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Harlem’s ‘Gang of Four is no more’

GangOf4 600New York City lost one of its most powerful progressive forces Wednesday with the passing of Basil Paterson.

As a member of the influential "Gang of Four," Paterson – along with former Mayor David Dinkins, late civil rights activist Percy Sutton, and Congressman Charles Rangel – helped to develop the economic and political capital of the city's black community.

With Paterson and Sutton both now deceased, many are now looking back on the legacy of the Gang of Four and wondering if there is a void in New York City's black political leadership.

Forming the "Gang of Four"

The four men were forged into a coalition by outside forces. In 1985, former New York congressman Herman Badillo was interested in becoming mayor of the city but needed the backing of prominent black leaders.

According to Dinkins, a meeting of 30 to 35 leaders was convened. Badillo went in expecting to receive the group's blessing but was taken by surprise when one of the men, Herman "Denny" Farrell, made a last-minute appeal for his own candidacy. The group was swayed and backed Farrell. Afterwards, an incensed Badillo placed the blame at the feet of Paterson, Sutton, Rangel and Dinkins.

In a press conference, he blasted them as the "gang of four" responsible for torpedoing his candidacy.

"We really weren't to blame," said Dinkins in an interview with theGrio. "Actually, in the meeting that resulted in Denny getting the backing, we didn't even speak — not so much as cleared our throats, but we were blamed. So we wore it as a badge of honor, like Nixon's Enemies List."

The name and their bond stuck. In years to come, all four would all rise in influence in local and national politics, working together and helping each other along the way.

"The Gang of Four, part of a long line of African-American and West Indian political leaders in Harlem, laid the foundation for black electoral and political power nationally, in many respects," says political consultant Basil Smikle.

"With [Paterson's] experience as an elected and appointed official in State government, and as a labor leader, he was uniquely positioned to understand the political cleavages between government and communities of color. Where there was no path, he left a trail that became a conduit for David Dinkins to become the city's first African-American mayor and for his own son to become governor of New York."

Smikle, who cut his teeth in New York politics, was affectionately called, "the other Basil in Harlem" by Paterson. Having been supported by the elder Basil, Smikle is just one of many young black politicos that can trace their political DNA to the Gang of Four.

Congressman Rangel released a statement soon after the news broke of Paterson's death, calling him a "brother," a "giant among men" and celebrating their accomplishments as political partners.

"I am honored and grateful to have known and worked with Basil," Rangel said. "Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton, David Dinkins, and I were inseparable and indefatigable in our continuous efforts to make Dr. King's Dream a reality for all. Each step of the way, as he championed Dr. King's legacy as the state senator, deputy mayor of New York City, and then the Secretary of State of New York, Basil helped pave the path in which anybody, regardless of race, could not only vote, but also hold any public office in the nation."

A void of black leadership?

Today, Dinkins is mostly retired from public life and Rangel is currently in, perhaps, the toughest race of his career to hold onto his seat in Congress. Some have pointed to this moment as a sign that New York City's old black political machine is all but defunct.

"The passing of power of the 'Gang of Four is not necessarily something to be mourned – as much as observed as another sign of change in the ever-roiling city. While ethnic politics will always be a part of local politics, the ethnicities are always on the move," wrote New York political reporter Bob Hardt.

Dinkins seems to read the writing on the wall differently, however.

"People have been saying there's a void of leadership in the black community for years," he says. "When Adam Powell was defeated by Charlie Rangel, they behaved as though the world had come to an end. Charlie went on to chair the ways and means committee and he's still in Congress. He's got a tough race coming up in June but he's still there.

"When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. left us, people asked where are the black leaders now. It's important to remember that there are always leaders among us. There are young people coming along, women and men – particularly women, who are stepping into the breach. While the gang of four is no more, there are a lot of bright young people coming up."

And aside from young black leaders who Dinkins hopes will continue the work of the Gang of Four, he also points to the city's larger progressive community – many of whom were mentored by Sutton, Rangel, Paterson and himself.

"Bill de Blasio worked for us," he says of New York City's current mayor. "He was ironed by Bill Lynch, my chief of staff for many years. Bill brought de Blasio into the office and hired him within five minutes of the interview. And, incidentally, Chirlane was one of my speechwriters then and worked in the press office. The mayor and his wife met in City Hall during my administration, so the legacy has definitely continued."

(Follow Donovan X. Ramsey on Twitter at @idxr.)

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