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A battle for the political soul of Harlem has escalated into all-out war.
Carl Redding, a top aide to Reverend Al Sharpton, denounced Reverend Calvin Butts's attacklast week on Mayor Giuliani as a "suicide attempt" by Butts to pull ahead of other black mayoral hopefuls. Moreover, Redding charged, it was a desperate move by the firebrand minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Churchto smother communityoutrage over his support for Governor Pataki, whose administration purportedly istrying to wrest control of Harlem's historic Apollo Theater from one of Butts's longtime political foes.
On NY1's Inside City Hall last Tuesday, Butts, a quasipolitical adviser to Pataki, accused Giuliani of cultivating an atmosphere among police that has led to an increase in brutality toward young blacks and merchants along 125th Street. Butts also criticized the Giuliani administration's decision to fire 600 employees at Harlem Hospital.
"Are you calling him a racist?" asked host Dominic Carter.
"Yeah. Yeah," Butts responded. "I don't believe he likes black people. . . . "
Redding told the Voice that some of Sharpton's campaign advisers--who presume he will be the black mayoral front-runner--were shocked by Butts's "racial sound bite," which they maintain will come back to haunt him. "He hit the Freddie Ferrer self-destruct button," scoffed Redding, referring to the Bronx borough president who,in an alleged bid to win black votes during last year's Democratic mayoral campaign, called the police killing of 16-year-old Kevin Cedeno "an execution."
"Freddie Ferrer tried to out-Sharpton Al Sharpton and wound up having to drop out of the race for making a controversial remark that annoyed white voters," added Redding.
Butts panicked because "he has seen establishment blacks" and powerful Latino allies rallying around Sharpton's crusades, according to Redding. "Everyone from Congressman Jose Serrano to Jesse Jackson and a whole new generation of black elected officials like Congressman Gregory Meeks supported Sharpton for mayor. We don't see that type of coalition around Reverend Butts."
Redding noted that, with the exception of disgraced former Tawana Brawley attorneyC. Vernon Mason and Nation of Islam minister Benjamin Muhammad (the former Ben Chavis, who was kicked out of the NAACP after a sex scandal), no prominent black leaders stood with Butts during last week's news conference at his church with several Harlem residents who said they had been harassed by police.
"Butts couldn't get one prominent black to come out," Redding declared. "They are upset with this 'Pataki Tom' for trying to bring Republicans into Harlem to meddle in our affairs."
Many uptown political observers believe the Sharpton camp is on to something. Allegations of financial mismanagement at the Apollo Theater may have created a phony invitation for upstate Republicans to intervene in one of the community's most divisive power struggles, the observers told the Voice.
At the heart of the dispute--and apparently the Republicans' prime interest--are blacks jockeying for a congressional seat, a stake in nominating the next black mayoral hopeful, and, some say, a six-year-old vendetta that pits a black front man for the Pataki administration against four of the inner city's most powerful leaders.
The Apollo controversy widened a schism that political insiders say has provoked openhostility from some Republicans for former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, Congressman Charles Rangel, former mayor David Dinkins, and former deputy mayor Basil Paterson. The main negative focus, however, has been on Sutton and Rangel's stewardship of the Apollo Theater Foundation, the nonprofit group formed in 1992 to guide the theater into profitability.
In early May, the Daily News reported allegations that the Inner City Theater Group, Sutton's television company, which produces It's Showtime at the Apollo on NBC, had failed to live up to its licensing agreement with the Apollo and owes the landmark theater more than $4 million. Rangel, chair of the foundation, balked at the inference that he and Sutton bankrupted, cheated, or stole money from their beloved enterprise.
As Rangel put it, "Is it that difficult to believe that two guys from Harlem could be straight and not have this crooked relationship?" In the cutthroat arena of New York politics, where, Rangel pointed out, "it's popular to pile on," there seem to be no simple answers to the question.
Uptown Democrats claim that a Republican conspiratorial maneuver triggered state and city officials to hold up $750,000 in loans and grants for the financially troubled Apollo, as well as an investigation by state attorney general Dennis Vacco. These developments were supposed to signal the political demise of Rangel and Sutton, whom some call Harlem's political Godfathers. Local black Republicans, smelling blood, showed up two weeks ago at Al Sharpton's House of Justice in Harlem, where Rangel and Sutton had been summoned to a community hearing to debunk gossipy exposés about a financial scandal.
The black Republicans denounced the makeup of the panel that had been convened, which they charged was stacked with Democrats and political cronies of Rangel and Sutton. Since that awkward showdown--at which an infuriated Sutton suggested that he was being attacked because he is black and vowed to file a lawsuit--some of Governor Pataki's operatives appear to have beaten a hasty retreat.
According to sources, Randy Daniels, the black senior vice president of the Empire State Development Corporation, the Apollo's landlord, has been pleading with Pataki not to abandon him as Republicans head for cover in the wake of community disgust over the investigation. It was Charles Gargano, Empirechair and a top Pataki aide, who authorized Daniels to pull the Apollo's funding.
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