A Look at New York

Posted April 11, 2003 at 5:33pm

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles to focus on the Empire State.

Politics in New York is the whirlwind you might expect it to be. People come and people go; frequently, they come back again. One minute, a longtime incumbent seems indestructible; the next minute, he’s gone. [IMGCAP(1)]

“The picture changes so often in New York,” said Chung Seto, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party.

But for all the unpredictability and excitement in New York, for all the larger-

than-life figures (from Theodore Roosevelt to Rudy Giuliani and dozens in between), for all the changes in the cast of characters — and New York being what it is, they are all characters — the state’s Congressional delegation has been a bulwark of stability in the past few decades.

Basically, a House seat from New York — especially from New York City — is a life-time sinecure. By the general consent of both parties in Washington and in Albany, few of the state’s 29 Congressional districts are even remotely competitive.

But change could be afoot, as several Members from the city approach or surpass retirement age. While most seem comfortable in their roles, “The question is, if it doesn’t look like the Democrats are going to take control [of the House] any time soon, how long are these guys going to want to stay?” said Jerry Skurnik, president of PrimeNY, a Democratic consulting firm in the city.

Whether or not they’re premature, retirement watches are already under way in at least four districts: Those of Reps. Charlie Rangel (D), age 72; Edolphus Towns (D), 68; Major Owens (D), 66; and Gary Ackerman (D), 60. All of the action to succeed them would be on the Democratic side.

When two of their recently departed colleagues from New York left Congress, they essentially hand-picked their successors. Former Rep. Tom Manton (D), who still serves as the powerful chairman of the Queens Democratic organization, announced his retirement in 1998 after he had filed for re-election and the filing deadline had passed, allowing his protege, then-state Assemblyman Joseph Crowley (D), to win the decisive Democratic nomination in a party convention that Manton engineered. Former Rep. Floyd Flake (D) did much the same when he resigned in 1997, anointing then-Assemblyman Gregory Meeks (D) to take his place in a low-turnout special election.

Would Ackerman, Owens, Towns or Rangel try to do the same? It’s possible. Owens and Towns, who represent adjoining majority-minority districts in Brooklyn, would certainly have reason to: Both have politically active sons who might want to run for their seats.

In Owens’ district, former local school board member Chris Owens is one of a handful of candidates likely to run when Congressman Owens retires. The list also includes former City Councilwoman Una Clarke (D), who took 46 percent of the vote against Owens in a bitter primary in 2000; state Assemblyman Nick Perry (D), who like Clarke was born in Jamaica; and state Sen. John Sampson (D).

Another intriguing name is former City Councilman Steve DiBrienza (D), a white liberal who represented a diverse district at City Hall. DiBrienza, who was forced out of the Council by term limits in 2001 and ran unsuccessfully to become New York City public advocate, has been itching to return to politics and may be hoping that the black vote splits in a crowded primary.

For Towns’ seat, the list of possible candidates to replace him includes his 34-year-old son, Assemblyman Darryl Towns (D), City Councilman James Davis (D) and Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. (D), who is also the Brooklyn Democratic leader. Asked whether Norman had the influence to clear the field if he wanted to run for Congress, Skurnik replied, “Not really.”

In Upper Manhattan, Rangel’s departure from Congress would represent a real changing of the guard. He won the seat in 1970 by knocking off the legendary incumbent Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in an acrimonious Democratic primary. And Rangel is the last of the “Gang of Four” — a quartet of powerful black Democrats, including former Mayor David Dinkins, who have defined Harlem politics since the 1960s — still in public office.

The list of potential successors to Rangel would begin with City Councilman Bill Perkins (D), who is likely to be Rangel’s favorite, Assemblyman Keith Wright (D), and Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields (D).

Powell’s 40-year-old son, Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV (D), who got 36 percent of the vote in a primary against Rangel in 1994, could also run. While the younger Powell lacks his father’s dynamism, he is part Puerto Rican (his great-grandfather was mayor of San Juan), and that could serve him well in a district that now has more Latino residents than black. Another Latino legislator, Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat (D), the first Dominican-American elected to a state Legislature in 1996, could also be a candidate. He is also mentioned as a potential candidate for Manhattan borough president in 2005, when Fields is term-limited.

Finally, there is state Senate Minority Leader David Paterson (D), the son of one of the original Harlem Gang of Four, former New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson (D). The younger Paterson, though undeniably ambitious, is now considered more likely to stay in Albany since winning his leadership post late last year.

Ackerman, the colorful if occasionally controversial 10-term veteran whose district spills across the city line from Queens into suburban Nassau County, shows no signs of retiring. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t already waiting in the wings.

The likeliest candidates there are Queens Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D), who won a special election for his legislative seat in 1994 following the death of his father, powerful Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin (D), and Long Island Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli (D). DiNapoli was upset in the 2001 Democratic primary to be Nassau County executive by Thomas Suozzi, a rising star in state politics.

Queens Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D) — who doubles as head of the city’s building trades unions’ umbrella organization — could also run for the Ackerman seat. He is also one of three legislators considered likely to compete to become speaker of the Assembly whenever the longtime incumbent, Sheldon Silver (D), retires.

Of course, Congressional politics in New York are often affected by citywide and statewide races, not to mention national politics.

Even though he is only 38, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) is contemplating running for mayor in 2005. If he won, there would certainly be a multiple-candidate race to replace him, and that race would likely feature City Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D), among others. DeBlasio was campaign manager for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in 2000.

While he prepares to run for re-election next year, there is also talk that Sen. Charles Schumer (D) could run for governor in 2006. Although Republicans are scrambling to find a suitable challenger to Schumer for 2004, his hypothetical departure for Albany two years later would probably set off crowded primaries in both parties.

And who knows what happens if Clinton, assuming she’s re-elected in 2006, runs for president in 2008?

Coming April 28: The rest of the state.