If you’re a New York political junkie, the best entertainment of the holiday season was the sitdown Michael Scotto had last week on NY1 with the remaining members of Harlem’s Gang of Four, David Dinkins, Basil Paterson and Congressman Charlie Rangel. They went on the show to laud gang leader and banker, Percy Sutton, who died at 89 and will be memorialized at Riverside Church on Wednesday. But their most searing comments had little to do with the former Manhattan borough president who built a once dazzling, now troubled, media empire, Inner City Broadcasting.
The only part of this half-hour kibitzing session to make the news was Basil Paterson’s warning to Andrew Cuomo, pushing him not to challenge his son David by evoking memories of Cuomo’s 2002 failed race for governor.
“When Andrew came back from Washington, having never run for public office, he challenged a highly qualified black man for governor, H. Carl McCall, ” the senior Paterson said, contending that this effort “left a sour note.” “Does he turn off the Democratic black vote even if he should win the primary?” he asked, describing it as a “problem” that Cuomo has that “everybody whispers about,” but ostensibly only he has the courage to raise. “Does he lose the black vote in the general election?”
The velvet-gloved Paterson, who’s been a member of a politically wired Long Island law firm for decades, couched this low blow as something “Andrew’s people are concerned about, legitimately,” adding that a race against David Paterson would be “the second time he’s done it.” Paterson did not note that McCall lost badly to George Pataki, just what Democrats are determined to avoid in 2010. Nor did he note that McCall was the elected state comptroller in 2002, unlike the current governor, who owes his gubernatorial position to Eliot Spitzer’s hard-on and is not as widely regarded as “highly qualified” as McCall was. (Ironically, McCall was initially appointed to fill a vacancy at the behest of then governor, Mario Cuomo, who also chose him as his running mate for lieutenant governor in 1982 and, when McCall lost, named him state human rights commissioner).
As Paterson finished, Rangel was heard laughing out loud about “Rangel plays the race card” being the news. So Scotto turned to the congressman. Rangel’s comments were in sharp contrast with Paterson’s, praising Cuomo repeatedly, saying how “he has really developed,” has “met with me,” “matured,” and “become politically sophisticated.” The question of whether Cuomo should run for governor, Rangel said, can only be answered by Cuomo. “It’s in Andrew’s hands,” said Rangel, who is embroiled in an ethics investigation in Washington. He called it “a question of conscience, not just a political question.”
Rangel’s muted response (he led the charge against Cuomo in 2002) was so noticeable that he quickly recanted it in a New Year’s Day interview that the Daily News‘s Liz Benjamin published today. Rangel tells Benjamin that he doesn’t see Cuomo “making the moral decision to run against Paterson,” and also linking it to race. “People have almost forgotten he ran against Carl McCall,” suggesting that even in the age of a black president, it is forbidden for a New York Democrat to challenge an unelected black governor. Dinkins took no Cuomo shot on NY1, but he opened the discussion of David Paterson’s fate by saying that Sutton “would be the first in line in support of our governor.”
The Harlem Old Guard appears indifferent to the dead weight Paterson would be on the statewide ticket, potentially jeopardizing the black-led state senate majority as well as the swing-district House seats of several Rangel colleagues. In sharp contrast with the gang, State Senate Leader John Sampson, a black Brooklyn legislator, refused to say he would back Paterson in a recent Albany Times Union interview, after blasting the governor a few days before for “self-indulgent theatrics.” The Post has reported that Sampson will not even attend Paterson events. The White House has cited the down-ticket concerns of New York congressional leaders as one of the reasons it has discouraged Paterson from seeking election in 2010.
Of course, the irony is that all three members of the race-card-when-convenient gang endorsed Hillary Clinton against Obama in 2008, and Rangel was even a bulwark of black support for Walter Mondale against Jesse Jackson in 1984. El Diario‘s Gerson Borrero has reported that the inner circle of the Paterson election campaign has been quietly plotting strategy at the Harlem office of Paterson consultant Bill Lynch, and that the meetings include both Patersons, former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, and Basil’s longtime law partner Harold Ickes. All five backed Clinton; in fact, Ickes virtually ran the Clinton campaign in its final months. Now they sit together in Harlem trying to figure out how to make it immoral to challenge a black governor, a tribute to racial cynicism.
David Paterson actually went to Iowa and South Carolina on the Clinton campaign’s dime with a woman he later admitted had been his mistress (though he contends that they’d ended their relationship before these trips). He took a total of five trips at Clinton campaign expense. Dinkins, while traveling for Clinton with Rangel in South Carolina, told the Times that he “periodically laments how the race for the presidential nomination has been viewed by some voters purely through the prism of race and gender.” That’s a note he and the rest of the gang is unlikely to invoke now. Rangel actually dismissed African American support for Obama as merely “black pride,” and derided Obama’s attacks on Clinton as “stupid.”
It was Basil Paterson who unwittingly revealed, during the NY1 raw and rowdy discussion, just how believable the gang is. He proudly told the tale of how Sutton and he took over the NAACP’s New York chapter as a way of securing a political base decades ago. Sutton, who was elected president in 1961, then called a press conference at what Paterson recalled was a prominent midtown location. When Paterson got to the event, Sutton said let’s go upstairs to prepare the telegrams. What telegrams? Asked Paterson. The ones from Governor Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Senator Jacob Javits, said Sutton. But there aren’t any telegrams from Rockefeller and Javits, observed Paterson. Yes, but they’d want to congratulate us, explained Sutton.
Pressed about how they became known as the Gang of Four, each of the three chimed in with varying accounts. Paterson and Rangel eventually agreed that it was a title given them in 1985, when they helped block ex-congressman Herman Badillo, who was seeking black support to challenge Ed Koch for mayor. The gang instead quietly engineered the fake candidacy of Assemblyman Denny Farrell, who won the endorsement of a citywide black coalition, forcing Badillo from the race. It was all part of a legendary, under-the-table deal with Koch that allowed Dinkins to become borough president, with the layers of intrigue so intricate only fine print fanatics from the old days like myself remember them.
While the gang tried to figure out who came up with the term — which they all both hate and love — Dinkins could be heard muttering on the side, “Newfield, Newfield.” It was a reference to then Voice senior editor Jack Newfield, who did first give them that title in the pages of this paper.
Research assistance by T.J. Raphael and Simon McCormack