The Battle for Harlem


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 attack last 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 Church to smother community outrage over his support for Governor Pataki, whose administration purportedly is trying 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 quasi­-political 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 attorney C. 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 open hostility 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, Empire chair and a top Pataki aide, who authorized Daniels to pull the Apollo’s funding.

“Gargano asked Randy Daniels to withhold additional funding for the Apollo until questions regarding its finances could be resolved,” Caroline Quartararo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Development, told the New York Post.

Daniels is now truly alone as his bosses seek to deflect blame, one Albany insider said. Daniels, the source claimed, asked Butts to “please tell the governor, ‘Don’t leave me hanging out there.’ ” Butts, the source added, initially had advised Daniels against “doing the Republicans’ dirty work” in Harlem, but Daniels was adamant.

Butts distanced himself from this account, adding that he had avoided raising specifics about the controversy with Daniels or the governor. Quartararo told the Voice that Daniels has been advised not to comment while Vacco is conducting an investigation.

Daniels allegedly had embarked on a campaign to destroy the “Gang of Four,” the disparaging moniker opponents use to describe Rangel, Sutton, Dinkins, and Paterson. Rangel told the Post that Daniels has an ax to grind because Dinkins effectively fired him.

In October 1992, Daniels was forced to resign from the Dinkins administration days after his appointment as a deputy mayor, amid unproven charges of sexual harassment. His accuser, former NY1 reporter Barbara Wood, backed down from her initial charges in a pretrial deposition two years later.

“In a highly charged political atmosphere, my patron betrayed me,” Daniels told freelance reporter Philip Nobile in a 1995 interview. “Bush stood behind Clarence Thomas to the end, but Dinkins gave me three days. I was told to find three white feminists to take my side, or else my appointment was dead. A year after Anita Hill, no Black man could do that.”

A former Dinkins aide, who asked not to be named, claimed that Daniels “had said privately after he started working with Pataki that he was going after the uptown establishment, which is Charlie, Percy, David, and Basil.

“He said at a minimum they should have provided him with a golden parachute, a good-paying job outside of government,” the ex-aide said.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Rangel insisted.

“We had nothing to do with David not appointing him,” reiterated Sutton.

“Why they took us on? I guess it’s because Percy Sutton is on one side and Charlie Rangel’s on the other and we’re part of the Dinkins team,” Rangel said. “That’s the only thing I can speculate on.”

If indeed the Republicans have a master plan to exploit the power struggles, some blacks warn that the battle eventually will not be fought over the Apollo Theater, but for Harlem itself.

“It’s about George Pataki and Charles Gargano wanting to turn that prime real estate called Harlem over to their developer friends,” said the former Dinkins official. “To accomplish that they must erode some of the community’s icons, and diminish their power. They hope to get a free ride under the guise that they are going to develop this community. Who are they going to develop it for? Who is going to own and take control of Harlem?”

If the power struggles being waged around the Apollo were predictable, their outcome was not. As rumors of Reverend Butts’s involvement in a Republican dirty-tricks campaign to discredit Rangel, Sutton, Dinkins, and Paterson continued to resonate within the Harlem community, Butts was forced to redefine his relationship with Randy Daniels and Governor Pataki.

“The perception is that Randy Daniels is Butts’s man, but Butts is sincere in telling me that he is not,” said one of the targeted Harlem Democrats.

But, in an interview with the Voice, that’s not how the minister characterized his relationship with Daniels, whom he described as a “walking deacon” in his church and his neighbor. “Our families are friends so I would consider him a friend,” Butts said. When Daniels was informed by Dinkins in 1992 that he would not be appointed deputy mayor, he immediately turned to Butts and sought refuge at the Abyssinian.

Despite such close ties, Butts declared: “I knew absolutely nothing about the origin or the plan of attack regarding the Apollo Theater situation,” adding that in the past he may have engaged in “some political jousting” with Percy Sutton, but trying to embarrass him simply was not his style. “I have too much regard for Percy to do that to him.”

As for his relationship with Pataki, Butts bragged: “I am close to the governor. There are things that the Pataki administration is doing, and will do, to benefit the African American community, particularly Harlem. I don’t intend to end a positive relationship with the governor.”

