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Joyce Johnson Makes Second Run at Rangel's Congressional Seat

By Jeff Mays | June 22, 2012 8:51am
Joyce Johnson is making a second run at the congressional seat currently held by Charles Rangel.
Joyce Johnson is making a second run at the congressional seat currently held by Charles Rangel.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — It's not easy to get New Yorkers' attention, and at a subway station at 5 p.m. on a gorgeous Friday afternoon, it's nearly impossible.

But that's what Joyce Johnson, a candidate for the 13th Congressional District seat, did last week.

Standing outside of the train station at Lexington Avenue and 96th Street, Johnson, 64, handed out campaign literature and talked up her second attempt at the seat held for four decades by incumbent Rep. Charles Rangel.

Some straphangers angrily waved Johnson off, while others took a flier without looking her in the eye and kept walking.

But Johnson was persistent. Before long, she struck up conversations with the people she considers to be her core constituency: Women.

"It's time for a woman in the House," said Johnson, who is divorced with an adult daughter and three grandchildren.

One woman chatted Johnson up about her lucky Eleanor Roosevelt pin. A few minutes later, Johnson gave motherly civic advice to a woman who is facing rising rents and possible eviction.

"The squeaky wheel gets the oil," Johnson told her. "Know who your electeds are. Start organizing. Bring everyone to the table."

For the second term in a row, Johnson, a retired Seagram's executive, feels that Rangel is vulnerable in the June 26 primary. As she was in 2010, Johnson is also the only female candidate in the race.

In 2010, Rangel was facing an ethics trial that led to his eventual censure. Johnson won the endorsement of The New York Times' editorial board, but Rangel still won the primary.

This time around, redistricting has stretched the new 13th Congressional District farther into The Bronx, making the district 55 percent Hispanic.

State Sen. Adriano Espaillat jumped into the race, as did Clyde Williams, a former advisor to both Presidents Clinton and Obama. Both have been able to match Rangel's muscled fundraising efforts. Also running is former model Craig Schley.

"I want the public to understand that you can hire and fire your elected official," said Johnson, who pledged to serve no more than five, two-year terms in the seat.

Johnson is using her own money and operating with a volunteer staff. She said her interactions with members of the public who fall within Rangel's base tell her that he is vulnerable.

She said Rangel reminds her of her father, who served 35 years as a councilman in Poughkeepsie before being knocked out by a younger candidate. Her dad never saw it coming, but she did.

"It was voter fatigue," she said of her father's loss in the 1990s. "That's the same issue in this race but I have infused the notion of gender," she added.

Johnson said the difference between her and the other major candidates for the seat are glaring. Rangel and Espaillat are career politicians, while Williams is too much of a policy wonk, she said.

"Community is two-thirds of the job. Washington is over 240 miles away, but the voters who live here in the 13th Congressional District care about affordable housing, small businesses, jobs and nonprofits that are suffering," Johnson said.

Being one of the first black, female executives at Seagram's helped to prepare her for a role in government, Johnson said. She had to learn when to make alliances, when to stand up for herself and when to stand down.

"We all had to prove ourselves over and over again in an environment that wanted to see us fail," said retired Seagram's executive Jim Martin . "It wasn't Seagram's but some of the people working for Seagram's.

"Joyce knows people," Martin added. "She does not shrink from a challenge, and she can get a good read on people pretty quickly. Those would be an asset for her or anyone with political aspirations."

That was on display when Johnson kept running into people from outside of the district while campaigning.

"You have friends everywhere — tell them about Joyce Johnson running for Congress," she told Deacon Eugene Mercer, 66, who doesn't live in the 13th Congressional District but works with church members at Second Canaan Baptist on Lenox Avenue and 111th Street in Harlem.

After a five-minute conversation about how tourism in Harlem could be used to bring jobs and development to the area, Mercer, a retired veteran, asked for a stack of literature to hand out.

"I hope you win. I'm going to tell my people we need change," Mercer said.

"Charlie has been a very good friend of the veteran. But when you get to a certain age, you become close-minded. We need people that are open to change," Mercer said afterward.

Among the other issues on Johnson's agenda if she wins are universal pre-K and helping entrepreneurs by creating a resource group where they can share ideas and help one another. 

Williams won the New York Times endorsement this time around, and both he and Espaillat have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign funds.

Johnson said she knows Rangel won't be easy to beat, especially since a portion of the Upper West Side where she received a substantial amount of her 6,400 votes is no longer in the district.

"The way I look at it this is a job," she said, "and I'm asking you to hire me."

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