As Worries Persist Over Harlem Lawmaker’s Health, Elected Leaders Stay Mum

With a manual recount slated to begin next week in the Democratic primary race between incumbent City Council Member Bill Perkins and challenger Kristin Richardson Jordan, questions persist about Perkins’s health and his ability to properly represent nearly 158,000 constituents in the district covering Harlem and parts of Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.

Jordan has come within 104 votes of unseating Perkins but almost regardless of whether he’s on the Council for six more months or wins re-election, many who spoke with Gothamist/WNYC said they’re worried the issues of increased crime, rapid gentrification, and low vaccinations rates would go unaddressed without a vocal and capable lawmaker seated on the city council.

READ MORE: New York City Board of Elections Certifies Results; Two Council Races Go To Hand Counts

They could not specifically pinpoint what ails Perkins, 72, though there were assertions of memory loss and disorientation. Perkins’ health concerns date back to at least 2019, when he was reportedly taken into custody by police from his home for acting erratically. Perkins, a cancer survivor, blamed the episode on unspecified “health issues.”

The ongoing worries have not concerned the New York City Council enough to formally intervene. And it’s unclear whether they have any recourse. While current council rules can remove a member for malfeasance, there’s no mechanism to relieve a member of their duties if found mentally unfit to represent their district. A spokesperson for Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office declined to comment on Perkins or the larger question of how the council could both honor a member’s health privacy and meet the council’s obligation to serve the public.

Expelling council members is rare as it can appear to challenge the will of voters. The Speaker’s office has often pointed to the state’s Public Officer’s Law as the guiding principle for removing members, such as in the case of former Council Member Chaim Deutsch. But removing lawmakers through recall elections, in which such a question is put before voters, is not in place in New York. Nineteen other states, including New Jersey, allow for a recall.

Despite rumblings over his health status, Perkins was a top contender after joining the race late, competing against 13 challengers. Perkins initially won more first-choice votes on primary night, holding a razor-thin lead over Jordan, a Democratic Socialist and first-time candidate. Following 13 rounds of ranked-choice counting, Jordan pulled ahead by 104 votes, a small enough margin to trigger an automatic manual recount.

Syderia Asberry-Chresfield, president of the Greater Harlem Coalition, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the number of drug treatment centers in Harlem, credited Perkins’ name recognition for carrying him to the top, even with little campaigning and campaign money on hand. She was explicit about what she considered a problem in plain view that public officials were choosing to ignore.

“So, we know that there’s a medical problem there and everybody’s aware, but for whatever reason, they act as if they have blinders on and no one wants to bring it to anyone else’s attention,” she said. “And I’m like totally open about it. And this is a real problem.”

Bill Perkins, a Councilmember for Harlem's 9th Council District, at a podium.

Bill Perkins, pictured inside the Council in April 2018, was elected in a special election in 2017. Credit Emil Cohen

Keith Lilly, a spokesperson for Perkins and a local district leader, did not return a request for comment. His staff declined to make Perkins available for comment.

Elected in 2017, Perkins returned to the city council after a 10-year stint serving as a state senator representing Harlem. He won through a special election, continuing Harlem’s legacy as a center for Black power, home to trailblazing lawmakers such as Adam Clayton Powell, Charles Rangel, C. Virginia Fields, and Keith Wright.

“He was a man of the people and that’s what everyone liked about him,” Asberry-Chresfield told Gothamist/WNYC. “He showed up and he would show up for just about any event and people loved him for that.”

On the council, Perkins has accomplished very little in recent years. A review of his legislative record shows he was the prime sponsor of five bills in 2018, and none in the three years following. Four of his bills, all related to preventing the transfer of four pieces of properties to third-party entities, were signed into law. A review by City & State magazine showed Perkins was the least-performing lawmaker on the 51-member body.

When it came to participating as a member on various council committees, Perkins never asked questions during hearings, according to a review of transcripts.

Council colleagues, who spoke to Gothamist/WNYC on the condition of anonymity so they could speak candidly about Perkins, said there were signs the Harlem lawmaker was mentally impaired. One member described Perkins as appearing to experience memory loss, while another noting that his sense of alertness deteriorated, particularly in the last year when most members were convening virtually. All expressed sadness that one of their colleagues was deteriorating.

One Harlem constituent, who also asked to remain anonymous over fears they won’t be helped in the future, recalled a meeting where “he could not hold onto the facts.”

“I had to keep repeating [the facts],” the person said. “That would have been, I guess what folks have characterized as a bad day. That he had good days and bad days.”

At a campaign event for mayoral candidate Andrew Yang in May, Asberry-Chresfield found Perkins had changed.

“I’ve had conversations with him on and off for over 20 years, and he can look at me right now and not know who the hell I am. And I’ll ask him, can you do x, y, and z?” she said. “And he’ll say ‘yes.’ And then two minutes later: ‘What did you say again?’

While Perkins’ colleagues declined to go on the record to discuss his health, Keith Wright, the chairperson of the Manhattan Democratic Party, did not want to jump to conclusions over Perkins’ state. Wright said Perkins was entitled to run for office just like anyone else.

“I’m not his doctor. I cannot make that call,” Wright said of Perkins’s decision to run.

Speculation has swirled whether the political machine will convince Perkins to resign from his post after winning the primary so they can install a candidate of their choice, exploiting a loophole that allows political parties to do so. Wright said there is no ploy to persuade Perkins to step down, providing he wins after the manual recount.

“I know nothing about it. I haven’t heard about it,” Wright said. “I’m glad people are postulating about things, and that’s never been discussed with me.”

Brigid Bergin contributed to this report.