Joyce Johnson Aims to Unseat Veteran Charles Rangel
After 40 years in office, the Harlem congressman might be vulnerable
The most talked about congressional race is probably that of 81-year-old incumbent Charles Rangel (D-NY), who has served in Congress for over 40 years. This primary election season, Rangel faces three younger, aggressive opponents for his 13th term representing Harlem.
One of those opponents is Joyce Johnson, a Democratic veteran who has spent most of her political career working from the ground level as campaign manager for several politicians and an activist. Johnson, the only woman in the race, has worked in the offices of the Manhattan Borough President and City Comptroller. She has also served as a director on the New York state Obama for America campaign.
Johnson ran against Rangel once before in the 2010, but was defeated. That same election year, the New York Times endorsed her candidacy, championing her advocacy for women’s and civil rights. Though Rangel is probably the most revered black politician in Washington, Johnson is confident she will be the one to unseat him.
Read what she had to say to Loop 21 in an exclusive phone interview.
Loop 21: Tell me about your political background and what has impassioned you to run for Congress?
Johnson: This has been a 25-year journey. The journey started with a statement I made to myself when I was director of Equal Employment Opportunities for Fortune 500 company, Seagram. During the dismantling of affirmative action, I went around the country under the Reagan-Bush administration and I said to myself one day I’m going to Congress to put ...in legislation around affirmative action.
I come from a political family. My dad was the first black elected to public office in Poughkeepsie as a council member in '68. My parents were steeped in community, and started the Poughkeepsie Voter’s League. In their 30s, I watched these young folks take their lead in community and it was something that was always instilled in [me]. From the time of a little girl, the biggest joy I got was every four years during the Democratic National Convention. My parents had to run me to bed because I thought there was nothing more exciting than the DNC. It’s in my DNA. I escorted Eleanor Roosevelt when she came to Poughkeepsie. I met Martin Luther King, who came to my church. All of this backdrop sort of fueled this sense of activism.
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I am a leader. The Barack Obama campaign in 2007, asked me to join [them]. I organized and built a mighty army of believers and first-time people involved in the political process. It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done.
I want to inspire people to come back into a process that we necessarily need them in because I cannot do this work alone. No progress will be done unless folks are fully engaged. This is the opportunity I see in the 13th district
Loop 21: This isn’t your first time running against Rangel. What do you think will be different this election season?
Johnson: That Charlie Rangel is going to lose.
This is my fourth run for office. I started 10 years ago when I ran for Assembly in 2002, City Council in 2005 and Congress in 2010, which was a bold move. Every elected official wanted to do the same thing that I did but were not brave enough. It was a risk. It was a breakout strategy. I said I’m going run against a 40-year incumbent, someone whom I regarded. We [need] something new and something that is better. I [see] myself as that.
You have to be on the ground to know there was an eroding. When [I] take back Congress, [Rangel] will have the capacity to do much more for the district. In 2010, only 18 percent of registered voters came out -- 50,000 people out of 200,000 registered. 82 percent stayed home. Charlie Rangel can not claim that he won the heart and minds of the people of the 15th Congressional [district].
Loop 21: Is there a specific demographic or target group of voters that your campaign is focusing on for the primary vote?
Johnson: Everyone. But over 50 percent of the voting population are women. I am distinguishable by being the only woman in the race. I don’t lead with that because I’ve backed it up with my credentials. It’s time for a woman. I’m hearing this from younger women, older women, I’m hearing from people who have been loyal to [Rangel] who certainly want a change and say why not a woman?
Loop 21: As an outsider looking in, what are some things going on in your district that may have been overlooked in the past that you feel need closer attention?
Johnson: Business development. Up and down Adam Clayton Powell [Blvd.] there are a lot small entrepreneurs; barber shops, beauty shops, boutiques, etc. As I’m passing out literature it’s the same as it was in 2010. We talk about economic development, but you don’t just start up something and let a sector go and just say, God bless you. In our community that’s not enough to survive and be able to grow bigger and hire.
Likewise with education. There are four community school districts, which only one has been reasonably good, and the rest languished. Your opportunity in this country begins and ends with education, or lack thereof. A lot of folks say well it’s really not the job of the congressperson -- they work for Washington. I think the larger part of this job is twofold. What’s done in Washington, legislatively will affect the lives 315 million people. On the other side it is the top level position of this community.
Loop 21: With the demographic shift in the district, as a result of rezoning, do you think the rise in the Hispanic population changes the landscape of this race?
Johnson: The shift is no surprise. This is something we’ve known has been happening for some time. There is certainly ethnic, national pride, but at the end of the day people are really looking for someone to work for them. I say this to many people: You are the employer and I’m asking you to hire me. I’m asking you to look at a resume that is distinguished and make your decision.
Loop 21: In 2010, the New York Times endorsed your candidacy, highlighting your advocacy for women’s rights and civil rights. What did that endorsement mean for your campaign and do you hope to get their endorsement again?
Johnson: Of course I do. Every endorsement is a validation. A lot of people will never see you on the ground. This is 700,000 people. I know a lot of folks will not see me. The New York Times is for many people a gold star endorsement. That is significant, so of course I would. But every election is different. I’m going after that endorsement again and I’m going after others.
Loop 21: On a national scale, what are some of the key issues you would like to tackle if elected to Congress?
Johnson: Immigration reform. You have so many people -- Hispanic and African -- are hunkered down and afraid, they can not participate fully in the progress or gift to this community what they could if they had all rights and privileges or at least to know what their status was. Their status can be productive.
For me, as a women’s political activist, women are still disproportionately underpaid. When we take that salary to afford a family disproportionately on our own, it does matter.
My worry in this day in time is a lot of the things we fought for and won are now in jeopardy again -- worker’s rights, the right to petition, so many things.