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Harlem Divided Over Presidential Race

By Robin Shulman
NEW YORK -- "Harlem is Obama Country" trumpets a sign in Sen. Barack Obama's Harlem headquarters. But just blocks away is solid evidence of a Clinton presence: the office former president Bill Clinton has maintained for almost seven years. And based on conversations outside that office, it seems that Harlem -- a legendary black neighborhood in the Clintons' home turf -- is actually contested country.

Passersby mention Obama's ability to inspire, his promise of change, and his potential to make history as the first black president, as well as Sen. Hillary Clinton's local experience, friendships, political favors and successes.

"I'm going to vote for Obama, I think we need a fresh voice," said Bernice Baker, 82, a retired administrative assistant. "But I like Hillary too."

"Obama wants to change the world, but what's he going to do for me?" asked Francis Gordon, 68, a retired secretary. "Hillary is our senator."

Meanwhile, Harlem's politicians have mostly lined up behind the Clintons. They are led by Representative Charles B. Rangel, the dean of the Harlem Democrats, who originally invited Bill Clinton to open an office in Harlem, and recently campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the South.

Rangel's rivals note that if she were to become president, he would have his strongest ally in the White House in more than three decades in office. Rangel did not return calls to comment for this story.

But Rangel's wife, Alma Rangel, on Friday declared her support for Obama.

"I believe Barack Obama has the ability to unify this country and the character to stand up for what's right instead of what's popular," she said in a statement released by the Obama campaign. "Senator Obama is the future, part of the new generation of leaders who can inspire us to transform our country."

And some people interviewed on 125th Street talked about a divide between the political elite, which favors Clinton, and regular people, many of whom have been excited by Obama.

"In my lifetime, I would like to see a black person do something I never seen before," said George Smalls, 52, a juvenile corrections officer. "What I can't understand is why all the black politicians in Harlem are going with Hillary."

"You don't abandon your friends in a time of challenge," said Rev. Calvin Butts, of the legendary Abyssinian Baptist Church, when asked in a telephone interview about his endorsement of Clinton, adding that she has been a strong senator, supportive of local projects.

"I have received some criticism from members of the community who believe that I should either have endorsed Obama or remained neutral," said Butts, who also acknowledged that he contributed financially to Obama's senate race in Illinois.

After their minister's endorsement of Clinton last month, members of the Abyssinian Baptist Church came to the local Obama headquarters to offer their support to that campaign, said State Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem, an Obama supporter.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 1, 2008; 6:49 PM ET
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I have always been proud to be an American and participate in our democratic process. It is by no means perfect, but it is our government...and it is our responsibility as voters to put people in office whom we believe have our best interests in mind and the abilities to achieve those goals accordingly. I know whom I'll vote for on Super Tuesday and beyond, and while I hope others will be aligned with my vote, the only thing I really ask is that anyone who casts a ballot do so as an informed voter - one who is knowledgeable about the candidates and their positions (not just from obviously biased media coverage and snippets or soundbites that feed the misconstruing of quotes and their intended meaning).

What has saddened me throughout this primary process is how carelessly we seem to be in our rush to rash judgment and vilification of anyone who holds a view different than ours. I'm just confused as to when we collectively adopted this witch-hunt mentality that strips us of common sense, reason, and the ability to make decisions based primarily in intelligence - and not emotion.

Who wouldn't be moved by rhetoric of change and hope after what we've regretfully endured for the past 8 years? Perhaps the one point that most of us can agree on is that a change is undoubtedly necessary...and as a basic human need, we are drawn to messages of hope. However, when we begin to equate the ability to bring about change with less experience in the "political establishment" or the inability to bring it about just because someone has more experience, we totally miss the point and do ourselves a disservice. When rhetoric of hope and change is accompanied by a plan to overhaul our entire political system, then perhaps I'll buy into the hype. Until then, the very real reality remains that our next President will need to work within the system that has existed since our country's founding to bring about any change and betterment for any of us. So, while it sounds amazing and fills a much needed void in our nation, hope and change rhetoric can't solve our healthcare crisis, our crumbling public education system, our tarnished international image, our disastrous economic issues and on and on. Perhaps I'll be more inclined to be "inspired" once our mounting problems have been fixed - or at least lessened, but right now - you'll have to forgive me if I'm much less interested in the intangibles and much more moved by the prospect of electing someone who can help solve our very immediate problems that threaten to negatively impact us for years to come.

