Black powerbrokers vie for New York City

Posted: Feb 18, 2004 12:00 AM

A small coterie of aging Harlem powerbrokers gathered in a secret hideaway this week and cut a deal that will send reverberations throughout New York City.

According to sources, Sen. Charles Schumer has agreed to vacate his office prior to the next election to run for governor in 2006.

Though Schumer has consistently denied having any gubernatorial ambitions, the source says he is stepping down because "he is miserable being senator and hates playing second fiddle to Hillary Clinton."

Schumer has agreed to pick former State Comptroller Carl McCall to fill his vacancy. McCall was defeated by Gov. Pataki in the 2002 gubernatorial race and has recently been on the hot seat for approving a $190 million payout to Dick Grasso while serving as the Compensation Committee chairperson for the New York Stock Exchange. McCall subsequently resigned his position. In return for picking McCall, the Harlem powerbrokers will drum up black support for Schumer's gubernatorial bid.

If the deal goes through, McCall would be the only black American in the Senate. That prospect has the Democratic Party and the Harlem Cosa Nostra (most notably Charlie Rangel and Percy Sutton) salivating. The Harlem gang figures that if they can push McCall onto the national stage, they can position themselves at the center of the black political landscape. It's a position they haven't been in since the Jesse Jackson scandal fractured their leadership, opening the door for Rev. Al Sharpton to ascend as the most prominent black voice in the country.

Tellingly, they did not include Sharpton in their deal. The two camps have long waged a behind-the-scenes turf battle. That battle intensified when Sharpton encouraged Adam Clayton Powell IV to run against Rangel this fall.

When the New York Times recently proclaimed that Sharpton had failed to unify black voters behind his presidential bid, the old guard saw an opportunity to pounce. Now Rangel is smiling wide (incisors fully revealed) at the prospect of empowering McCall and usurping Sharpton in his own back yard. But there is a scent of desperation wafting about them. Charlie Rangel is no longer a lock for re-election. Changing racial demographics in his district have eroded his traditional power base. If they fail here, the old guard may fall by the wayside. If they win, the Harlem gang will be right back at the apex of black power in New York. That means that Hillary will have to go through them - not Sharpton - when she runs for president in 2008.

Or as financier Harold Doley put it, "The political pimps want Sharpton out of the way and are trying to make a power play."

For his part, Sharpton scoffs at the plan: "I would have preferred seeing someone younger (than McCall) that can build seniority in the Senate. It makes more sense for the state and for our community if you're going to put someone in the Senate for a six-year term, he should be someone that can easily do two or three terms. McCall is 70 years old and the idea of him doing two or three terms is ludicrous."

This is a reserved response from a man who is about to slug it out with Rangel and his gang for the title of black powerbroker par excellence.

Let the games begin.