Harlem Congressional Race Shows Revitalization of Black Politics

In Harlem, where blacks have often felt powerless, a politician is trying to convince people they have the power.

For the first time in 24 years, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, whose campaign slogan is ``keep the power,'' faces a serious challenger. He hopes to convince voters that he has acquired so much influence in Congress that it would be foolish not to send him back.

His young opponent in tomorrow's Democratic primary, City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV, is the son of the legendary black politician Rangel beat in 1970 to win the House seat for this mostly poor district.

Mr. Powell is hoping to convince voters that Rangel is a cobweb-covered incumbent who has failed to use the power he's got.

The Rangel-Powell race reflects a wide-ranging revitalization of black American politics, some observers say.

After decades in which some black incumbents rarely faced serious opponents, at least 14 black incumbents are being challenged this year - in many cases by members of a new generation of black politicians.

Thirteen new districts designed to increase minority representation sent a record number of blacks to Congress in 1992. Many black incumbents - as Rangel is eager to point out - are enjoying unprecedented clout on Capitol Hill, leading to hefty campaign war chests few challengers can match.

Rangel, who holds a top post on the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and is considered a leader in Congress, may spend close to $1 million on the race. Powell is expected to spend about $100,000.

``They have integrated themselves into the money system of politics. It's very difficult to make an incumbent lose - black or white,'' says Alvin Thornton, a professor who studies black politics at Howard University in Washington. ``If a younger challenger comes up, people are going to say, `Are you out of your mind? Why throw away that kind of power?' ''

But interviews with residents of Rangel's predominantly black and Hispanic 15th Congressional District indicated little interest in the election and expressed the strong distrust of government that polls show is common nationwide.

``I have mixed feelings about all [politicians]. I've seen a lot of things promised that never happened,'' unemployed Harlem resident Ralph Slaton says. ``People are tired of poverty. People are tired of discrimination. I believe in deeds, not words.''

The median family income in the district is $21,065 - well below the national average of $35,225. The diverse, overwhelmingly Democratic district includes Harlem, the northern tip of Manhattan, a section of Queens, and some of the worst slums in the country.

Observers caution that increased black power in Congress has so far done little to ease the poverty 30 percent of US blacks live in and that conditions in inner cities have worsened over the last decade. Some blacks, like their white counterparts, are increasingly alienated from politics.

``Election time, that's the only time I see him [Rangel],'' East Harlem resident June Waters says as she hurries into her apartment building with groceries. ``I think they'll keep [Rangel] in. The ones that come out and vote are the comfortable ones who don't want to rock the boat, even if rocking the boat is for the better.''

Challenger Powell, considered a long shot by most observers, is banking on the anti-incumbent sentiment and a large turnout.

`[Rangel's] not only been there too long, he's produced nothing in 24 years,'' explains Powell, whose mother is Puerto Rican, as he greets subway riders on a run-down block in predominantly Hispanic East or ``Spanish'' Harlem. ``His seniority has not translated into a better quality of life here.''

But Rangel cites his central role in enacting the new $3.5 billion urban renewal ``empowerment zone'' program, a new national low-income housing program, and an expansion of the earned-income tax credit as examples of his effectiveness.

``I've demonstrated the power,'' Rangel says, ``Whether it's been keeping hospitals open or saving tax credits, I've been able to do it.''

A Powell win would not be unprecedented. Two black congressmen were defeated in 1992, and this year two more - Lucien Blackwell of Philadelphia and Craig Washington of Houston - lost their Democratic primaries to aggressive black challengers.

``[Black politics] has matured,'' says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, which focuses on black issues. ``There was a time when the turnover rate for blacks was less [than average]; it's now very, very similar.''

The new districts designed to increase minority representation have also created opportunities for new black leaders.

In 1992, the number of blacks in Congress jumped from 26 to 40, the largest single increase since after the Civil War, and the average age of a black Congressman dropped from 57 to 50.

The record number of blacks in Congress has helped turn the Congressional Black Caucus into a crucial voting block that has won major concessions from the Clinton administration.

African Americans now chair the powerful House Armed Services Committee and the Government Operations Committee. Blacks, who make up 11.1 percent of the voting-age population, now hold 8.7 percent of the seats in the US House, according to Mr. Bositis.

Despite the progress in Washington, observers are concerned about continued alienation of some blacks.

``Black politicians have to worry about the basic level of interest in politics in their districts,'' Professor Thornton warns. ``Low turnouts in their districts [reduces black political power] because it makes their districts less important in national and state elections.''

Harlem resident Slaton says that lesson was made clear in last year's race for New York City mayor.

In an upset, David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, narrowly lost to Republican Rudolph Giuliani, in part because of Dinkins's inability to get more blacks to go to the polls.

``Blacks were so sure Dinkins was going to win and Giuliani slipped right in,'' Slaton says. ``And now we're crying.'' But Slaton predicts Dinkins's loss and the Rangel-Powell race will not draw people to the polls.

``I predict that there will be a really low turnout,'' he says. ``You hear people saying it doesn't matter who gets in office. They're just going to do the same thing.''

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