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How Conrad Muhammad Could Succeed Congressman Rangel (June 2002, BEC Analytical Commentary)

Editor's Note: What follows is a reprint of an exclusive analytical commentary for BEC clients written in 2002.


Last week, while driving back from my guest hosting of “Make It Plain” on Washington D.C.’s WOL 1450 AM talk station, I received a call from my friend, Mr. Jude Wanniski, the noted supply-side economist and past adviser to both former President Ronald Reagan and the GOP’s 1996 Vice-Presidential nominee, Jack Kemp. Mr. Wanniski, a White Roman Catholic in his 60s and myself, a Muslim, at 30 years of age, have had a running dialogue for a little past five years (beginning in April of 1997) regarding the relationship between the Black vote and the two-party system. The conversations, to say the least are always stimulating, colorful and some may say brutally “frank” – core elements that are woefully missing in the current dialogue between Blacks and Whites and voting patterns.

Jude was calling to inform me of an article that I had missed in the brand new New York Sun which reported the news that Conrad Muhammad, the former minister of the Nation Of Islam’s historic Mosque #7 in New York City was running against the legendary Congressman Charles Rangel in this year’s contest for the lawmaker’s Harlem seat. A similar article had also appeared in the Black weekly, The Amsterdam News He wanted my opinion of it all.

I told him that this was an interesting development, not a total surprise, but an intriguing turn of events. I opined that while I doubt that Mr. Muhammad could unseat Rep. Rangel under normal circumstances, this year, I did think that it is very possible and likely that the insurgent candidacy of the self-styled “Hip-Hop Minister” could bloody the political nose, so-to-speak, of Mr. Rangel, who has lorded over Harlem, at times, like Mayor Daley used to in Chicago. I explained that Rep. Rangel is very vulnerable on a few issues, where Harlem residents are concerned and that Conrad Muhammad is almost perfectly positioned to expose and play on such weaknesses for the consumption for not only the borough that is home to the Cotton Club, but also the rest of New York City, New York state, and the nation.

Jude countered that he did not think it possible for Rep. Rangel to lose “his” seat but that there does exist, a high probability that if the Democrats fail to take back control of the House Of Representatives, this fall, that Rep. Rangel would retire. The rub which has developed into a mantra inside of the Black community, is that if the Democrats win back the house, “Charlie Rangel will write legislation at Ways and Means”.

Jude made a good point, which I do tend to lean toward accepting. Not only do I think that Rep. Rangel would seriously consider retiring if the Republicans keep control of the House, I think, for good reason, that a handful of Democrats would consider replacing their Democratic Party allegiance with a revolutionary “I” behind their names – turning Independent. That outcome must be coupled with a probable re-election of President George W. Bush.

That progonostication brings us back to Mr. Conrad Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad’s decision to run as a Republican will certainly turn off most Harlemites who will immediately cringe at the thought of voting for a Republican to represent them, no matter how long he or she has served the community and regardless to how young, handsome or creative in thought.

But, what once was iron-clad tradition, has now become a point of negotiation, in the aftermath of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s securing of 25% of the Black vote in his Mayoral race against Mike Greene, the Democratic Party’s nominee. Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, won what Democrats have viewed as their personal property for 40 years, because he “confronted’ the relationship between the Black vote and the Democratic Party, which is popularly characterized as Blacks being “taken for granted” by the Party of Roosevelt.

Mike Bloomberg won 25% of the Black vote because he secured the endorsement of Black America’s most influential and skilled political independent, Dr. Lenora Fulani, and because, for the first time in decades, a influential critical mass of New York’s Black Democratic establishment and opinion leaders decided that they would not automatically support the party’s nominee. They also decided they could “do business” with a Republican as they do business with Democrats, trading advertising dollars for endorsements and votes. Bloomberg put his money where the GOP’s mouth has been for the past ten years.

