Clyde Williams outraised Rangel and Espaillat, worked for two presidents, and still the media doesn’t care
When people tell Clyde Williams he has no shot of prevailing in a congressional race that practically everyone has boiled down to a contest between the incumbent Rep. Charlie Rangel and State Senator Adriano Espaillat, Williams recounts a visit he paid to Capitol Hill back in early 2007 to meet with his friend Peter Rouse, who was then chief of staff to Senator Barack Obama.
“I’ll never forget,” recalls Williams, “he said ‘Barack Obama’s going to win for president.’ And I said, ‘President of what?’ ”
“I wasn’t trying to be flippant,” explained Williams, circling back to his own unlikely prospects. “Back then everybody thought he was nuts, like he would never win. You see who’s sitting in the Oval Office today, so it’s doable.”
While it is far from unusual for a first-time candidate to be largely ignored by the press, especially in a field with two heavyweight elected officials, there are several noteworthy aspects of Williams’ résumé and his campaign so far that make his marginalization by the media especially striking.
The first is the fact that Williams raised the most money of the five candidates in the race in the first quarter of this year by coming in with $113,109, nearly doubling both Espaillat’s total of $62,055 and Rangel’s $67,273 haul. [This issue went to press on the deadline day for second-quarter financial disclosures. As of press time, neither the Rangel nor the Espaillat campaigns had released their most recent totals and calls by City & State to their spokespersons for figures were not immediately answered. The Williams campaign disclosed it had raised $77,820, spent $169,675, and had $116,203 on hand.]
For the press, which usually emphasizes fundraising totals as one of the foremost metrics by which to gage political horse races, the muted coverage of Williams’ numbers defied its own conventional standards.
In addition, though Williams, 50, is new to running for office, he is hardly a political neophyte. After President Obama was elected, he named Williams political director of the Democratic National Committee and made Williams’ wife, Mona Sutphen, the first African-American White House deputy chief of staff.
His high-ranking appointment to the DNC was not Williams’ first position of prominence in Washington, D.C. During the Clinton Administration Williams served in a variety of posts, including deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency that had an $18 billion budget and 100,000 employees. After Clinton left office, Williams followed him to Harlem and became the former president’s deputy policy advisor, while also playing a significant role in the founding of the Clinton Foundation. Williams’ continued friendship with Clinton is such that the former president has abstained from endorsing Rangel, who he has always supported in the past, out of deference to Williams’ candidacy.
President Obama has also stayed out of the race, though he has not explained his reasons for doing so.
While no polls have been released in the race, there are legitimate reasons why the narrative of NY-13 has focused primarily on Rangel and Espaillat. Rangel, 82, has held the seat since 1971 and is both one of the country’s most prominent African-American elected officials and one of the best-known members of Congress—though in recent years his once-sterling reputation has been tarnished by an Ethics Committee investigation that found Rangel guilty on 11 counts of violating House rules. Nonetheless, Rangel has amassed a long list of weighty endorsements for his reelection bid, including nods from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State and Manhattan Democratic Chairman Keith Wright, Congressman José E. Serrano, and a host of unions, among them DC 37, AFSCME and CWA.
The comparable attention paid to Senator Espaillat’s challenge is in part due to the new demographics of the district following this year’s redistricting, which made the formerly 46% Latino district even more favorable for a Hispanic candidate by raising that population to 55 percent. Espaillat, 57, one of the city’s most popular Dominican-American leaders, has attracted the support of many prominent Latino supporters like former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and Adolfo Carrión, State Sens. José Peralta and Gustavo Rivera, and designer Oscar de la Renta. Espaillat also has the endorsement of the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario.
An often-espoused story line as to how the race will ultimately play out on June 26 has Espaillat dominating the Hispanic vote, Rangel commanding the African-American vote, and Williams and the other two candidates in the race, ex–Seagram’s executive Joyce Johnson and activist Craig Schley, all of whom are African-American, siphoning votes away from Rangel.
Emphasizing that the Latino community in the district is not “monolithic,” Williams adamantly disagrees with this common perception of the race. “People can draw the narrative they want to draw; that’s fine,” he said. “That’s what the press does. But sometimes the press is the last one to see what may be happening.”
Williams said he ignores the media’s coverage of the race and pays little attention to the moves his opponents are making. Instead he is intent on executing his “ground game,” which by his count has heretofore consisted of knocking on 25,000 doors, collecting more than 6,000 petition signatures and sending a mailing to the 82,000 people in the district.
Despite this outreach, Joyce Johnson said, “Clyde’s not known. He has to do the journey work that I did [first]. He’s not a carpetbagger,” she continued. “I think he wants this; he just doesn’t realize that you can’t say that, you know, ‘I am the only person who has worked for two presidents.’ Folks are saying, ‘You’re working for me, and I don’t know you.”
Williams insists that he has made his mark in the district, citing his role in founding the Harlem Small Business Initiative, the Harlem Speaker Series, and his work as a board member of the MAC AIDS Fund and the job-training nonprofit STRIVE among his accomplishments in the community.
Though he admits that he has only lived in the area for eight years, Williams, who grew up in Washington, D.C.’s historic black Anacostia neighborhood and was raised by a single mother following the death of his father when he was 3, disputes that this length of time should disqualify him from representing NY-13.
“Have I been here for 30 years, 20 years? No,” stated Williams. “I don’t know what the litmus test is to say, ‘Well, fine, you’ve been here long enough,’ but the bottom line is this: I’ve been here. I’ve worked in my community. I care about my community, and I’m running because I want to do what I think is best for the community.”
Williams chalked up the divisions in the district drawn between old and new members, and African-Americans, whites and Latinos, as artificial boundaries promoted by those who have a vested interest in keeping the community at odds.
“These political machines have always separated us, because it keeps them in power,” said Williams. “I don’t owe anybody anything from any of these political machines. None of them are going to support me; none of them are going to endorse me. I just want to go out and do what’s right for the community. And because I don’t have any of that baggage, I think I’m a better person to serve.”
Tags: Adolfo Carrion, Adriano Espaillat, AFSCME, Anacostia, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Capitol Hill, Charlie Rangel, Christine Quinn, Clinton Foundation, Clyde Williams, Craig Schley, DC 37, El Diario, Federal Election Commission, Gustavo Rivera, Harlem Small Business Initiative, Harlem Speaker Series, José E. Serrano, José Peralta, joyce-johnson, Keith Wright, MAC AIDS Fund, Michael Bloomberg, Mona Sutphen, Morgan Pehme, NY-13, Oscar de la Renta, Peter Rouse, STRIVE
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