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Bill Perkins, a force in Harlem politics, is dead at 74

Bill Perkins, a hard-charging, reform-minded city and state lawmaker who was a leading voice in the passage of lead-paint inspection laws and an energetic force in Harlem politics across three decades, died Monday night in his Harlem home. He was 74.

“Harlem has lost a giant,” Mayor Adams tweeted Tuesday. “Bill Perkins was a legend of New York government. He was also a good friend. I will miss his company and his counsel.”

As he rose in politics, Perkins emerged as a leading progressive voice — a supporter of the Central Park Five, an early voice against the Iraq War and for LGBT rights.

His death was announced Tuesday by his wife, Pamela Green Perkins.

“After a lifetime fighting for justice, equality and to make the voices of our community heard, my husband, former City Councilman and State Senator Perkins died at home in Harlem, the community he loved and fought for his entire life,” she wrote in a statement. “May he rest in peace and in power.”

The cause was not immediately clear. But Perkins had suffered from dementia in recent years, said Richard Fife, a spokesman for his family.

The Bronx-born Perkins, a graduate of Brown University, worked as a social worker and tenant advocate before his initial election to the City Council in 1998.

City Council Member Bill Perkins in 2017.

The Democrat served three terms in the Council, went to work as a state senator in Albany for a decade, and then returned for two more terms in the Council before leaving government in 2021.

Perkins’ priorities included public education, rat eradication, lead regulation, criminal justice reform and increases to the minimum wage.

Perkins counted mayors David Dinkins and Eric Adams as friends. In 2007, Perkins was the first New York politician to support the presidential run of Barack Obama. Perkins lost his council seat to Kristin Richardson Jordan in the 2021 Democratic primary as he struggled with his health in the final years of his political career.

Former Rep. Charles Rangel, Harlem’s longtime voice in Congress, said in a phone call that Perkins started as a “young maverick” fighting the political power structure and blossomed into a “great public official.”

“He was a hard-working working official and he served this community well,” Rangel said. “It didn’t mean he agreed with everybody, but he always had the people first in his thoughts.”

“He will be missed by all of us who knew and worked with him,” Rangel added.

As a younger man, Perkins served as deputy majority leader of the City Council.

He was arrested protesting the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed street peddler from West Africa who died in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four four plainclothes police officers.

He sponsored the Childhood Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 2004, a law forcing landlords to fix paint hazards in apartments.

As a senator in Albany, Perkins led a push to require reductions in sulfur in heating oil, a bid to reduce the risks of acid rain. He often fixed his focus on the health of New Yorkers, and pushed for more cancer screenings.

“Health care is a great, great problem in our city,” Perkins said in a 2005 interview with the City University of New York. “There are serious health care disparities in our cities.”

And long before Adams made killing rats a cornerstone of his administration, Perkins was a vocal vermin denigrator. He led legislation aimed at banning eating on the subways.

The Washington Post called him “The Rat Man.”

“I know cultures where they don’t abhor the rat; there are places where they worship the rat,” Perkins told MetroFocus in 2012. “That’s not New York, and that’s not me!”

Perkins was born in the South Bronx in 1949 and was raised with two brothers and a cousin by his mother. He studied at the Collegiate School before heading to college at Brown in Rhode Island. He described himself as a child of the civil rights movement.

After returning to New York, he created the Sojourner Truth Democratic Club as a headquarters for his community work.

“Councilman Perkins showed courage when others would not and was a fearless advocate for the vulnerable,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Manhattan Democrat, said in a statement. “He treated all with the respect, equity and justice that they deserved, and he demanded change when and where it was needed the most.”

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