Conrad Muhammad was one of those Black opinion leaders who was the most vocal in lending his support to Bloomberg marrying it to sharp and articulate verbal attacks on the Democratic Party’s ungrateful nominee. The fact that Mr. Muhammad’s “competitor” for the affections of Black rappers, Russell Simmons, was the most prominent black supporting Greene, made it only more interesting. The result is that Lenora Fulani, media magnet and long-time Rangel supporter Percy Sutton, a disgruntled Rev. Al Sharpton (offended by Greene) with an assist from Conrad Muhammad, cobbled together a loose-knit Black anti-Greene coalition that resulted in a Republican mayor with 25% of the Black vote. Although this voting bloc never fully thought the implications of their actions through, they have become the nucleus of a movement that not only kept the mayoral mansion in the possession of a Republican but which also may cost Andrew Cuomo the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York and, eventually result in a Republican taking the seat occupied, some say owned by Charlie Rangel. That Republican would be Conrad Muhammad. That year could be as early as 2004.

It could work like this, in a best case scenario:

The issue. In April of 1999, I heard Conrad Muhammad speak at Columbia University at a prison-industrial complex we both attended. At the time, Conrad was attending Harvard University and was receiving a full-embrace or at least overtures by New York’s “progressive” intellectual community, led by Manning Marable and a few others. Mr. Muhammad’s address, was, as usual, eloquent, yet lacked, in my estimation, sufficient political and economic substance. I expected more. But probably was unjustified in my expectation as it was probably not Mr. Muhammad’s goal to outline his view of the optimum political economy, but rather, among other things, to put on public display, for those present, his ideological transition away from the Nation Of Islam. On that point, he scored, prefacing and encasing a few of his statements with phrases like, “ when I was a member of another organization…” and “when I used to think like…” In communicating his clear distance from the Nation Of Islam, Conrad Muhammad, by most appearances, was neither derisive in describing his former membership or disrespectful to Minister Farrakhan. After his talk, I approached him, we greeted each other and shook hands and I told him that while I thought he made great points I was disappointed in his lack of a well-thought out fiscal and monetary policy. He looked at me, shook my hand again and said, “Bro. Cedric, that is what I have you in mind to help me with.” With both smiled and laughed a bit as it was statement and on-the-spot reaction that a true politician would give – enlisting the services of a constructive critic.

Now, Mr. Muhammad spends as much time on Hannity and Comes promoting family values and clean lyrics in Hip-Hop as he once did at progressive gatherings. And he has made a name for himself as a talk-show host over the airwaves of WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM. He continues to evolve.

But he will have to answer my question regarding monetary and fiscal policy more definitively if he is to defeat Rep. Rangel or at least win significant electoral support in opposition to him, this year. It is on the economic development of Harlem that Rep. Rangel is most vulnerable. While the media was quick to write articles on a supposed economic renaissance in Harlem with the dotting of the urban landscape with Starbucks, BET studios, a Magic Johnson’s Theater, and various corporate franchises. The new businesses earned Rep. Rangel great press and photo-ops alongside President Clinton and the leading members of the Black business establishment but they also generated a plethora of smirks, murmurings and complaints from the grassroots who know that Harlem’s empowerment zone has not lived up to its hype. The still stratospheric Black unemployment rate among Blacks is 8% and teenagers – at 18% - fertile ground for traction for anyone anxious to turn the re-election of Rep. Rangel into a referendum on his three decades in Congress. “How has the average Harlem resident fared while Rep. Rangel was in Congress?”, a slogan can read.

Conrad Muhammad is in the perfect political party to make pro-economic growth arguments. There is a wing of disgruntled Republicans, many based in New York City, who would rally around a young Black candidate running against an entrenched Democrat touting tax cuts for the urban poor and entrepreneurs right alongside of Wall St. It is a potentially winning message and one that Rep. Rangel has helped to snuff out in his tenure in Congress and on countless television appearances. If Conrad can learn the nuances of the fiscal policy and marry it the lexicon of entrepreneurial development and an indictment of the “failed” Great Society, Empowerment Zone etc…programs of the Democratic Party, all supported by Mr. Rangel he could score big.

