By Jon Schuppe
CENTRAL HARLEM — Joyce Johnson has read the stories about Harlem's enduring love of Charles Rangel. She’s heard the strategists say the scandal-plagued 20-term congressman will coast to re-election. She’s seen the fundraising reports that place her last among six people seeking New York’s 15th Congressional District seat.
Johnson knows the odds. But, like the rest of Rangel’s challengers, she is driven by the belief that his ethics woes has left the race open for a big upset.
And what bigger upset than by the field’s only woman?
“If there was ever a time,” she said, “it is right now.”
While once an invincible candidate, Rangel has become vulnerable in the face of an ongoing House ethics panel investigation into allegations that he improperly solicited money for a college center named after him, failed to pay taxes on a Caribbean villa, and improperly obtained a rent-stabilized apartment.
A number of elected leaders have called on Rangel to resign for the good of the Democratic Party, but he remains popular on the streets of his district, which he has represented since 1970.
Johnson is one of four Democrats running against Rangel in the party’s Sept. 14 primary election. The others include State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, labor activist Jonathan Tasini and banker Vincent Morgan. There is also a Republican, Michel Faulkner, running in the general election. But in an overwhelmingly Democratic district like the 15th, which covers Harlem, Washington Heights and the Upper West Side, the primary determines the winner.
All of the other candidates have raised more money than Johnson, according to the most recent election reports. A Public Policy Polling survey of prospective Democratic voters put Johnson in third place, slightly ahead of Tasini and Morgan but way behind Rangel and Powell.
Johnson, 62, a longtime resident of the Upper West Side, is drawing on a deep reserve of self-confidence and resiliency.
A former executive at Seagram’s and an advisor to some of New York's most successful female politicians, she was a New York field director for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. She has run for office twice before — for council and state assembly — and lost.
Those races left her with a jaded view of local politics. It drives her strategy to focus on face-to-face interactions with voters, whose anti-incumbent sentiment, she feels, has been underestimated.
She is careful not to criticize Rangel too strongly, however.
“I can’t run a race by saying I’m not him, " she said. "But I can say that I can do a better job -- that this community needs a new lens, a new vision.”
She pressed that message Wednesday afternoon on the busy corner of West 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. Wearing a beige linen suit and a wide-brimmed straw golf hat, Johnson handed out leaflets with an aide, introducing herself and asking for votes.
Some people stopped to talk about the most pressing issues in their lives: lack of jobs, rising rents, the gentrification of their neighborhood.
After a conversation with Khadija Ali, a 25-year-old Columbia student, Johnson handed her a leaflet and said, “Read about me, and I know that you’ll decide I’m the one.”
One man, Anthony Bennett, 49, said he’d become skeptical of politicians’ promises to create more affordable housing.
Johnson told him she wanted to find ways to force the owners of Harlem’s new condominium buildings to set aside vacant units for low-income people. Bennett said he’d support her if she called him to follow up.
“You can blow smoke up my butt all day long, but at the end of the day, i still got nothing,” Bennett said. “I’ll know you’re serious if you call me.”
When he'd left, Johnson said, “I’m going to call him.”
Without a deep well of money, Johnson said she had to rely on people like Bennett to volunteer their time to spread the word about her.
"I tell them: 'This is a leap of faith. If you believe in me, then you’ll help me get there.'”