That still might happen: another group of charter parents – Parents for Smikle – disagrees completely with NYCPA, saying Perkins is the problem, not the solution. “As parents, we will not stand idly by and allow this man to continue his efforts to deny us our right to choose a great school for our children,” said charter parent Daniel Clark, Sr., in a press release. “He has been rude to us, he has worked against our children, and we simply won’t stand for it any longer.”
The group says it has 300 members, has knocked on over 2,500 doors and made more than 70,000 phone calls. It bills itself as “the only parent organization with any muscle” in the primary fight. But the endorsement by NYCPA—which says it has 300 members too—revealed some fissures in the charter school parent camp that could work to Perkins’ advantage.
“Education is an extremely important issue, but it's one of many,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that lobbies for good government. “It may very well be the case that a candidacy needs to be about more than one issue. There's been an effort to paint Perkins position on charter schools as against them. In fact, it's much more nuanced. This may be an acknowledgement of the fact that it's not black and white. It's not all for or all against.”
NYCPA’s unexpected endorsement of Perkins might not be the only surprise in store for people who have pegged Perkins as an incumbent about to be upset.
Because Harlem’s racial and income demographics are changing as more whites and affluent blacks move in, some predicted that Perkins might have a hard time selling his brand of traditional liberal politics in the community. Because Smikle is 38 and Perkins is 61, some predicted that the "Joshua generation"—the generation of African-Americans born after the Civil Rights Movement —would propel Smikle.
But as the September 14 Democratic primary draws near, some independent observers say those factors will likely by trumped by Perkins’ popularity in his district. "I argue that the framework that this race is being viewed through is somewhat skewed. To suggest that this is some generational, old guard conflict suggests a bit of naiveté about Harlem politics," says Scott Levenson, president and founder of The Advance Group, a political consulting firm. "[Perkins] may rub people the wrong way from the time to time, but people believe he stands up for what he believes in. His appeal is cross generational and cross-racial and makes him a strong candidate for election."
Not everyone agrees, including William Allen, Democratic district leader for the 70th Assembly District and a Smikle supporter. "I thought Perkins was an incredible City Council member," Allen says. "He was right on the issue, but he did not make a good transition to Albany." He added: "Perkins talks a good game, but he doesn’t really deliver and that’s the sad part."
Whoever wins the primary will likely face Republican Donal Yarbrough during the November 2 general election.
Perkins is campaigning on his legislative record in the Senate and the City Council, which include legislation outlawing lead paint in New York City, reducing sulfur emissions from home heating oil and requiring more transparency from the states’ 500 public authorities, including the MTA and the Port Authority.
Perkins says he’s used the power of his office well, keeping a safe enough distance from certain community groups to remain objective, while offering some financial and other assistance when needed. He’s proud that he’s criticized and rallied against things he believes are detrimental to Harlem, such as Columbia University’s expansion, which he protested by resigning from the board of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation. “Every project is not worthy and some have to be criticized. If you hear a hue and cry in your community about an expansion plan in your community, are you not supposed to have a hearing about it? Are you to turn a blind eye to it? Are you supposed to avoid confrontation? Are you supposed to go along to get along?” he says. “I’m not that kind of guy.”
He says he hasn’t achieved all that he would like since entering office in 2006, but has done a lot considering that during his first term, Republicans dominated the Senate and during his second term Senate Democrats only had a two-vote majority. “You don't just measure anybody by the count of the bills passed,” he said. “I don't measure the quantity of what I do. I measure the substance. I measure the outcomes.”
At his Harlem office one day late last month, Perkins stopped by the desk of a staff member to address a frail, elderly woman, a constituent, who began clamoring for his attention as he walked past. She wore a vintage blue Sunday dress. Her thick hair – died black, but silver at the roots – brushed her shoulders. He beamed upon noticing her. “How are you?!” he asked.
“Fine,” she said quivering, her face upturned to him in admiration. “I always vote for you because you’re for the community. You’re not no phony.“
Perkins bent down to the seated woman, cupped her face in his hands and kissed her on the cheek, with a loud smack. “You said that right in front of a reporter!” he said.
Smikle generated a similar level of enthusiasm in Allen, the district leader. "He’s our Barack Obama, somebody who has high integrity and moral ethical values and who’s bright and caring and humble," Allen says. "He's smart and he listens."
Smikle says what Perkins has done isn’t enough, saying Perkins has only turned six bills into law and should have passed at least 15. Smikle lists as his credentials, his community service and his background as a high profile political consultant and senior advisor. He says he started a literacy program at the
Queens school where his mother teaches and helped 100 Black Men found Eagle Academy for Young Men, an all-male public school in the Bronx. He was Joe Lieberman’s campaign manager during his 2004 presidential bid and one of Hillary Clinton’s senior advisors before she became Secretary of State. He also worked for Mayor Bloomberg's re-election campaign in 2009.
