When Clyde Williams’ job relocated him to Harlem in 2001, he arrived with images from Langston Hughes’ poems in mind.
Fourteen years later, the Democratic candidate for congressional representative of the 13th District says he is running a campaign to represent the district he now thinks of as his home.
The 2016 congressional election, which will take place next November, will determine the successor to 44-year representative Charles Rangel. Of the eight Democratic candidates in the race, four currently hold political office in Albany and another is a former state assemblyman.
Without a history of holding office, Williams says it is his membership in the Harlem community that qualifies his desire to serve.
“My wife and I live in this community by choice. My kids, when they were born and came home from the hospital, they came home to Harlem, both of them. This is it,” Clyde Williams, a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 13th District, said.
Clyde has established a connection to the neighborhood by serving on the board of Strive, an East Harlem organization specializing in workforce development for ex-offenders and people at risk in the community.
“People will always turn to me to do things and be helpful,” Williams said of his role in the community. “I’ve had people turn to me who were interested in public safety issues.”
“These problems are not in the abstract for him,” Virat Gupta, CC ’12, current Law School student, and deputy campaign director for Clyde Williams, said. “He came from a background where he was living with the kinds of problems that the average voter is living with.”
Clyde describes the Washington neighborhood in which he grew up as “a community much like this one was 20 to 30 years ago.”
“I know what it’s like firsthand to deal with education inequality: Schools in D.C. did not prepare me to go to the high school I went to,” he said, recalling his experience going to a school outside of his home neighborhood. “My mom paid almost the electric bill to send me out-of-boundary.”
On the issue of public and charter schools, Williams says the debate between the two is “antiquated.”
“I think we need to figure out what works well in both and figure out how to scale those things and actually do something to improve our schools, which is not how we approach the issue today,” he said.
“If I had to pick top issues, it’d be housing; it’d be education, and it’d be healthcare. Those are major things that we need to focus on,” he said.
Nearly 40 percent of Central Harlem households are severely rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 50 percent of household income to cover rent. According to Williams, among constituents, affordable housing is “the thing I hear about the most.”
“I don’t blame the landlords nor do I blame developers: Their job is to make money, but the jobs of the people who represent us is to represent our interests,” Williams said.
“You have people running for this congressional seat sitting on the housing committee in the [State] Senate and one in the housing committee in the Assembly,” he said. “They’ve done nothing to mitigate this or do anything to help people that they actually represent.”
Of the eight democratic candidates running to represent the 13th District in 2016, Clyde Williams is one of three who is not leaving behind a political career in Albany.
He does, however, have experience as a political advisor. Williams has been involved in politics for some time, interning on Capitol Hill and working under two Presidents and as deputy chief of staff at the USDA. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Williams to the position of Political Director of the DNC.
With this political experience, Clyde Williams still draws a distinct line between himself and elected politicians.
“Too many people become politicians who are more concerned about themselves and about making certain they stay in power than they are about doing what’s in the best interest of our community,” he said.
Instead of a politician, he calls himself “a person who’s running for public office.”
“To me it is not about watching out for myself; it’s about watching out for my community,” he said.
Williams’ non political rhetoric is playing into the first election since 1972 in which Charles Rangel will not be running for reelection. The congressman announced his plans not to run again on the day of his reelection in 2014.
“[Rangel and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.] made this congressional seat a national congressional seat,” Williams said, referencing the 13th District’s former representatives. “They made it a relevant congressional seat that people all across this country paid attention to.”
In a district which has only ever known two representatives, Williams’ campaign respects its predecessors but emphasizes the need for change.
“I think that when you keep this machine going for too long it discourages new people from entering the system and new voters from expressing their voice,” Gupta said. “[Williams] is an energetic guy with the best ideas and that's what this district really needs.”