The Battle For Harlem Heats Up

03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the corner of 130th Street and Malcolm X Blvd in New York sits Sen. Barack Obama's Harlem headquarters. It is a lively place, with full glass windows allowing passersby to sneak a peak, and journalists and volunteers filtering in and out. On Saturday, a local television crew, Washington Post reporter, and French radio host all descended upon the office. It's been like this for weeks, supporters say. They are trying to make Harlem "Obama Country."

The task would have been deemed an exercise in futility a few months ago. Obama is an appealing figure in New York's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, but the state itself seems well in hand for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Moreover, her roots in Harlem are strong. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, opened his office on 125th St., five blocks south of the Obama headquarters, after he left the Oval Office.

But like the Democratic primary itself, the race in New York has tightened. Clinton still has a significant lead, though in Harlem, the question looms: could Obama beat the Clintons in their own backyard?

Even the question draws ire in the heat of a primary.

"Let me start by clarifying," said Bill Perkins, a Harlem-based state senator and Obama supporter. "This is not Bill Clinton's back yard or his plantation. Underscore, plantation, underscore backyard. Bill Clinton has an address for his foundation on 125th street. Period. Nothing more. Quite the opposite, this is Obama land."

Not entirely. A review of campaign donations on Huffington Post's Fundrace shows that Clinton and Obama have raised almost identical amounts from Harlem zip codes, approximately $106,000 to $103,000 respectively, though Clinton does have roughly 45 fewer donors. Many of the area's prominent officials, including Charlie Rangel, the long time congressman, David Dinkins, the Harlem-born former mayor of the city, and Calvin Butts, one of the most influential reverends in the area, are all in Clinton's camp. And many of the powers-that-be still hold the former president and first lady in high regard.

"Some understandably have great pride in seeing this very charismatic, bright, young black Senator aspire to be president," said Dinkins. "I have no negative observations to make about [Obama]. I just don't. But I support Clinton... It's not just Harlem. It is the Harlems of the country. Black folks just like Bill Clinton, they really do."

But for many African Americans, recent events on the campaign trail have tested this relationship. In Harlem, Obama's supporters clearly feel slighted. Statements made by the former president in South Carolina -- his comparison of Obama's campaign to Jesse Jackson's in 1984 and 1988 (painting him, they say, as the "black candidate") -- were the talk of the office on Saturday, as were the repeated invocations of Obama's youthful drug use.

"[Bill Clinton's] use of that imagery, said Karole Dill Barkley, an Obama volunteer, "just turned me off."

Added Perkins: "That love is disappearing rapidly by virtue of some of the so-called mistakes [Bill Clinton] is making that are bordering on very racially divisive remarks. And somebody needs to get him muzzled because right now the community is not happy about his remarks that are denigrating Obama, denigrating of the movement that he has inspired and are, in translation, a smack in the face to the black community."

There was a feeling that, for all the good Bill and Hillary Clinton had done for the area -- whether legislative accomplishments or the business and property booms that the former president's office brought with it -- the couple was willing to toss away its history with the black community in favor of electoral ambitions.

Clinton's Harlem supporters have responded defensively and angrily to the charge. In part, they blame the media for taking her and her husband's comments out of context. "To suggest that Hillary Clinton was somehow dissing Dr. King by her comments [that it took President Lyndon Johnson to sign civil rights legislation into law] is ridiculous," said Dinkins. "That's a true statement. But that in no way demeans or lessons the accomplishments of Dr. King."

Mostly, however, they note just how much better off African-American communities were when Bill Clinton was in office. "The Clintons' record in regards to African American accomplishments are without bounds," said Kevin Wardally, a spokesperson for Sen. Clinton's New York office. "What they have accomplished and done is why folks have an affinity to them."

And that affinity might be enough. While Harlem could go to Obama, New York as a whole seems likely to break significantly for Clinton. According to a Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday, the she leads her challenger 53 to 39 percent among Democratic primary voters in the Empire State.

Publicly, Obama's camp says it has a chance to win the state. Privately, however, they concede that if Obama pulls away some support, and if he can do so in Bill Clinton's backyard, the symbolism could be as important as the delegates.

Suggest a correction