When Clyde Williams left Harlem four years ago for Washington, D.C. to work for President Barack Obama, CC ’83, he said he knew “from day one” that he would be back.
Williams served as national political director of the Democratic National Committee, while his wife, Mona Sutphen, was deputy chief of staff of the White House. He returned last June with a new goal in mind: running for the U.S. House of Representatives and challenging Charles Rangel, the incumbent of 41 years.
Although Williams has not officially declared himself a candidate in the race, he has formed an exploratory committee, raised $167,000, and conducted preliminary voting polls.
He cited unemployment and long-standing inequities in health care and education as urgent economic issues, but believes that Harlem’s political environment has not sufficiently provided new solutions.
“It’s interesting, I’ve had a woman say to me, ‘Why would you run for Charlie’s seat?’ And I said, ‘It’s a public seat and a public process.’ People should want to have a debate about issues. That’s how you get the best ideas,” Williams said.
In 2001, he went to work for the Clinton Global Initiative as a domestic policy adviser at an office based on 125th Street. The experience informed his interest in the area: While there, he led the implementation of programs that provided technical assistance to small businesses in Harlem, brought door-to-door HIV screenings to local housing projects, and offered SAT testing to disadvantaged students.
“I saw there was a need to become more involved in issues that impacted the community,” Williams said. “I would do that even if I wasn’t running for Congress. I’ve always had a desire to be involved in public policy in a profound way.”
But Williams is still technically not in the race—and what’s stopping him is the decennial process of redistricting, in which district borders are redrawn by state legislatures, based on data from the most recent national census.
Redistricting has been a “major hurdle,” as Williams said it’s impossible to know where the edges of the district lie and, thus, who his constituents would be. And with the primary moved up to June 26 from September, time is money.
“It just makes the entire process very difficult. That’s why this process actually helps incumbents ... they know they have the ability to figure out who their voters are while they’re drawing up the lines. Everyone else just has to wait.”
On Monday, a federal judge recommended that the redistricting process be handed over to a court-appointed “special master,” citing the legislature’s delay in finalizing borders. Williams said that he was glad, hoping that it would move along a process that he said has “proven to be flawed.”
Last month, Assembly member Denny Farrell said that Rangel was initially opposed to plans that would increase the district’s African-American population by shifting the northern border as far as Mount Vernon, but that he has recognized the move might be necessary to keep his seat.
Rangel shied away from the issue in an interview last month, saying, “The only thing that I said is I have to accept whatever the mandate is with the exception of the congressman from Harlem having to be stationed in the Bronx, which some people have talked about. I’ll be damned if I want the district to go to Mount Vernon.”
Williams said that because the northwestern border currently ends in Marble Hill, on the cusp of Manhattan and the Bronx, he is not opposed to moving it further north—as long as the district remains contiguous.
“I think the district should be drawn to be contiguous and not gerrymandering,” he said.
Williams said that although the impact of Rangel on the district has been undeniable, “problems still exist.”
“I don’t believe on any level that he hasn’t tried to address problems or that he doesn’t care. I truly think he’s done what’s in the best interest,” he said. “But there comes a time when you need new ideas and a new perspective to look at decades-old problems that have gone unresolved.”