The Prodigal Son Returns


Luck is running with the sons of former political heavies this year, and Adam Clayton Powell IV, scion of Harlem’s legendary leader, is hoping to catch the wave. The ex-city councilman—the only active politician whose family name graces a city boulevard—has returned after a three-year absence from the political scene and is tilting at the East Harlem state assembly seat held by his onetime ally Nelson Denis.

“I’m looking for a shrink to tell me what’s wrong with me,” Powell said last week from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where he awaited a connection to Los Angeles and the Democratic convention.

In truth, many asked the same question during Powell’s six years on the council. At first, observers thought they detected a principled independence in the tall, good-looking councilman who talked tough and voted against the council leadership. But he introduced no significant legislation, championed no causes, and became known more for gaffes than advocacy.

“A lot of guys wouldn’t be on my [contributors’] list if I started digging into their records.”

Asked about a notorious slumlord listed as cochair of a fundraising event, Powell explained: “A lot of guys wouldn’t be on my [contributors’] list if I started digging into their records.” When a newspaper columnist referred to him as “dumb as a post,” Powell was heard in the council halls saying he had to “find out who his sources are.”

In a challenge that evoked generation-old memories of his late father’s feud with Representative Charles Rangel, Powell ran in 1994 to reclaim his father’s old congressional seat from Rangel.

But Powell’s candidacy seems to have been most exciting to the right-wing Cuban émigré community who viewed Rangel, the major congressional exponent of ending the U.S. embargo against Castro, as anathema.

The hopeful anti-Castroites showered Powell with donations. Of the $64,000 Powell raised for that race, records show only 10 percent came from New York State; the rest originated in anti-Castro strongholds in Miami and New Jersey, including $5000 from Free Cuba PAC, Inc., headed by anticommunist zealot Jorge Mas Canosa, who made a $1000 personal donation to Powell as well.

Today, Powell has no illusions about why those contributions were made. “They wanted to get rid of [Rangel], so they came to me,” he said. “They may not be the best of guys, but they haven’t been convicted.”

And he had been a supporter of the embargo long before Mas Canosa came calling. “I was always for it, but nobody asked me,” he said, adding with his own Yogi Berra-style logic: “Just because [the embargo] doesn’t work doesn’t mean we should stop it.”

Denis, holder of the assembly seat Powell hopes to win, has built a reputation in the legislature as a reformer, even joining last spring’s abortive coup against Speaker Sheldon Silver’s ironfisted rule. Denis has sought to publicize another Powell enthusiasm that may not sit well with East Harlem residents: Powell’s endorsement of Mayor Giuliani’s reelection bid.

Before that, Powell had offered not a whisper of pro-Rudy feelings. He had called Giuliani’s spending cuts “inhumane” and the mayor himself “bad news for this town.” He bitterly opposed Giuliani’s support of a giant new Pathmark supermarket in East Harlem and had complained that Rudy’s cops considered his constituents “animals.”

But in 1997, Powell gave up his council seat to run in a crowded field for Manhattan borough president, initially supporting Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer for mayor in the Democratic primary. When Ferrer dropped out, he backed Al Sharpton.

It was only in October, three weeks after Powell had lost to Virginia Fields in the borough president race, that he zigzagged once more to endorse the mayor, a move widely interpreted as an effort to find a job.

Last week, Powell explained that he had only been heeding sage advice from others. “I followed the lead of several other more senior elected officials who realized Giuliani was going to win and we should at least be able to knock on his door and get a hearing,” he said.

Since Powell was soon to be out of office, he was asked who it was that needed a hearing.

“Well, I was still going to be active in politics,” he answered from the airport after a pause.

In fact, he dropped out of politics, taking a job as a part-time, $35-an-hour “disaster specialist” for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, helping battle hurricanes in the Virgin Islands and floods in New Jersey. He has also been trying to develop three beachfront acres left to him by his father in Puerto Rico and runs a small consulting firm, Powell and Associates. “It’s PR, opening doors, that kind of thing,” he said. “There aren’t really any associates now, but I’m hoping to grow.”

Old friends asked him to run against Denis, with whom he once worked closely. “He has been an absentee, totally undistinguished,” said Powell.

“I’ve been here working,” responded Denis.

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