Because of the relative ease with which he seems to accomplish projects that often require more than pledges of commitment from federal, state, and city officials, Butts has been labeled “the Republican’s poverty pimp in Harlem” by envious community leaders.

“I’m not a poverty pimp,” he retorted. “I’m out here struggling, working on behalf of the community. Everything I do is above board. People have gotten used to dealing with me because they know where I work. Anybody can come and look at the books, look at the deals we’ve made with people who don’t think we are trying to shake ’em down.”

Butts has renovated several units of low-income housing, won contracts to restore landmark Harlem businesses like Small’s Paradise and the Renaissance Ballroom, and is also credited with muting community opposition to the construction of a Pathmark supermarket. Some speculate that Butts, who has said he “wrestles with the idea of whether or not to go into politics,” has been reinforcing his political connections all along.

“It’s a genuine quest,” he maintains, “and it looks more and more like I would do it.”

On April 12, demonstrators with placards touting “Butts for Congress” and “It’s Time for a Change” showed up outside the Sharpton-led community hearing in Harlem. “Whoever did it made Butts look foolish,” said a longtime admirer of the minister. “It didn’t help Butts at all.” A perennially rumored candidate for political office, Butts emphatically denied that he had organized the demonstration or was planning to challenge Rangel, who has been in Congress since 1970.

“Those signs were not mine. Whoever did it was trying to sabotage me,” insisted Butts. “Charles Rangel himself knows that I’ve said when I’m ready to run, before I make a public announcement, I would sit down and tell him first. I’m not going to go out there and plant little bombs near him or try to implicate him in something.”

The fact that Butts has not formally announced that he won’t challenge Rangel may explain why the issue remains so sensitive to Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields and State Senator David Paterson (Basil Paterson’s son), who will not challenge Rangel because of their reverence for the elder statesman–although they are waiting in the wings to succeed him when he retires.

Said one old-guard politician: “I told someone what Butts ought to do is prepare himself, because Charlie will not be running all his life. The people he will be up against are Virginia Fields and David Paterson. Charlie is not his enemy, they are. They are the new generation when Charlie is gone.”

“I’m not going to run against Charlie now, but it does look like there is a strong possibility that I would go for the mayor’s seat,” Butts revealed.

That prospect is seen as a far more serious danger by his opponents. “It’s making some folk upset because they think they got some kind of magic hold on who runs for mayor,” the minister asserted. “I don’t think it’s Percy or Charlie. Some people have mentioned some [names] to me, but I’m not interested in dignifying these people by mentioning [their names].”

Some of Butts’s allies are not so evasive, and point to the usual suspect–Al Sharpton, whose sights are already locked on the 2001 mayoral race. It’s no secret that the frosty relations between the two civil rights leaders grew colder in January after New York magazine juxtaposed their pictures on its cover, posing the question, “Which Would You Choose, Dr. King?” while asserting, “Calvin Butts Challenges the Old Model of Black Leadership in the City.”

Saving the Apollo will reflect the real dynamics of uptown’s collective political leadership. The theater is “an emotional and geographic anchor for Harlem’s primary commercial corridor along 125th Street,” declared the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand in a 1991 analysis. “Closing . . . the Apollo would be the last nail in the coffin for Harlem’s development,” the firm warned.

At least Randy Daniels is on record pledging to keep the mecca of black music open. “Let me say unequivocally . . . that New York State will not allow the Apollo to close,” Daniels wrote to Sharpton and Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, who co-chaired the community hearing on the Apollo, which Daniels was advised against attending. “The jobs of Apollo staff will be safe when we make sure that money due the Apollo is paid. We want a license agreement for ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ that is fair and equitable to the Apollo Theater.”

For Daniels’s critics, it seemed an odd thing to demand after Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, and others insisted that the current arrangement produced no income until last year, when the Inner City Theater Group paid the Apollo $250,000. Some politically motivated employees are pushing for Rangel to either seek the remainder of the money reportedly owed to the theater or resign from the foundation. Any solution requires the support of Rangel and Sutton, both of whom Daniels and the Republican interlopers are dubious about embracing.

Research assistance: Linda DiProperzio

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 2, 1998

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