The Independence Party endorsement Conrad Muhammad will have to win the endorsement of Dr. Lenora Fulani’s king-making Independence Party if he is to have a chance at ousting Congressman Rangel. The Independence line was the margin of victory to Mayor Bloomberg supplying 59,000 votes to the billionaire. And in 1998 the Party was the key voting bloc, on the margin, giving Senator Schumer 108,000 votes. Dr. Fulani and Conrad Muhammad have known one another for years and through the twists and turns of New York City, the two remain on friendly terms, speaking periodically. Dr. Fulani is very open to the idea of Mr. Muhammad pursuing the Independence line. New York Governor George Pataki is close to earning the full support of the Independence Party and public and prominent support of a Muhammad-for-Congress campaign could be weaved into the mix, if both men were Republican nominees who also bagged the Independence party’s endorsement for. The site of Pataki, Bloomberg and Muhammad campaigning in Harlem, together, is more likely today than it was just last week. If Mr. Muhammad who is pro-life, last we knew, were to earn the nomination of the important Conservative Party, as well as the Republican and Independence standards, he could present a formidable challenge to the perennial incumbent.

Tactical GOP support This may be the area of greatest difficulty for Mr. Muhammad to navigate. While the Republican party compliments the potential candidate very well, in a great many ways, it also brings its own baggage to the table. The GOP still carries with it a terrible reputation in sensitivity to the interests of the Black electorate and includes in it’s a ranks, a host of leaders who absolutely repulse the Black community. The test will be whether or not the Party establishment would commit to Conrad Muhammad the considerable dollars and resources needed to oust Rep. Rangel while low-keying the relationship in the Black community. To be sure, Congressman Rangel’s supporters will point to the “hidden hand” of racist White backers of Conrad Muhammad, in a contest, and it will be important for the neophyte politician to walk a fine line between the minimum display of Party loyalty and the maximum amount of Party dollars and Black grassroots support. Mayor Bloomberg would be the most important White Republican in helping Mr. Muhammad to do so, recognizing the internal politics of the Black community versus the associated lack of financial support in that community for a Republican candidate. The Mayor, threw his millions around the Black media and it paid off. Conrad Muhammad would have no such luxury in his campaign, being largely dependent upon institutional partisan dollars. The degree to which the GOP, especially its Jewish wing, demands that Mr. Muhammad prove a divorce with Minister Farrakhan may be a critical factor in whether or not the candidacy receives the necessary resources, lukewarm support, or none at all.

Currently there are serious questions surrounding the legitimacy of the Conrad Muhammad for Congress as a Republican initiative. The prospective candidate is having discussions with Manhattan’s all-important Republican chair, John Ravitz. The word is that no deal has been made and that the borough’s party leader has indicated that he believes Mr. Muhammad is an anti-Semite. More rumors are circulating that Conrad Muhammad is still a registered Democrat and that reports of his switch to the Republican Party are premature. Many wonder who is recruiting who: Is Conrad recruiting the GOP or is it vice-versa? It is more likely that the latter approach would be the one that would prove to be successful, as it would be clear that the Party establishment does not have 2002 in mind but rather 2004, when the Black Democrat is more likely to be weakened by a virulent campaign this year and two more grinding years in the minority, the GOP would hope.

If Conrad Muhammad can pull off the hat-trick of a well-thought out message against what some think is a Sharpe James-like reign of Charles Rangel; the endorsement of Dr. Fulani and the Independence Party; and the proper amount of Republican Party support he may very well find himself in position to succeed Congressman Rangel, if not outright defeat him two years from now, in a rematch. But he will have to get his paperwork and strategy in order, this summer.


Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, June 2, 2002

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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