02/29/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2012

Joyce Johnson Takes On The 'Old Boys' In Her Bid To Represent Harlem In Congress

Not long after Joyce Johnson posted an invitation to a campaign event on her Facebook page, several of the invitees received the following all-caps email in their inboxes:


The "boss" in that email, from a local NAACP leader, was Charles D. Rangel, the powerful, raspy-voiced congressman who has represented the tiny, symbolic 15th District of New York in Congress since 1971.

To Johnson, the email had the whiff of intimidation. But a Rangel spokesperson denied that there was anything antagonistic about the inquiry. "She's saying there's some implied intimidation, sending anything about this at all," he told BlackVoices. "Charlie is very sanguine about this stuff. Everybody has a right to run."

Whatever the case, deep-seated institutional loyalty to Rangel remains the biggest hurdle for Johnson's bid. Though she's long been active in Democratic circles, she doesn't wield nearly the same influence as the party leaders in the 15th, or "the old boys" as she calls them. Even her friends are wary of throwing their support behind someone other than Rangel. "Some said, 'Joyce, we love you, and when he's not in the race, we can support you,'" she said recently.

In 2010, when Rangel's newfound vulnerability due to accusations of ethics violations dominated the political discussion, Johnson's primary campaign for Congress languished under the radar, largely due to a proliferation of candidates -- until the New York Times' endorsement came late in the race. (The paper described her as "a strong advocate for women's rights and civil rights for many years.") Despite the allegations (of which he was eventually cleared), Rangel easily won reelection.

That's not stopping Johnson from trying to topple Goliath again. "You have to be the strongest person in the world to come into this political arena," Johnson said recently. The district up for grabs includes parts of Manhattan's Upper West Side, Washington Heights and Queens. But its center of power rests in Harlem, and with Rangel in particular. He may be getting up there in age -- at 81, he's the third-longest tenured member of the House of Representatives -- but the political machine that he helped to build is still humming along. That coalition, dubbed "the Harlem Clubhouse" by the local press, includes a tight-knit and powerful group of friends, including David Dinkins, who was New York City's first black mayor, and Basil Paterson, the state's first black secretary of state. (Paterson's son, David, was the state's first African-American governor.)

Brian Benjamin, a Harlem-based community organizer and a veteran of Democratic political campaigns, gamed out the long odds Johnson faced. "There are a number of elected officials sitting behind that incumbent candidate, all of whom want to be congressmen too," he said. Those hopefuls have risen through the party ranks and bided their time, with the hopes of one day receiving the considerable support of the party. "They want to fight for Charlie Rangel harder than Charlie Rangel fights for himself," Benjamin said.

And then, of course, there's the money. Even a gifted fundraiser would be hard-pressed to compete with the local party establishment's deep pockets. "You have the labor unions, who will pump in a ton of soft money," Benjamin said. "They're essentially their own super PAC."

"You'd have a hard time winning unless you catch Charlie Rangel with money in his fridge," Benjamin said, referencing the corruption scandal that brought down Rep. Bill Jefferson, the long-serving Democratic congressman from Louisiana. "And even then, if you caught him with money in his fridge, it would open the floodgates, because everyone would jump in the race."

The Harlem machine, at its highest levels at least, remains dominated by men. And in local party politics, where powerful elected officials essentially handpick the person who will replace them, that works against many women who have eyes on elected office. "The old boys ... they will appreciate your work, your brilliance, but you'll never get that tap on the shoulder," Johnson said on a recent afternoon. "I come from an industry where it's about performance, and it's not about 'turns.'"

Johnson said that she caught the political bug early. Her father was the first black city council member in Poughkeepsie. After she graduated from Howard, she ditched her flirtation with a career in medicine to go into the corporate world, and before long, began volunteering for campaigns and was considering a run for herself.

She's candid about the sacrifices that ambition has entailed. As she rose up the corporate ranks at Seagram's, the liquor company, she had to spend long days at the office or at plants, which complicated her family life. "My mother and father raised my daughter from the time she was 13 to 15, primarily because my marriage was ending in divorce, and the demands of the job were tough for a woman in management."

"I missed out on a hell of a lot, things I do with my grandkids now," she added

To win, Johnson says she can't just fight for a bigger slice of the pie; she'll have the make the pie bigger. "I've got to expand my base with people I've met along the way," she said.

Harlem has become more affluent and whiter while much of upper Manhattan is predominantly Hispanic. These changing demographics in the district have brought in voters with fewer ties and less loyalty to Rangel and the old guard. That could provide an opening for Johnson, who has found something of a base among the newcomers. Though she won just 12 percent of the total vote in 2010, she won 29 and 25 percent, respectively, in two Upper West Side precincts where Rangel's support was the softest.

She ticked off the numbers. "50,296 people voted in that 2010 Democratic primary," she said. "But 283,000 were registered to vote in that election. That's 18 percent of the people in the district. That's not a mandate, that's a sign people are fed up!"

Johnson is less naive about the power of incumbency since her first forays into electoral politics. (She has run unsuccessfully for state assembly and for city council.) "It was smack-dab in my face, the power of incumbency, the power of money," she said. (The phenomenon isn't specific to Harlem, either: Nearly 90 percent of House incumbents up for reelection hold on to their seats every two years.) "It's one of the reasons why it's hard for women to stick their toe into this water. Because historically, we don't have the networks, at least at this level."

But Johnson said that she doesn't want to bide her time. "We're all sort of waiting around for an open seat," she said. "My position is that you go for it now."