Clyde Williams Looks to Bring Washington Experience to Harlem

Sitting at Vicky’s Diner in Washington Heights one recent afternoon, Clyde Williams, a Democrat campaigning for a seat in Congress, was munching on peppered French fries and talking about his plans for the 13th Congressional District when he was interrupted by a woman one booth over.

“What’s your name?” she asked after hearing him describe his education plans. “Clyde Williams,” he replied. “You rock,” she said.

  • Name: Clyde Williams
  • Age: 54
  • Home Neighborhood: Harlem
  • Party Affiliation: Democrat
  • Current Office/Job: Campaigning full time

Mr. Williams said the exchange highlighted both his biggest challenge and his greatest advantage: People may not know him yet, but once they do, they become supporters. For Mr. Williams, his newcomer status in New York politics is a point of pride.

“I think anyone who is not an elected person in Albany is an advantage for District 13,” he said. “You have people who want to hold this congressional seat who have had 20 years or more to fix the problems of this community, and they haven’t done it from Albany.”

Mr. Williams has split his career of more than 20 years in public service between Washington, D.C., and Harlem. During that time, he was also on the board of a number of local nonprofit organizations and private business ventures.

He is one of eight Democrats in the race and is considered an underdog because of his lack of name recognition and of any prior experience as an elected official in New York. Mr. Williams said his experiences outside of politics will help him develop public-private partnerships and fight for federal grants.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Williams worked in the Clinton administration as the deputy chief of staff of the Department of Agriculture, where he focused on the food stamp and school lunch programs. Mr. Williams moved to Harlem in 2001 to work for the Clinton Foundation as a domestic policy adviser. He returned to Washington in 2009 when President Obama appointed him as the political director of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Williams said he hadn’t considered running for a political office until former President Bill Clinton urged him to run in New York. And he has support from others in Washington.

“Clyde has longstanding relationships in Congress,” said Peter Rouse, a political consultant and a former interim White House chief of staff to President Obama. Mr. Rouse has known Mr. Williams professionally for more than 20 years and endorsed his campaign. “He knows how Congress works,” he said. “When he’s elected, he’ll know how to hit the ground running.”

Critics, however, see Mr. Williams’s ties to private corporations as a conflict of interest — he has been referred to by some as Wall Street Clyde — and departing Representative Charles B. Rangel said he doesn’t believe that Mr. Williams has had much of a presence in the community.

“Clyde Williams is new to the community, so I don’t know that much about him,” Mr. Rangel said. “I don’t know what he’s done.”

Liane Ramirez Swierk, a friend and supporter of Mr. Williams who has lived in Washington Heights for decades, disagreed with Mr. Rangel’s assessment. She described how Mr. Williams helped her community when a neighborhood school shut down by setting up a meeting for her and Mr. Rangel to determine where to put the displaced students.

“He really is a man of integrity and compassion,” Ms. Ramirez Swierk said. “He cares about people.”

Originally from Washington, D.C., Mr. Williams lives in Harlem with his family, and he said he grew up in communities not unlike those of the 13th Congressional District. His mother, a single parent of six, struggled to provide adequate housing and educational opportunities for her family. Mr. Williams said he understands firsthand what the community needs.

“One of the biggest issues wherever you go in this congressional district is affordable housing and rent,” he said.

Mr. Williams said he intends to fight for federal grant money that could be used to build affordable housing and repair crumbling public housing units. He also said he believes that the federal definition of affordable housing should be re-evaluated to exclude more affluent areas, like Westchester County, which do not accurately reflect the 13th Congressional District. And he believes “warehousing,” a practice in which landlords intentionally keep entire housing units vacant in hopes of being bought by developers, should be banned.

“If you have the right person sitting in this congressional seat,” Mr. Williams said, “it gives you the ability to convene and bring about real ideas — real dialog — to bring about additional resources to your community in a way that other people cannot do.”