Bottom line - whoever is elected in November will have a difficult job cleaning up the utter mess our country is in right now. Anyone who thinks that the election of any one person will end the partisan politics that have defined our democratic process since its inception is simply being unrealistic. Congress isn't going away. The Senate isn't going away. Political parties aren't going away. So, there will be a mandate that our next President know how to work effectively within that system to achieve better programming and legislation for everyday people like me.

Oh - and to michelletjohnson, it's the perpetuation of the type of nescience that you demonstrate that is rapidly and surely helping to distract us from the real issues and taint otherwise good motives and deeds by our elected officials and community leaders. Just to be clear, Dr. Butts isn't a paid man - none of the earmarks for the organization of which he is chairman were allocated to him. They instead were approved for supporting local programs in Harlem. The funding which the organization received last year was backed by Senators Clinton and Charles Schumer (whose office the organization applied to), along with Congressman Charles Rangel, to fund community programs in Harlem specifically for at-risk youth, youth after-school program expansion, and social service work. When did it become a bad thing to back these types of programs that demonstrate a commitment to local people to help them build better local communities? If anything, we need more politicians who show a vested interest in helping to build us up - both in hope and by putting the very tax dollars that we pay everyday back to work in a positive way in our communities. Check out the organization's website to get a better idea of how they've help improve their community - And better yet - please, be informed.

Posted by: da12c | February 2, 2008 10:33 PM | Report abuse

Robert F. Kennedy once remarked:

"All of us, from the wealthiest and most powerful of men to the weakest and hungriest of children, share one precious possession: the name 'American.' It is not easy to know what that means. But in part to be an American means to have been an outcast and a stranger, to have come to the exiles' country, and to know that he who denies the outcast and stranger among us at that moment also denies America."

During the debate Thursday night, Barack Obama echoed RFK when he said, to applause, that arguments about how the inner-city unemployment of blacks is related to the influx of immigration is a case of "scapegoating" immigrants.

Hillary, fresh from her campaign of racial coding in South Carolina, countered by claiming--against all evidence--that voters needed to realize that immigrants do take the jobs of low-income Americans.

America is tired of the arrogance, corruption and lack of that elusive thing called grace that characterized Bill Clinton's "co-presidency" with Hillary.

Clean slate !!!
Barack Obama,
'08 !!!

Martin Edwin Andersen

Posted by: Martinedwinandersen | February 2, 2008 1:11 AM | Report abuse

Totally agree with Maq1 and Sirack. Hillary is a smart, shrewd (albeit divisive & abrasive) politician. But Barack Obama is simply a political prodigy. He has leadership skills, vision, and the ability to inspire people that Hillary can never even approach.

The President is not the Wonk in Chief - simply an expert in the details of policy and administration. The President is Chief Executive, so the skills of the executive - NOT the operations manager - are what's required here.

Obama '08!

Posted by: mvkniat | February 2, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: dingo_girl2002 | February 1, 2008 11:25 PM | Report abuse

As a 63 year old black female. I stand tall for "Sen.Hillary R. Clinton. I believe she has the experience and will guide this great America into the "new change" for all people! I have no doubt in my mind of her political knowledge and her political character to become the first female President of the United States of America.

Posted by: gloriab944 | February 1, 2008 9:33 PM | Report abuse

To the lady in the article who wonders why the older generation of black leaders are for Clinton:

Rev. Butts's development organization received almost 1.5 million dollars from an Hillary Clinton earmark. He's a paid man, why wouldn't he support her.


Posted by: michelletjohnson | February 1, 2008 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Maq1 - My thoughts exactly, what Obama brings to the table is quite phenomenal and ground breaking. When was the last time that young people participated in such large numbers in our politics? For that matter, the participation of all ages has been amazing. The level of grass roots organization he has put in place in such a short time unheard of. With him at the helm, I truly believe that we will reclaim our government back.

I also respectfully ask your vote for Obama.

Posted by: Sirack | February 1, 2008 7:25 PM | Report abuse

To the Undecideds,

Sen. Obama is growing the party beyond anything we Democrats have seen in recent history. Sen. Clinton is intelligent and ground-breaking in her own right, but Sen. Obama has something the party has lacked - since before Regan - the ability to grow the party. This growth is not just good for Dems, its good for America because consensus is necessary for Washington to govern properly.

Please don't send us back to the partisan bunkers we lived in through the Bush-Clinton era. Please vote to fix Washington by redefining the terms of debate. Respectfully, please vote Obama.

Posted by: maq1 | February 1, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

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