Twenty-six years ago, I watched with mixed feelings as an elderly woman was carried across an avenue in Harlem. She was headed to a polling place to vote for David Dinkins for mayor and nothing was going to stop her. The scene choked me up, even though I was there to poll watch for Rudy Giuliani.
"There's no way we can beat that," I whispered to myself. And we didn't.
Twenty hours later, following Giuliani's concession speech, I sat at campaign headquarters at The Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan drinking Scotch and chain-smoking Marlboros with another candidate who had run that day. He was a hugely successful, black Harlem resident -- and he was stunned. He had just been blown out, 81% to 19%, in a race for Manhattan borough president, and his Harlem results were even worse. There wasn't enough Scotch in Edinburgh, much less at the Roosevelt, to comfort him. His sin? He was a Republican.
Democratic state Sen. Olga Mendez was an East Harlem legend. She was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a U.S. state legislature and she handily won 14 times. Then, in 2004, she ran as a Republican. She was trounced 80% to 20% by the same voters.
The last non-Democrat to be feted in Harlem was probably Fidel Castro in 1960, and he was a Marxist.
So along comes Ben Carson Thursday, the conservative Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon, to a luncheon at Sylvia's Restaurant. What could he possibly have to say that would make a dent in Harlem?
A lot, it turns out -- if you could hear him. Carson speaks almost in a whisper, but his message packs a wallop. He talks plainly about the poverty in which he was raised and how much he hated it.
"Some people hate spiders and mice; I hate poverty," he said, offering time-honored solutions that got him out of the ghetto: education, personal responsibility, individual initiative.
He talked about his mother, a single mom at age 13 who worked as a domestic to stay off welfare. Carson is no fan of government programs that "perpetuate poverty and dependency."
His basic message to black Democratic voters: How's that going for you?
It's a pretty good question.