HARLEM — Shirley Jackson, a retired federal government worker who has lived in Harlem for 25 years, is why Vincent Morgan thinks he's going to win Tuesday's Democratic Primary for the District 9 City Council seat.
Jackson voted for incumbent Inez Dickens in the last election. But when she saw Morgan, a former community banker, on the street in front of her building at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, she was willing to listen.
"Inez has been to my building's meetings and she's out there. She supports the churches," said Jackson. "But I want to do some more research before I make my decision."
Dickens and Morgan both pretty much agree that the top issues facing the neighborhood are jobs, affordable housing and schools. They both say they oppose charter schools being co-located with district schools and believe local development projects should provide jobs for area residents and businesses. Both see tourism as a potential revenue stream for the neighborhood.
The pair have been trying to distinguish themselves from one another by discerning who would do the job better.
The race between Dickens and Morgan has grown increasingly nasty. It started out with Morgan's closest supporters calling Dickens a "slumlord millionaire" because some of the buildings owned by her family's real estate company owe city fines and have been cited for poor conditions. Morgan has repeatedly said that Dickens has shirked her responsibilities as a landlord.
Dickens has tagged Morgan as a perennial candidate with no record who has resorted to trying to damage her family's legacy in Harlem. She has said she is proud of her family business.
"We live in our buildings. We don't shun our buildings," said Dickens.
Jobs For New York, a political action committee of the Real Estate Board of New York, construction trade unions and insurance companies has joined in. They sent out campaign fliers for Dickens that called Morgan an "empty suit" and another that unflatteringly compared him to Sarah Palin.
"Those are weak, desperate attacks that won't work," said Morgan.
Along with voters like Jackson, Morgan is hoping the demographic shift in Harlem which has ushered new, young residents with no allegiance to Dickens will turn the tide in his favor.
"This is my territory," Morgan said after campaigning on the gentrified Frederick Douglass Boulevard. "This is a new district and there are a significant number of voters who have never voted for her. Everywhere we go people say they are ready for a change."
But he faces an uphill battle. Dickens is fighting not only for her third term, but she is also listed as a leading candidate to be the next city council speaker.
"This would be a historic moment. Never before in the history of the city council have they had a black person to be speaker," said Dickens.
Her "political husband," as she often calls him, is 22-term Rep. Charles Rangel and Dickens been involved in Harlem politics behind the scenes for decades.
Campaigning at the 116th Street and Lexington Avenue subway stop Dickens pulled up in a billboard truck with a giant picture of her face on the side and voter's familiarity with her began to show.
"This is Inez. She's the woman," said Lawrence McKay, 54, a self-employed handyman who whipped out his cell phone to take a picture. "I didn't even look at her opponent because when Inez says she's going to fight for a cause, she does."
Dickens says the love she receives on the street is because of all the work she has done in the neighborhood as she begins listing the city tax dollars she has directed to groups in the area, jobs that she believes she has gotten for local contractors and housing that she has helped to make more affordable.
She even talks about using city money to fund a program at the school attended by Morgan's two kids.
"I don't have time to go negative on him. You go negative when you have nothing to say about what you've done. I have many things to talk about," said Dickens.
"I didn't just walk out here yesterday and say 'elect me, community.' I've been working for a long time."
Political consultant Basil Smikle said Morgan's strategy is a smart one.
"There is something to be said about the newer, younger residents not tied to political insinuations that will be supportive of him," said Smikle. "It remains to be seen how many of them know to come out and vote on primary day."
But Dickens' experience with voters and support from the Democratic political machine might make the difference.
"She has an organization of people who have been doing this for years and doing it well," Smikle said. "If you really like Inez Dickens and voted for her for a number of years the landlord articles are not going to sway you."
Sarah Slater, 54, a stage manager and her husband Jim, 55, a stagehand, live on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 114th Street and said they have voted for Dickens in the past but are considering Morgan after a long conversation with him on the street.
While they are happy about the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood, the couple say they may soon be priced out. They are looking for the next council person to make changes.
"We need a city council person who is going to educate people about their plan of how to move everyone forward," said Sarah Slater.