Clyde Williams, a potential challenger for the 15th Congressional District of New York, is laying the groundwork for a campaign against longtime representative Charles Rangel. A former Clinton White House aide and Democratic Party activist, Williams previously served as Deputy Chief of Staff at the Department of Agriculture and as National Political Director for the Democratic National Committee under President Barack Obama. He has been resident of the district since 2001, when he helped Former President Bill Clinton’s office in New York, where he served as Clinton’s Domestic Policy Advisor. Since then, his service to the community has included the creation of the Harlem Small Business Initiative, which helped bolster small business growth and the establishment of a program to empower Black and Latino high school students by providing free access to college test-preparatory materials. As national and local unemployment rates have soared, Williams has stressed the need for invigorating development initiatives and job training programs for Harlem residents in an effort to usher in a new era for the community. Columbia Political Review sat down with Williams to discuss Columbia, its relationship with the surrounding area and community, and how his election would be of particular interest to students.
Columbia Political Review: Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion is a 50-year undertaking that will certainly have effects on the local Harlem community. How can the university ensure that it serves to enhance the community while simultaneously benefitting from it?
Clyde Williams: As the largest employer and force in the District, it is essential that Columbia and the Uptown community collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. The relationship must be a two-way street.
While I think Uptown residents understand that there are potential gains from the project, I think there is a lot of concern that needs to be addressed and put to rest through better communication and transparency. For example, I think the recent outreach by Columbia Facilities and the project contractors to locally-owned firms is a good step, and if those discussions lead to tangible contracts and employment for local residents, it can help strengthen ties.
CPR: Many say that Columbia has gentrified parts of Morningside Heights. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think this has had a positive impact on the surrounding community?
CW: Gentrification often is a mixed picture, and Morningside Heights is no exception. Having a world-class university like Columbia in the District is clearly positive. The challenge for the University and political leadership is to help ensure the impact of gentrification for long-term residents is addressed in the best way possible. It is not always easy to align everyone’s interests, but it is incumbent upon us to try.
CPR: If elected, how would representing a district with a university such as Columbia influence your ambitions?
CW: From Harlem to Washington Heights, Marble Hill to Morningside Heights, this community represents the best of New York – vibrant, culturally rich and diverse. Our collective challenge is to try to unleash its untapped potential to build greater and more sustainable economic opportunity for all.
My objective is to help build on the positive momentum already underway, while addressing long-standing problems facing this community. As the country climbs out of this deep recession, our goal must be to create genuine opportunities for economic empowerment by creating jobs, attracting new indus- tries and making sure our residents have skills for 21st century jobs. Columbia is a natural partner for the kind of effort we need — leveraging all the skills, talents and resources among the University, businesses and non-profits in the District.
CPR: Columbia students are known for their political activism but do not particularly engage with local politics. How would you change this?
CW: I think Columbia students would be more engaged in local politics if they felt a connection to the political leadership and a sense of shared vision for what is achievable. Everyone living in this community has a stake in it.
And as we’ve seen, we must hold elected leaders accountable so that our democracy can function. We’ve drifted for way too long – and I think Columbia students are like a lot of Americans who are increasingly disengaged. I certainly hope my vision for the District will resonate with the students, and I plan to spend a lot of time on campus in the coming months (@voteclyde and www.facebook.com/voteclyde)
CPR: Given that graduation is right around the corner for Columbians, how would you address one of the nation’s deepest problems of high unemployment?
CW: I agree with many of President Obama’s plans for the economy and jobs – and not just because I used to work for him. For example, we need to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure with projects like building a national high-speed wireless network. If we do so, we can support the growth of high-tech businesses across the country, while creating jobs in the near-term. It’s a win-win. Likewise, the focus on skill-building is essential. Many fields like teaching, energy, healthcare and the skilled trades are hiring in greater numbers, but these jobs require specialized technical skills or degrees.
We need to become more flexible and focused on making sure people know about these opportunities and can get the skills they need. Further, fostering small businesses and entrepreneurship is also key – as well as holding down the costs of college so graduates aren’t constrained by the crushing burden of student loan debt. These are tangible proposals – and many of them aren’t expensive. They just require focus, energy and creativity among political leaders.