He argues that Perkins is too oppositional and doesn’t use his authority to gain seats on the boards of various community groups, a tool for influencing the community’s development. As an example, he cites Perkins decision to leave the board of the West Harlem LDC, something he says he would not have done. “He abdicated his responsibility, becoming anti-Columbia,” says Smikle, who teaches at Columbia University (During the spring of 2010, his class used City Limits as a case study, providing the organization with some pro-bono marketing analysis). “Consistently being against something doesn't mean you're about something.”
Choices on charters
Both candidates agree that affordable housing is one of the most important policy issues in Harlem and both agree that charter schools are not a panacea for Harlem’s education ills and want to increase public school funding and resources.
“There's evidence that charters are working, but they're not the final answer to education,” Smikle says. “They’re only 15 percent of the district.”
Perkins says charter schools students have on average historically scored only marginally better on state tests than non-charters. “Charters come to me and say, 'We’re doing 35 to 40 percent passing on state tests and other schools are doing 30 percent,'” he says. “I tell them, ‘You're measuring from the bottom up. We need to measure from the top down. If 40 percent are passing, you’re doing 60 percent failure. That's nothing to brag about.’”
Smikle would raise the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in New York State, work to make New York City’s student-school matching system more effective, lift the system of sanctions imposed on failing schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and restore art, music and physical education to the schools. Smikle said he’s always been a supporter of charter schools, even when most Democrats opposed them. "If the kids are learning and they are achieving, then that's all that matters,” he says. “There is no Democratic or Republican way to learn that 2 and 2 is 4."
Perkins expressed more distrust of charter schools, saying his concerns about them and scrutiny of them have grown over the years. He said that after some of the schools started arriving in Harlem, they began asking for more money and for more space, despite the initial assertions of their movement that they could educate children for less and in their own buildings. “It became apparent that these schools were proliferating through the neighborhoods, but they were not measuring up,” he said. He said education reform should emphasize the importance of early childhood education, making it universal. “It begins in the beginning. If we do better in the early stages, it influences the later stages,” he said.
In addition to their different approaches to education, each candidate stated different policy priorities during their interviews with City Limits. Smikle emphasized economic assistance and development in Harlem, including job creation and the elimination of unfair debt collection practices. He says he would work with unions to ensure that Columbia University’s expansion generates jobs for Harlem residents and work to expand an Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone business loan program. Smikle also said he would collaborate with unions to get the formerly incarcerated jobs as union apprentices. “A lot of the African-American males I talk to say, 'I love what you're saying, but I can't vote for you, because I’m on parole,' ” he says.
Perkins emphasized criminal justice and policing and environmental issues. He said he planned to introduce legislation that would require interrogators obtaining a confession to videotape their conversations with suspects or people of interest prior to the confession. He has proposed a bill that would expand New York City’s lead paint poisoning law statewide. “Lead paint poisoning cripples you for life,” he said. “It’s particularly impactful on children of color and low-income families.”
Advantages versus ambition
Perkins' incumbency has given him significant fundraising and endorsement advantages. As of the 32-day pre-primary filing, Smikle had raised a total of about $159,000, about $15,000 more than Perkins since May. He also has a lot of volunteers. But Perkins has been fundraising for much longer. Since January 2009, Perkins had raised $220,000, as of the 32-day pre-primary filing. Perkins also had more cash on hand, as of the 32-day pre-primary filing, about $55,000 more.
And Perkins is racking up endorsements. He has been backed by over 41 groups and individuals, including at least 13 unions and 8 political clubs. He also has had 200 to 300 volunteers phone banking, canvassing and stuffing envelopes daily.
Smikle points to endorsements from Ed Lewis, the co-founder of Essence Magazine, the state Public Employees Federation, District 9 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Traders, four area pastors and two tenant leaders.
Smikle says that despite the fundraising disparity, he’s still a viable candidate. “I’m competitive and that’s what matters,” he says, adding that Perkins' weakness is that he’s received too much of his funds from PACs, whereas Smikle says he’s received 70 percent of his donations from individual contributors giving under $250. “Education reformers—people who agree with me about school choice and the need for other school reforms—are my supporters,” he says.
Levenson says Smikle would have a hard time convincing voters that Perkins' donations, many from unions, are troubling. "Is Basil Smikle prepared to make labor a negative in this race? It may be a negative among the Post readership. But it may not be a negative in the district. I would argue that a lot of the members of the district are members of organized labor," Levenson said. "If he can make the teachers union seem negative while he's accepting money from hedge funds, that'll be a heavy lift."