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"I don't have any opponents," Congressman Charlie Rangel told a New York Times reporter earlier this month. "There is no one that doesn't like me—no one."
Charlie may have spoken too soon.
Craig Schley, an activist and former male model, found 5,580 people in the last month who want Rangel out of office and were willing to sign the petitions he needs to become an independent candidate for the congressman's seat. He filed those petitions with the Federal Election Commission last week.
It's a very long shot to unseat the Democratic stalwart, and an enormous leap for Schley, a former Rangel intern who has never run for any elected office. Though he stands little chance against the 38-year incumbent, his candidacy comes at a time of burgeoning discontent with Harlem's political representation in general—and with Rangel in particular.
This summer, the revelation that Rangel occupied four rent-stabilized apartments in an increasingly harshly squeezed affordable-housing market outraged many; before that, Rangel pissed off his largely pro-Obama constituency by backing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. He's been booed at the annual African-American Day Parade, questioned in front of his home, and called a "sellout" at anti-gentrification rallies.
Even so, "I don't for a moment pretend that Craig has got a chance in hell against Charlie Rangel," says Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams. "But what will amaze people," he adds, "even being the inexperienced neophyte that he is, is how well Craig Schley will do as an expression of people's discontent."
A year ago, few in Harlem knew his name. Then, as the fight over the 125th Street rezoning plan heated up, Schley popped up at every rally and every community meeting, announcing himself as executive director of Voices of the Everyday People, which he describes as a human-rights group that is currently seeking nonprofit status. The organization started making headlines as it became the most outspoken opponent of the city's controversial rezoning plan, which will result in the displacement of small businesses and, many fear, low-income residents throughout the area. VOTE People has requested an injunction to stop any development resulting from the rezoning; oral arguments were heard in June, but no decision has been issued yet.
Alternately secretive, self-promoting, and buoyantly idealistic, Schley likes to describe himself as a "blue-collar man with a white-collar education." He worked as a firefighter and electrician before coming to New York in the 1990s as a Wilhelmina model. He continued modeling to pay his way through NYU, where he received a political-science degree at the age of 39. After graduation, he interned for Congressman Rangel, did a stint with Judge Faviola Soto, and worked on Felipe Luciano's 2005 City Council campaign.
"I didn't think about running for Rangel's seat until I saw no one was willing to take on this challenge," Schley says. "No one is running against [State Senator Bill] Perkins; no one is running against [State Assemblyman] Keith Wright. Why? Maybe it's the heart, fear factor, skill, resources—I don't know. But the old guard has to change."
It's a sentiment many Harlemites share, though even some of Schley's own supporters acknowledge that the field of opponents is not great: Republican Edward Daniels and Socialist Workers Party candidate Martin Koppel are also running.
"I think it's good that Craig Schley is on the ballot, certainly," says Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council and a longtime activist. "The fact that there is something as opposed to nothing is a political lift for the people in Harlem, who are used to complaining on the side while the politicians do nothing year after year after year."