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Politics & Poker: Time for N.Y.’s Old Guard of Black Leaders to Step Aside

The grim faces said it all.

Gathered the other day at a meeting convened by the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York’s top minority political leaders held a mini-rally of sorts for Gov. David Paterson (D) — whose situation has gone from perilous to pathetic in just a few short days. In a sign of how far he has fallen, Paterson’s colleagues urged him to resist the loud calls for his resignation and hang in there until the end of his lame-duck — and distressingly lame — term.

[IMGCAP(1)]But the issue is so much bigger than Paterson now.

Plain and simple, it has been a bad few months for several of the Empire State’s African-American political leaders, including a couple of Members of Congress, who are mired in scandal or untenable circumstances. In fact, three of the five officials who sat in the front row at the news conference in Harlem on Saturday find themselves under unwanted scrutiny.

Who will stop the bleeding — and how? And what are the long-term consequences for New York politics and minority empowerment?

There is almost universal relief among Democratic leaders that Paterson has abandoned the folly of seeking a full term this fall. Even before the latest boneheaded scandal, he was going to lose — either in a bloody, racially divisive primary, or in a general election where he was bound to damage Democrats up and down the ballot.

With Paterson gone, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D) is almost certain to be elected governor, and the Democrats now retain an even chance of keeping control of the state Senate, just before the redistricting process begins. And eight potentially vulnerable Democratic Congressmen — Michael Arcuri, Tim Bishop, John Hall, Dan Maffei, Eric Massa, Michael McMahon, Scott Murphy and Bill Owens — can fight through a tough cycle without the additional distraction of having to account for Paterson’s erratic behavior.

Paterson’s case is both personally and politically tragic — doubly so coming as it does on the heels of the sex scandal surrounding his predecessor, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D).

It’s hard to remember how brimming with promise and reformist zeal the new Spitzer/Paterson administration was — and still breathtaking to contemplate how quickly it fell apart. Even though he proved less deft as governor

than he did as attorney general and stepped unnecessarily on a lot of toes, Spitzer seemed poised to deliver on many of his audacious promises, and an implacably dysfunctional Albany was quaking at the prospect.

When Spitzer imploded, New Yorkers of all political stripes showed Paterson, his genial (and history-making) successor, an enormous measure of goodwill, which the new governor seemed to bask in. But Paterson, whose prior political ambition had simply been to become state Senate Majority Leader, quickly appeared overmatched, and at times, uninterested, in the job. His political demise was only a matter of time, and bad as the scandal that ultimately undid him is, his pending departure seems somehow merciful.

But it’s fair to say that both Spitzer and Paterson have done incalculable harm to the cause of political reform in the state. And Cuomo, while possessing many admirable qualities, is no reformer.

Meanwhile, in Harlem, where his father was part of a generation of bright young leaders who challenged the establishment in the 1960s and transformed New York politics, Paterson’s predicament has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow, especially as the political legacy of the once-mighty Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) — who is like an uncle to the governor — continues to unspool.

As the drip, drip, drip of ethical questions pools as high as Rangel’s chest, it is a sad time for the Congressman and his legion of admirers, at home and on Capitol Hill. Rangel may or may not retain his gavel at the Ways and Means Committee. He may or may not be able to limp to re-election this fall. But his reputation is forever damaged, his ability to be a major player in the final days of the health care reform debate, gone.

At the same time that Rangel was recently being admonished by the House ethics committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D) has also found himself in political trouble, though it hasn’t gotten much attention outside of the New York tabloids. Meeks — a rising power in New York politics who does not mask his ambition — has been accused along with state Senate President Pro Tem Malcolm Smith (D) of starting a charity that hasn’t distributed much money to its intended recipients but has paid several of the officials’ political cronies.

That case has also ensnared Meeks’ predecessor, former Rep. Floyd Flake (D), the pastor at one of the biggest and most politically potent black churches in New York. Questions have also been raised in recent weeks about a group that Flake is involved with and its winning bid to operate a casino at the Aqueduct horse racing track in New York (Meeks and Smith have been tangentially scarred by this ongoing story as well).

Smith, who seemed like a sharp and disciplined political operator, became Senate Majority Leader after the Democrats triumphantly seized control of the chamber in 2008 for the first time in 46 years. But remember when the state Senate was paralyzed for weeks last summer over a question of which party was actually in control? That crisis was precipitated in part by the fact that Smith chose to browse on his BlackBerry during a meeting with Tom Golisano, the billionaire political dabbler who had helped bankroll the Democrats’ takeover. Smith’s lack of deference so enraged Golisano that he essentially gave his assent to certain restless state Senate Democrats who were ready to abandon ship.

After weeks of stalemate, Smith emerged as President Pro Tem, but with his power diminished — and with the reputation of the Legislature damaged even more than anyone can imagine. Brooklyn state Sen. John Sampson, another African-American Democrat, now retains the title of Majority Leader. No one is talking about Smith as a possible future governor or successor to Meeks anymore.

And the beat goes on. Just two weeks ago, New York City Councilman Larry Seabrook (D), who came within an inch of ousting Rep. Eliot Engel (D) in a 2000 primary, was indicted in a money laundering scheme.

Obviously, a few bad apples don’t mean the entire barrel of African-American political leaders is rotten in New York. There are many fine and promising black pols in the state, from Brooklyn to Buffalo.

But the troubles of Paterson and Rangel et al. have got to be dispiriting, to African-American leaders in New York, to black voters — and to everyone who supports the cause of minority empowerment.

The faces at Sharpton’s meeting looked not only grim, but tired. It’s clearly time not only for a new generation of black leaders to rise up in New York — but for the old guard to get out of the way.

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