In 1942, the U.S. government carved a congressional seat largely out of the iconic and predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. Just two people have represented the district in the House of Representatives in its 74 years. The first was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Baptist minister and unapologetic civil-rights activist. A statue of his likeness watches over a commercial strip on 125th Street, outside the state office building, near an H&M store, where Powell Jr. once led a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign—one of his countless demands for equal rights for blacks in a racist, Jim Crow era. In 1970, a by-then-embattled Powell lost the congressional post to a Harlem-based New York City assemblyman named Charles B. Rangel, who after narrowly beating Powell in a Democratic primary, won the general election. Rangel has held the seat for 45 years.
With Rangel retiring this year at age 86, the seat, and in many ways the soul of Harlem, is up for grabs in a primary election today. In this left-leaning district, it is the Democratic primary winner who is expected to head to Washington in January. A line of nine Democratic candidates are running to see who will succeed Rangel, the powerhouse who was once the Ways and Means Committee chairman, a mighty position he lost in a controversial censure. (He is now a senior member of the committee.) The field includes: Rangel’s longtime protégé, State Assemblyman Keith L. Wright, whom the outgoing representative has endorsed; Rangel’s former challengers from over the years, New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat and former Democratic National Committee political director Clyde Williams; and, notably, former State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV—Powell Jr.’s son.