Basil Smikle, Bill Perkins, and the Race for Harlem

By Colby Hamilton

The story of a New York City politician in trouble usually begins with something dramatic or embarrassing. A scandal of some sort—ethics violations, some improprieties of finance, the delving into the illicit—is the catalyst to bring the political opportunists out of the shadows.

This is exactly why the Democratic primary in Manhattan’s 30th State Senate district, which straddles the western and northern parts of Central Park before jutting north through Harlem to the base of the George Washington Bridge along the Harlem River, is such an unusual specimen.

There is no evidence here of the sort of chaos produced by former city councilman Miguel Martinez, who was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing more than $100,000 from city coffers last year, or, at the federal level, by Representative Charles Rangel, accused of ethics violations by his House colleagues.

The incumbent in this race is State Senator Bill Perkins. He is a former city councilmember from Harlem who moved up to the Senate in 2006 after the former senator, David Paterson, became lieutenant governor. He was born and raised in Harlem. He holds a political science degree from Brown University. He is a cancer survivor, as well as a marathon runner. He is uncomplicatedly liberal: he opposed the Iraq War from its start, was arrested protesting the RNC in 2004 and fought to make a living wage the law in New York City. The Nation magazine named him one of the leading local progressive political figures in the country in 2005.

“I’m a product of a movement, the civil rights movement,” Perks said. “I don’t come to this from a cynical point of view. I come to it from the point of view that no matter how dysfunctional or difficult the challenge, that I can be successful.”

He went against his own political interests to support a presidential candidate from Illinois against the hometown favorite in 2008. As a state senator he has fought to make state agencies more accountable and the air cleaner by removing pollutants from heating oil. He is greeted by name on the street, and possesses that crucial political ability of recalling other’s names, faces and stories on command.

Most importantly of all, he is untouched by political scandal. By the conventions of political wisdom, State Senator Bill Perkins should be coasting to a third term.

Basil Smikle, the eminently credible first-time candidate who has decided to challenge Perkins, knows all of this. He is a creature of politics. His life before running for office himself was helping other people run for office. In his attempt to net all the top political fish in the sea for his reelection run last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reeled Smikle into his campaign. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, then a Democrat, hired Smikle to oversee his 2004 presidential efforts in New York. Before that, Smikle worked as a Senate aide to Hillary Clinton after helping her win the seat in 2000.

Smikle, like Perkins, grew up in modest financial circumstances. He was raised in the Bronx by Jamaican immigrants who were so intent their son be well-educated that they only allowed him to stay up late to watch television as a child if he agreed to write a report on the program. He, too, has Ivy League credentials, having graduated from Cornell as an undergrad before moving to Harlem to attend Columbia for graduate school in 1994.

From the outside this race has been cast as a battle over charter schools, which is accurate insofar is that’s the most easily identifiable policy difference between the contestants. Earlier this year, Perkins came out in opposition to a plan to raise a limit on charter schools in New York State. Many state and city officials, including both Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg, supported the plan as a way to qualify New York for federal education funds. Perkins and others—including the state’s powerful teachers unions, who have long opposed charters—argued that more oversight was needed to ensure the for-profit schools were meeting students’ and the community’s needs.

“Ninety-seven percent of my constituency is going to wind up in public schools of the traditional type,” Perkins said. “They are frustrated because they see so much of the political leadership looking at the 3 percent that are charters and ignoring the 97 percent where most of the children will be in attendance.”

In the end, the cap was raised, and Perkins got himself a primary opponent. The polarization of Harlem, in particular, over the issue provided a window of opportunity for a savvy, well-connected challenger to enter the race against the senator, garner support over the issue, and raise the necessary funds to be seen as a legitimate contender. Smikle, with his political acumen and history, seized the opportunity.

“In many ways he’s pit parents against each other, neighbors against each other, he carves out sort of a comfortable incumbency for himself where he can observe a lot of what’s happening and observe the turmoil and witness this decline in jobs and in affordable housing and sort of blame everybody else but not take an actual leadership position,” Smikle said of Perkins.

Listen to the candidates speak and you’ll hear more or less the same talking points. While much of the media reporting on the race has focused on the issue of charter schools, on the streets of Harlem neither candidate gets asked much about the issue. Jobs, affordable housing, violence are the issues residents more frequently want to discuss, and both candidates agree that the need for action in all those areas is urgent.

What separates Smikle and Perkins is less policy positions than age. Perkins makes a point of connecting himself to the civil rights era. Smikle, by contrast, presents himself as a product of the success of the civil rights era. Young, politically sophisticated and personally ambitious, Smikle’s professional accomplishments are proof that when Perkins’s generation told Smikle’s it could grow up to be whatever it wanted, it was true.

From Smikle’s perspective, one that many of the emerging leaders of his generation appear to share, that also meant the narrative of success would change. Becoming a Wall Street banker could be considered just as valid a pursuit as becoming a community activist, and public service could take many forms. Which in turns means that the pool of candidates for officialdom would necessarily look different than it did before.

“[Local residents] feel that people have been in there long enough that they’ve been seeing the same names so long that they really want some new blood,” Smikle said. “When you couple that with what happened with Obama in 2008 and Cory Booker a few years prior, there is an appetite for younger leadership, so I think people seem to be ready for my kind of candidacy, I just need to prove to them that I could be just as competent as the folks who’ve come before me.”

Democratic voters in Harlem are about to render a verdict on whether he’s succeeded.