Harlem — Forty years ago, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the African-American political establishment in New York was dominated by a cadre of men in Harlem dubbed the “Gang of Four” – Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson and David Dinkins. Among their accomplishments were becoming a long-serving U.S. Representative, the first black Manhattan borough president, the first black Secretary of State for the state of New York, and the first black mayor of New York City, respectively.

Even against the backdrop of late 1960s and early '70s currents of Black Power – from the Nation of Islam to the Black Panther Party; from poet Sonia Sanchez to Brooklyn Congresswoman-turned-presidential-candidate Shirley Chisholm – it was the “Gang of Four” that principally shaped the African-American presence in New York's political landscape for decades.

And last year, as the historic presidency of Barack Obama got underway, the rising prominence of two seasoned New York Democratic party pols provided evidence that “the gang” still wielded sway over contemporary politics: Rep. Rangel, who in 2007 became chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was expected to achieve increased influence with a Democratic president and new majority in Congress. And Paterson’s son, former Assemblyman David Paterson, became New York’s first black governor two years ago when Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s surprise resignation catapulted him out of the relative obscurity of lieutenant governorship.

But the ascension of Rangel, 79, and Paterson, 55, has suddenly come to a halt. (Meanwhile, Dinkins and Paterson the elder are living lower-profile lives, and Percy Sutton died last year.) Paterson is now being investigated by the state attorney general's office over allegations of interfering in a domestic violence incident involving an aide. And last week, Rangel agreed to temporarily step down as chair of Ways and Means after the House Ethics Committee determined that he was improperly reimbursed for two working trips to the Caribbean. He's also the subject of ongoing probes into various other alleged ethical violations.

A changed landscape

Now tainted by scandal, the careers of both men hang in the balance. According to a number of political observers, so does the future of black leadership in New York.

“One of the tragedies with what we're seeing happen to Charlie and David is that it's long been known that the older generation of leadership has largely failed to nurture young talent,” says Basil Smikle, a black political consultant who has advised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his most recent run (against, perhaps ironically, a black candidate: former comptroller William Thompson). “We may not see another black governor in New York for another 20 years. And you may not see another person of Charlie's stature elevate to become a significant black leader from this state in Congress for another 20 years, too, because it's all about seniority.”

H. Carl McCall, the former state controller who ran for governor in 2002 and whose long political career was closely linked to the “Gang of Four,” is more optimistic. “Obviously, right now we're facing a terrible loss with respect to David. We're not sure of his future, but the fact than an African-American got to that position was a big step forward,” said McCall. Like numerous other black public figures, he has publicly urged Gov. Paterson to stay in office; indeed, none have publicly called for him to step down. “Even if David is no longer governor, we have other African-Americans who are in positions of authority.”

That much is clear: in Albany, Brooklyn State Senator John Sampson now serves as the state legislature's Democratic Conference leader – and both houses are peopled with many representatives of color. Elsewhere, Byron Brown was re-elected last year to a second term as mayor of Buffalo. And the city's congressional delegation includes black Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks, and Brooklyn Reps. Yvette Clarke and Edolphus Towns, who now chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (A Towns staffer tells City Limits that the congressman, at 75, has yet to decide whether he'll run for re-election this year.) And for the first time ever, blacks, along with Latinos and Asians, have made whites a minority on the New York City Council.

Responses to the crisis

The once indomitable Rangel may face a significant challenge in the Democratic primary later this year. Thus far, the most visible candidate has been ex-Rangel aide Vincent Morgan, a 40-year-old executive with the New Jersey-based TD Bank. “I commend [Rangel] on his decision to step back from the committee,” Morgan says. “He's a formidable candidate. But when I travel across the district, people are telling me that he's disconnected from the pressing needs of the community after 40 years in office.”

It's a charge that challengers have brought against veteran pols for years – but incumbents almost always win in New York. Yet for the first time in years, political observers note, that premise will be put to the test as Rangel prepares for re-election in what will undoubtedly be a closely watched race.

Equally revealing has been the reaction to the controversy swirling around Gov. Paterson among New York's black politicians. Following the resignation of several top officials last week, and now facing increased pressure to vacate office, Paterson has received strong public backing from most of the city's traditional black political establishment. But that’s also being tempered by a more nuanced perspective among some post-“Gang of Four” politicians.

“I don't want to minimize the serious nature of the domestic violence charge,” says Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James, now beginning her third term on Council, of the incident in which Paterson aide David Johnson allegedly assaulted his girlfriend last year – and the governor allegedly urged the woman against taking legal action against Johnson. “I want to wait until the investigation is concluded, but I don't believe that it's in the best interest of New York for David Paterson to resign at this time.”

Meanwhile, as the era of “the four lions” – another moniker for the powerful Harlem coterie – gradually fades into history, the broader question as to the future roles assumed by black elected officials in New York remains an issue of great concern among some observers.