Legendary Harlem pol and business entrepreneur Percy Sutton slipped away this weekend at 89, and he rightly deserves the many tributes he’s now receiving. He was one of 15 children born to a former slave from south Texas. He became a Tuskegee airman and won twin combat stars for doing battle in two theaters of war. He was a lawyer who earned his degree on the GI bill, and who was so enthralled by Malcolm X’s a street corner oratory that he became the doomed nationalist leader’s attorney. He was the borough president of Manhattan where he was a steady supporter of progressive change. He built the city’s first big black-owned radio and communications empire, and if he employed some sharp elbows along the way he was hardly the only such media baron to do so.
But the way Sutton is permanently ensconced in memory is his endlessly classy performance during the most sharp-elbowed political event of his time: the 1977 Democratic mayoral primary.
The slugfest featured the greatest Democratic warhorses of the era: Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, Herman Badillo, Bella Abuzug, and Abe Beame. It was a time of fiscal crisis, power blackout, and the Son of Sam, and the primary’s political rhetoric was conducted at full-throated volume. Sutton was the quiet standout throughout. For starters, there was the fact that he was always the most elegantly dressed, appearing at every debate and event decked out as though he were ready for inauguration.
More importantly, while Koch, Cuomo, Abzug, and Beame raged back and forth over the death penalty and who got the blame for the city’s financial collapse, Sutton quietly spoke with reason and intelligence. He got into the race expecting that Beame, the incumbent mayor, wouldn’t be running, thus offering an opening among Democratic clubhouses for Sutton as the only other veteran city official. Beame, in a snit of anger, decided he didn’t want to quit after all. Sutton finished fifth in the race as Koch went on to beat Cuomo in a run-off. Sutton, the ever-graceful Harlem leader, quietly stepped off the political stage and only went on to make millions on his own. Photo via National Visionary Leadership Project.