For someone who doesn’t actually live in the community, Reggie Van Lee has built quite a reputation as the go-to investor for all things Harlem.
The high-powered executive from Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, has donated more than a million dollars to Harlem businesses and community institutions in a span of 30 years.
Until recently, he managed to stay above the political fray but that changed last September, when Van Lee got behind Congressional candidate Clyde Williams.
He made his foray into local politics at a party for Williams at Red Rooster Harlem. Williams had recently moved back to New York from Washington, where his wife, Mona Sutphen, served as deputy chief of staff to President Obama.
Williams, who worked with Van Lee on the Clinton Foundation’s Harlem Small Business Initiative, told his friends that night that he was considering mounting a primary challenge against longtime Rep. Charlie Rangel.
That was all Van Lee needed to hear: He quickly wrote Williams a check for $2,500, the maximum individual contribution permitted.
“I’d never hosted a fund-raising party before,” Van Lee said. “Clyde was the exception. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but people just started writing checks.”
Van Lee, 54, later kicked in $100,000 to a pro-Williams Super-PAC, an organization that flooded uptown mailboxes with literature slamming the embattled incumbent.
Rangel, whose image had been marred by ethics violations and a Congressional censure, now found himself fending off an attack on his home turf, adding another ripple to a race that was already going to be a dogfight in a district that was redrawn to have a Hispanic majority.
Asked several times to explain his desire to see Rangel unseated, Van Lee refused to answer, saying only that he believed Williams was well-suited for the office.
He plays his cards close to his vest, but Van Lee’s money spoke loudly enough. Williams, a newcomer, garnered nearly 10% of the vote.
Williams finished a distant third, but his influence could not be ignored in a race that was eventually decided by fewer than 1,000 votes in a contentious battle between Rangel and his top challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. Because of the need to count paper ballots, the result took several weeks to finalize before Rangel was declared the victor.
The other two candidates in the race, each an African-American who had run in the past, managed only 3.5% of the vote total between them.
…the congressman attempted to paint him as an outsider trying to meddle in Harlem’s affairs.
Rangel’s campaign would not answer questions from the Daily News about Van Lee, but in an email to campaign supporters, the congressman attempted to paint him as an outsider trying to meddle in Harlem’s affairs.
Van Lee would not comment on Rangel’s characterization, but he spoke at length about his love of Harlem, a connection he built during the 23 years he lived in New York.
“When I arrived in 1984, Harlem was not in its heyday but its vitality was still very compelling to me,” Van Lee said. “I had a desire to see a rebirth.”
He started making small donations to Harlem organizations and gave more as his wealth grew.
Recently, he donated $1 million to the Abyssinian Development Corp. He also has made donations to the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, the Apollo Theater and the Studio Museum.
“Harlem is his home . . . in the sense that it is the home of black people.”
Those who know him describe Van Lee as a quiet pragmatist.“As an African-American senior executive, he knows not many folks sit in those seats,” said Sheena Wright, the CEO of Abyssinian Development Corp., of Van Lee. “Harlem is his home . . . in the sense that it is the home of black people.”
…he frequently visits Italy to spend time with his husband, Corey McCathern,
Van Lee, of course, has many homes. He visits Harlem at least once a month, and he frequently visits Italy to spend time with his husband, Corey McCathern, 43, an ex-model who has been living in Milan since 1998.
They were married a year ago at the National Building Museum in Washington, in a lavish ceremony that included a performance by Diana Ross.
When Van Lee flies into New York, he usually visits The 5 and Diamond, a Harlem restaurant in which he invested in about two years back.
“There’s not much Reggie hasn’t touched,” said Lia Sanfilippo, a co-owner of The 5 and Diamond. “He cares about doing. He doesn’t care if people know he’s behind it.”
- Harlem Icon Faces ‘Perfect Storm’ In Re-Election Bid (harlemworldmag.com)