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Rangel Opponent Hopes D.C. Credentials Win Votes

By Jeff Mays | May 22, 2012 9:30am
Clyde Williams, who has worked as an adviser to President Obama and President Clinton, pitches himself to voters in Harlem.
Clyde Williams, who has worked as an adviser to President Obama and President Clinton, pitches himself to voters in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Clyde Williams isn't afraid to use his experience working in Washington, D.C. for two sitting presidents in his quest to unseat 21-term Rep. Charles Rangel.

Canvassing an apartment building in Harlem, he stepped into the home of a voter with a picture of Obama he created using Popsicle sticks on his wall.

"My old boss," Williams told the man, pointing to the art.

Williams reiterated his credentials while drumming up support outside of the building at 141st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard — a street named after the man that Rangel, 81, unseated in a primary to win the seat 41 years ago.

"I've worked for Clinton and Obama," Williams, 50, told a woman after discussing the state of the area's schools.

Williams said that despite Rangel's accomplishments over the last four decades, it's time for someone new in the 13th congressional district.

His experience as National Political Director for the Democratic National Committee after President Barack Obama's election and as a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Foundation in Harlem make him the perfect candidate, Williams said.

"I respect the congressman," he said.

"You can't say he hasn't done anything. That would be an outright lie. But you have educational disparities, health-care disparities, employment disparities that have now been in place for decades in this community.

"If you look at anyone who is running against Charlie Rangel right now I'm the only person who has actually worked in Washington D.C.," said Williams, who also served as deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration.

"I have an understanding of what it's like and what it takes to get things done in D.C."

Also running in the primary are former Seagram's executive and political adviser Joyce Johnson, who won the New York Times' endorsement during the 2010 race, former model Craig Schley and state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

In the heavily Democrat district, the winner of the primary usually coasts to victory in the general election.

Rangel faces an uphill battle for re-election, after being censured in 2010 for ethics violations including improperly using a rent-controlled apartment as his campaign headquarters.

He also faces a new pool of voters after redistricting stretched the boundaries of the 13th district further into the Bronx, making the pool of voters 55 percent Hispanic and opening the door for  Espaillat to run.

Williams and Espaillat have been able to match Rangel's fundraising and Rangel has been battling health problems, including back problems that have caused him to use a walker.

Clinton, who has endorsed Rangel in the past, and Obama have so far stayed out of the race.

Even with all of that in play, Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said Williams has an uphill battle to win the seat. He doesn't think Williams' associations with Clinton and Obama will be of much help.

"Voting is a learned behavior and people vote in patterns," he said.

"For example, few New Yorkers will be prepared for a June election. Primaries have been in September for 40 years. The last June primary was held in 1973.

"Thus it will be turn out that determines outcome and that gives Rangel the edge."

Williams, who moved to Harlem in 2001, said the response he gets from people on the street tells him otherwise.

William Ray, 51, a DJ and electronic technician, said jobs were his biggest concern.

"The people need jobs and we need someone to help create jobs," Ray said.

"I've voted for Rangel in the past but it's time for a change. He's been in office for years. Change is why we have Obama in the White House."

Gregory Flores, 28, told Williams that after he lost his job as an animal technician, local politicians did not respond when he reached out for help.

Williams told the man that he would send his resume to a property manager he knows that's looking for workers.

"I think it's time for a change because they are not hearing us anymore," Flores said.

Williams also thinks he'll do well with Latino voters such as supporter Leopold Vasquez, 38, owner of the Sound of Art, an art sales and consulting company in Washington Heights.

"I've been told before that, 'You are probably going to vote for Espaillat.' My answer is, 'Why is it presumed that I have to?'" said Vasquez, who is Dominican.

Williams said his platform is about jobs, education and opportunity. One idea he has is increasing tourism in areas such as Central and East Harlem and Washington Heights to draw more visitors and help create more jobs.

"Tourists come here and spend three to four hours at a time. They need to spend three to four days at a time," he said to nods of approval.

Vasquez says improving tourism to Washington Heights would help him and dozens of other small business owners.

On education, Williams said there needs to be a focus on providing resources for traditional schools. At the same time, charter schools are not the enemy, he said.

When it comes to job-creation, there needs to be more of a focus on training for well-paying vocational careers such as electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics, he said.

"There's no reason we can't train people in our community to fulfill those jobs," said Williams. "Let's figure out what jobs are available today and train people for those jobs."

Williams, who grew up in Washington D.C., arrived in Harlem in 2001 to work for Clinton's foundation. He helped to create the Harlem Small Business Alliance.

He returned to D.C. when his wife Mona Sutphen was named deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House. The Washington Post called the pair one of the "most powerful couples in Washington."

Williams became political director for the Democratic National Committee. A small group of people tried to get him to consider running against Rangel in 2010 but he declined.

But the plan was always to return to Harlem, Williams said.

Since he came back last year, he has faced some criticism as being an outsider.

"Millions of people have come here for generations to this great city and become involved and a part of the process because they care about this city and they care about the community," Williams said.

When voters like Viveca White began supporting him, Williams said he believed he was making progress.

Walking with him through Central Harlem, White, who is known for helping people get things done in the neighborhood, said she voted for Rangel many times.

"I have done what most people have done for the last 25 years and flipped the switch for names I know, like Rangel," said White.

"But with Clyde, I feel like I'm finally hearing someone talk about the issues facing my community," she said. "Charles Rangel has become too standoffish, too unreachable."

Rob Carmona, co-founder and former CEO of STRIVE, an East Harlem employment service where Williams sat on the board, said he gives Rangel credit for his accomplishments.

"Charlie brought home the bacon, so to speak, and he's considered one of our own, whether African American or Latino," Carmona said.

When Williams told him he was going to run, Carmona said he heard something different in his voice.

"He said he saw how things are changing and that his kids would be impacted. He said: 'I know people, I know things and I think I can help.'"

Whether Williams' experience in D.C. will make a difference with voters remains to be seen, but some residents are taking notice.

"You really impressed me with that Clinton thing," one man on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard told Williams after a conversation about small businesses. "Real impressive."