Even as Democrats gathered in the ballroom of a Manhattan hotel last week to celebrate their party’s sweep of statewide offices in New York, a sober realization began to dawn among some in the crowd: What once seemed like a new golden age for the state’s black political establishment could be on the verge of an abrupt collapse.
Come January, the state’s first black governor, David A. Paterson, will leave the governor’s mansion after serving less than one term. Representative Charles B. Rangel, the dean of New York’s Congressional delegation and head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee until this year, will return to Washington as a member of the Democratic minority, as will Representative Edolphus Towns, who will lose the top post on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
And in what many see as the biggest blow, Democrats appear likely to lose their majority in the State Senate, costing African-Americans their highest-ranking remaining post in state government. Black leaders in New York regarded holding the majority, headed by Senator John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, as their highest priority this election.
“We are going to have to adapt to a new landscape and some loss of political power,” said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat.
The shift has set off a round of jockeying and recrimination in black political circles, as black elected officials and operatives grapple with what is both a genuine diminishing of their power in government and a profound symbolic setback.
“I got a bit nostalgic myself on Election Day,” said Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, the chairman of the Manhattan Democratic organization and a mainstay of the Harlem political scene.
Mr. Wright said blacks would continue to have influence under the governor-elect, Andrew M. Cuomo. But Mr. Paterson’s exit — coming on top of the ethics accusations against Mr. Rangel and the narrow loss last year of William C. Thompson, the Democratic candidate for mayor against Michael R. Bloomberg — was an emotional blow, Mr. Wright said.
Mr. Wright said he had called the governor last Tuesday to reminisce about how the two men, when Mr. Paterson was a state senator from Harlem, would walk the neighborhood together greeting voters on Election Day.
“This is probably the first time his name was not on the ballot in well over 20 years,” Mr. Wright said, adding: “He’s going to be fine. I lamented.”
Mr. Thompson, who plans to run for mayor again in 2013, noted that the loss of the House had not only stripped Mr. Rangel and Mr. Towns of their chairmanships, but had also thrown into the minority rising black representatives like Yvette D. Clarke of Brooklyn.
“It’s a real concern,” Mr. Thompson, a former city comptroller from Brooklyn, said. “People are talking about it.”
The situation has changed drastically from just a year ago, he said.
“African-Americans had a president, committee chairs and other positions in the House, the governor, and control of the State Senate,” Mr. Thompson said. “And all that could evaporate in a short period of time.”
Complicating emotions is an uncomfortable reality: Mr. Paterson, Mr. Rangel and Democratic leaders in the State Senate all faced accusations of financial impropriety or misuse of their offices. While some black officials consider those accusations to be unfair and even racially tinged, others grumble about missed chances.
“There are people in the African-American community who are frustrated,” said one black political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as criticizing black leaders.
“There’s no one you can point to in government who is in a senior position right now,” the operative added, “who you can say with pride: that person symbolizes what public service and effectiveness is all about.”
Many worry about the loss of influence over important legislation, noting that the combination of Mr. Paterson and a State Senate led by black Democrats had ensured that some long-delayed policy priorities — the overhaul of the Rockefeller-era drug sentencing laws, and new protections against police stop-and-frisk policies — were finally achieved.
“The danger there is that black folks could be left out,” said Tyquana L. Henderson, a Democratic political consultant. “There will be some policies that need to be changed that won’t be changed. There will be legislation that will need to be put forward that won’t be put forward.”
For Mr. Cuomo, who won overwhelmingly among black voters last week but whose relations with black elected officials have at times been fraught, the shift may bring headaches as well as opportunity.
Mr. Paterson’s departure and Mr. Rangel’s decreased role are likely to hasten a generational shift among black politicians in New York, as younger elected officials from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx join the Harlem old guard in positions of influence. Mr. Cuomo already enjoys closer ties — and fewer ancient grudges — with the newer generation, who are eager to take up a more prominent role in Albany affairs.
Yet new grudges may already be forming. Some black Democrats grumble that Mr. Cuomo did not do enough to help Democrats retain the State Senate, an obligation they believe he owed them after choosing the Rochester mayor, Robert J. Duffy, as his running mate last spring, leaving the party’s statewide slate entirely white.
While Mr. Cuomo did endorse a number of Democrats for the State Senate in the last weeks before Election Day, some candidates questioned whether he contributed enough money from his own bulging campaign accounts to help them.
In the closing days of the campaign, according to people familiar with the discussions, Mr. Cuomo did direct aides to encourage his donors to provide a last-minute influx of cash to the Senate campaign committee. But some Senate Democrats hoped for more.
While Mr. Cuomo has pledged to make diversity a hallmark of his administration, his inner circle is both close-knit and almost all white, limiting his options to make a high-profile senior appointment within the executive chamber.
And black leaders said they would not be satisfied with appointments to midsize agencies and departments, or those traditionally associated with issues of concern to the African-American community.
“Traditionally, the commissionerships that people of color get are children and family services, the human rights commission, that sort of thing,” Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie, the Bronx Democratic chairman, said. “I’d like to see people of color considered for some of the major agencies and authorities.”
Some black leaders worry that they will be unable to gain attention for issues that Mr. Paterson and Senate leaders pushed, like expanding opportunities for black-owned businesses to compete for state contracts.
“Those positions have increased our ability to do things that are important to the community,” Mr. Jeffries, the Brooklyn assemblyman, said. “There are a lot of things we could not have accomplished. Absent partners in the Senate and elsewhere, things could be a little rough over the next few years.”
Photo credit from left, Gov. David A. Paterson, State Senator John L. Sampson and Representative Charles B. Rangel, all members of New York’s black political establishment who are leaving office or losing power in the wake of this month’s elections.
Source: NY Times