(The Root) — "I'm not a politician, I've never run for anything in my life," says Clyde Williams quickly in the basement of his Harlem campaign headquarters.
Thanks to the bustle of his 123rd Street office in Manhattan, boasting nine staffers, a gaggle of portable air conditioners and several empty pizza boxes, the open space upstairs was too loud to hear Williams' election plans. Sitting downstairs next to two slices he's saved for his wife, Mona Sutphen, Williams seems confident in his chances of gaining Charlie Rangel's seat in the House of Representatives by winning the June 26 primary in a largely Democratic district. This, despite many reports that the race is between the feisty incumbent and State Sen. Adriano Espaillat.
Rangel, a Congressional Black Caucus founding member, has represented the Harlem community's 15th District since 1971 and is going through a bruising fight to save his seat and his formidable reputation. In 2010, just ahead of the investigation into a misuse of funds, Rangel stepped down as chair of the prestigious House Ways and Means Committee. Later, after admitting impropriety, Rangel was censured by the House. Earlier this month, Rangel demanded an investigation of Congress' probe into his actions.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, the 82-year-old's name will be on the ballot.
"I never talk about Rangel's ethics issues," Williams, 50, says. "People want us to improve their lives."
Still, the incumbent's problems muddle his chances for re-election and reflect a changing of the guard in Harlem. Williams seeks to represent a new order of leadership in the district.
"We need to hold people accountable," Williams says, pointing to the unemployment rate of 14 percent of blacks in New York City, according to recent Labor Department data. "I've seen people, some of whom are Congressional Black Caucus members, say 'Obama hasn't solved unemployment in the black community.' They've been elected, probably for a combined 400 years [if you total their terms in office]. They're supposed to solve these problems, too. So much more could've been done if there was a greater effort put into how we solve these problems.
"If people trained for the jobs that existed today, the jobless rate would probably be around 7 percent," Williams continues. "There's money to do it. We can train people to be nurses, electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics."
The historically African-American 13th District was recently redrawn to include parts of East Harlem and bits of the Bronx, where Dominican-American candidate Espaillat has strong ties. The district is now 55 percent Latino, which is seen as giving the state senator an edge. (Rangel's father was Puerto Rican, but he does not emphasize that side of his heritage). But Williams, who is black, says his support is secure.
"Harlem hasn't been majority-black for a while," Williams says. "People vote based on issues, and if they believe that I can improve their lives, then they'll vote for me."
Many local press believe in Williams' brand. The candidate boasts endorsements from the New York Times and the Daily News among others (the New York Amsterdam News, the city's signature black newspaper, endorsed Rangel). But if Williams really wants to represent Harlem's new generation, he'll have to prove it.
"Every few years, people make the case that they are the future of Harlem politics and then fade away," said Errol Louis, NY1's political reporter. "Let's say Williams doesn't win, but stays, starts a political club and starts fielding candidates for lower level local offices — then it starts to look like what David Dinkins, Basil Paterson, Percy Sutton and Charlie Rangel [who formed Harlem's powerful 'Gang of Four' political coalition] put together."
If he's committed, Williams might be right on time, considering many feel the Congressional Black Caucus, which boasted a median age of 62 in 2010, sorely needs fresh faces. His high-powered ties to former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama also may help his ambitions.
"Clinton owes a great debt to Rangel, so he's already done the nicest thing he could do for Clyde, which is not endorse Rangel for re-election," Louis says. "There's a different political culture in Harlem, compared with central Brooklyn, [where] the young people all ran against incumbents repeatedly. There, you've got to crack some heads. In Harlem, there's a culture of waiting one's turn. You've got to marry solid community work with effective political organizing in the electoral sphere."
Raised in Washington, D.C., Williams began his career in local politics. Joining the White House during the Clinton administration, he rose to become deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has also served as national political director of the Democratic National Committee.
Williams met his wife of 10 years, Sutphen, during the last days of the Clinton administration, while she was working for then-national security advisor, Sandy Berger. "I met her in the Situation Room — I thought I knew all of the persons of color at the White House. Sandy and I were talking and she walked in and his words became like Charlie Brown's teacher, 'Wah, wah,' " Williams recalls.
In 2001, the couple moved to Harlem so he could serve as domestic policy advisor to former President Clinton. A few years later, the family moved back to Washington, D.C., so Sutphen could serve as White House deputy chief of staff to President Obama, the first African American to do so, and in 2011, the family returned to Harlem. Combine their high-profile résumés and it's hard not to deem the parents of two, Sydney, 7, Davis, 5, as a power couple.
"We never use that term," he says with a smile, glancing at his wife's pizza. "I'll say this: It's time for someone to challenge the status quo."
Back upstairs, the office is buzzing with the excitement of possibility. Up the street an Espaillat election bus rolls down 125th street, blasting D Train's "You're the One for Me" in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. statue as potential voters mop their brows in the heat of the summer day.
Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York bureau chief.