By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After nearly four decades in the Congress, powerful New York Democrat Charlie Rangel is facing one of his toughest re-election campaigns for his Harlem seat.
His challengers see Rangel as vulnerable after an ethics scandal forced him to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. More broadly, they represent a changing of the guard for the historic black neighborhood, observers say.
Rangel, 79, is one of the last of a generation of leaders, along with New York Governor David Paterson's father, Basil Paterson, and former Mayor David Dinkins, to use Harlem as an ethnic power base while fighting to bring it business and economic vitality.
Younger black leaders say it is time to recognize Harlem's population is growing more diverse and needs representation not necessarily defined or propelled by race or ethnic identity.
"While there is still a lot of support for that older guard, the Rangels and the Patersons," said Basil Smikle, a political consultant, "there is still this notion of the younger generation spurred on by Barack Obama's ... ability to achieve the presidency without going through traditional channels."
"It is encouraging the younger generation to do the exact same thing," he said.
Harlem's ethnic identity has survived with such popular attractions as the soul food at Sylvia's Restaurant, shopping along the main 125th Street and music at the Apollo Theater.
Former President Bill Clinton has his office in Harlem and several national retail chains from Starbucks to Old Navy to Foot Locker have opened stores there.
'A CONTINUING SHIFT'
Yet in recent years, while the population of Harlem has grown, the number of blacks has dropped to its lowest level since the 1920s, according to data compiled by demographer Andrew Beveridge for The New York Times.
An influx of whites seeking cheaper real estate and newly arrived Hispanics have combined to change its ethnic makeup.
"There's been a continuing shift in Harlem with a decline in native born blacks," said Beveridge, who studies census numbers for demographics firm Social Explorer.
In central Harlem, blacks make up about 60 percent of the population, down from over 90 percent in 1980. For the first time since the 1940s, 1 in 10 residents are white. In greater Harlem, non-whites and blacks now account for about 40 percent each, with the black population dipping, and other groups like Hispanics growing.
"Every time you have a more diverse population, you can't run as an ethnic candidate," he said, referring to Harlem's "old cadre" of Paterson and Rangel.
Among those campaigning for Rangel's seat is Adam Clayton Powell IV, 47. His father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was defeated by Rangel in 1971. State Senator Bill Perkins, 59, and Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, 49, have said they are pondering bids, and banker Vince Morgan, 40, is running as well.
"The big picture is that the district has changed so dramatically," Morgan said. "It's gotten out in front of the political establishment that's been in power for so long, they've lost control over the progression it's been making."
'BETTER TO BE WITH THE ELDERS'
Brian Benjamin, a local community activist and former J.P. Morgan investment banker, cautioned that although the demographics may have shifted, blacks are still the most likely to vote and organize around issues.
"Until the new demographic starts to embrace some of the community's local issues, it's unlikely they'll vote on things outside what they care about," Benjamin said. "It's better to be with the elders because they're the ones who vote now."
Rangel helped bring huge changes to Harlem, such as boosting business that attracted new residents. The combination of chain stores and new residents may ultimately weaken the district's ethnic identity, said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University who specializes in race and ethnic politics.
"Harlem is the national example of what not to do to a community," she said. Harlem will change, she added, but "whether it's for the better or for the worse, that's a matter of personal opinion."