Leading in Individual Donors, Democrat Sees Grassroots Path to Victory in Race for Charles Rangel’s House Seat

Suzan Johnson Cook said life in Harlem and the Bronx today is much different than when she grew up there, watching her mother work as a teacher and her father as a subway motorman and, later, small business owner. She believes that stability is fading as families in the community are forced to work harder for a chance to make ends meet.

“That strong family work ethic, in terms of you work hard and you can have a piece of the American dream, became true for us,” she said from her desk in her campaign office on West 135th Street. “It’s not the same now. The lack of affordable housing is just tremendously evident in this community.”

  • Name: Suzan Johnson Cook
  • Age: 59
  • Home Neighborhood: Harlem
  • Party Affiliation: Democrat
  • Current Office/Job: Campaigning full time

Ms. Cook said part of that struggle is a result of the tough time small businesses in Harlem are facing.

“I see small businesses disappearing or just struggling to hang on,” she said. “I see takeovers. I see grown children having to move back home with their families because they can’t afford, and then their families not being able to afford, so you just see a whole community struggling.”

Ms. Cook is one of eight Democrats competing in the primary for the 13th Congressional District representing parts of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. The seat will be left open by the retirement of Representative Charles B. Rangel, 85, after 45 years in office.

Ms. Cook is also the only woman in the race.

She has served as ambassador at large for international religious freedom under President Obama, addressing issues of religious freedom around the world. She also worked as a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, founded Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church and was its pastor for 14 years, and held major religious positions, including official chaplain of the New York Police Department and president of the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference.

The most prominent endorsements and the larger fund-raising donations in the race have gone to State Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, Mr. Rangel’s pick to succeed him, and State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who nearly beat out Mr. Rangel for his seat in 2014. Nevertheless, Ms. Cook said she is campaigning harder than her competitors, using her reputation of advocacy in District 13 to gain support from members of the community.

“All of us get endorsements from many different places,” Ms. Cook said. “Mine is a grass-roots campaign, so I have grass-roots endorsements and grass-roots dollars, and I think that speaks volumes.

“We have more donors than anyone. It’s not about necessarily how much cash you can raise,” Ms. Cook said. “No matter who are the names that endorse you, ultimately the people have the vote, and we are the people’s choice.”

Mr. Rangel said though he has nothing negative to say about Ms. Cook, he chose to endorse Mr. Wright because he wanted his successor to have support from groups across the district.

“In terms of community or political support, Keith Wright has more than all the rest of them together,” Mr. Rangel said.

Ms. Cook said among the goals motivating her are gender equality, adequate wages, student loan forgiveness, quality public education, improved incarceration policies, and maintaining affordable housing and small business success. If elected, she said, the House committees that would interest her most would be Small Business, Foreign Affairs and Education and the Workforce.

“It’s time for someone that has relevant, real change,” Ms. Cook said, “Rev. Al Sharpton talked about there being transformational leaders or transactional leaders, and I think we’ve had transactional leaders, leaders who’ve done business in so many ways. But now you need somebody who’s going to transform, because it’s not evident what’s been done.”

Yolanda Brown, an Upper West Side resident who donated $50 to Ms. Cook’s campaign, said the candidate’s work in public service showed how much Ms. Cook cares.

“From her days of being a pastor, of being a chaplain at the police department, of being ambassador at large, there have been so many years,” Ms. Brown said. “It wasn’t a career move. It was truly about the people.”

Katrina Lantos Swett, who served with Ms. Cook on the Commission on International Religious Freedom during her time in the ambassadorial role, said she admired Ms. Cook’s charisma and recalled an impassioned speech Ms. Cook gave at an international conference in Vienna stressing religious freedom.

“She really is one of those people who, in the best possible way, wears her heart on her sleeve, and it was clear that she has sincere concern and commitment,” Ms. Swett said, stating that Ms. Cook “would be a dynamic and positive addition to Congress.”

Ms. Cook said that it is time for a leader that can bridge the gap between Washington and District 13.

“There was a moment when I just said there was a lack — and who can fill that void?” she said. “I can fill that void.”