Harlem’s Permanent Political Class Retains Its Grip On Power


In Harlem, a game of musical chairs may soon reach its completion.

It started when Keith Wright, a longtime assemblyman, decided to run for Congress last year and give up his seat. Wright lost, leaving public life behind for a lucrative lobbying gig. Term-limited out of office, Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens spotted an opportunity for continued employment, running for and easily winning Wright’s old seat. It meant a pay cut and desultory Albany commute, sure, but at least she could remain an elected official and enjoy an office without term limits.

Bill Perkins, a Harlem state senator, was quite excited when Dickens left the Council. His base pay in Albany was only $79,500, which made him a pauper by Council standards, where a recent raise lifted salaries to $148,500 annually. Last week, Perkins triumphed in a crowded special election for the old Dickens Council seat, fleeing the tumult of the State Legislature at last.

Perkins launched his second tour of duty in the Council. He had previously served from 1998 to 2005. Dickens managed to be his predecessor and successor.

Now Wright has hinted publicly he is considering a campaign for Perkins’ vacant State Senate seat. “You know, elected officials—whether they’re former elected officials or current elected officials—are always interested in elective office. Elected officials don’t die, they don’t fade away, they’re always looming in the shadows,” Wright told the Observer earlier this month.

Wright’s eerie quote has some reality baked into it. Most elected officials are hungry for adulation and the ego-stroking that comes with holding a public perch with concrete responsibilities. In Harlem, a land where politicians just can’t let go, this seems to be especially true.

If Wright takes the State Senate seat in either a special election—if Governor Andrew Cuomo calls one, never a guarantee—or a September primary, the game of musical chairs will be complete. Harlem voters will have watched three Democrats in their sixties all trade places to remain in power. Yet another generation of political leadership will be stifled. The old guard persists.

Wright first went to Albany in 1993, which means Harlem has known some combination of the four aforementioned Democrats since Bill Clinton was president. Well-intentioned outsiders like Clyde Williams, Rev. Mike Walrond Jr. and Vince Morgan have tried and failed to penetrate this stale and staid hierarchy. Marvin Holland, Perkins’ top challenger in the recent special election, has said he will run again in a September primary. Perkins is undoubtedly the favorite.

It’s not certain that Wright will return. Basil Smikle, a Harlem politico and executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, is reportedly eyeing a run, and Wright may decide that life in the lobbying world suits him better. Smikle failed to unseat Perkins in 2010, and if Cuomo decided to pressure Wright, the chairman of the Manhattan Democratic Party, into bowing out of a comeback, the seat could be Smikle’s to lose. (Wright and Perkins declined to comment. Dickens did not return a request for comment.)

It would be best for the district and the State Legislature if Cuomo tried to fill the Senate seat as soon as possible with a special election. The special election process for state lawmakers is deeply flawed—local district leaders, in consultation with the county leader, nominate a Democrat without holding a primary—and in serious need of reform. In overwhelmingly Democratic Harlem, the Democratic nominee can’t lose.

But with Perkins’ departure, there are now an even number of registered Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, and Harlem residents are deprived of a state senator who can allocate funds for the district in the state budget and handle constituent complaints. The vacancy also gives the Independent Democratic Conference, a bloc of eight breakaway Democrats aligned with the Senate Republican majority, another excuse to not even thinking about empowering mainline Democrats like they should.

A special election would mean a Wright redux if the 62-year-old Wright wants it that way. Yet the best outcome for the district would be a state senator unencumbered by a calcified establishment that has ruled long enough.

Whether that actually happens remains an open question.