. “Ravitch should be the chief negotiator.”
Former Mayor David Dinkins told me: “I am saddened by what has happened to both Mr. Paterson and Mr. Rangel. It’s tough. I love them both.”
A survivor of the old Gang of Four paying tribute to two politicians linked in history to this mighty political consortium.
This article originally appeared on NBC New York