As a legislator from Harlem who served for 24 years, William “Bill” Perkins was a tireless independent fighter for the people. Time and again, Bill modeled the exemplary courage to speak truth to power.
Recognized by The Nation magazine as one of eight most effective progressive city leaders in the country, Bill was one of the few leaders who stood with the Central Park Five – and against Donald Trump’s callous call for the death penalty for them. They were ultimately found innocent and are now known as the Exonerated Five. Bill was the first New York State elected official to support Barack Obama for President and was never afraid – as civil rights leader John Lewis advised all of us – “to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Born on April 18, 1949 in Lincoln Hospital and a lifelong resident of Harlem, Bill was raised by his mother Helen together with his two brothers and a cousin. While she didn’t have much to give him financially, Helen fought to get Bill into good schools, and instilled in him the importance of a good education. With hard work, and the help of his community, Bill graduated from the Collegiate School, and then Brown University. Asked about his college days, Bill once said, “I was not a good student at Brown. I was a good student activist.”
Starting his political career as a community activist and tenant leader, Bill was elected five times to the City Council, and was chosen by his colleagues to serve as Deputy Majority Leader and Chair of the Government Operations Committee. Legendary columnist Jack Newfield described Bill as “a legislator who has no fear and limitless empathy for life’s casualties.”
On the City Council, Bill spearheaded the successful fight to protect children from the deadly effects of lead in their homes. His leadership resulted in the enactment of The Childhood Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 2004. For winning this fight, Juan Gonzales in the Daily News called Bill Perkins “a hero” and wrote, “It took the stamina of a long-distance runner to prevail against the city’s powerful landlord lobby, which has resisted stronger lead paint removal laws for decades.”
Bill sponsored landmark legislation to protect gay, lesbian and transgender rights; spearheaded the first Living Wage Bill; introduced and passed a resolution opposing involvement in the Iraq War; and led the fight to pass a resolution mandating that the Patriot Act not infringe upon the fundamental rights and liberties of New Yorkers. For his early campaign against the plague of rats on New York City’s streets, Bill earned the nickname, the “Rat Man.” He served as Chair of Council’s Select Committee on Pest Control, organizing a citywide Rat Summit and a comprehensive strategy to solve the City’s rat problem that forced Mayor Bloomberg to act.
Bill was elected to the State Senate in 2006 from a district that was previously represented by former NYS Secretary of State Basil Paterson, former State Comptroller Carl McCall and former Governor David Paterson. On his decision to support Barack Obama for President before most, State Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said that Bill “never waited for the right thing to become popular before taking action.”
As Chairman of the Corporations, Authorities & Commissions Committee, Bill led the fight in the State Senate for the law to reform public authorities like the MTA – to take their operations out of the shadows, ensuring that their finances were scrutinized and structured to best serve the people. He fought to pass the Power for Jobs Plan; worked to extend unemployment benefits and to make healthcare more accessible; and championed tenants’ rights and affordable housing. He led the successful campaign for legislation reducing sulfur in heating oil, making it easier for New Yorkers with respiratory conditions to breathe and helping reduce acid rain.
A colon cancer survivor, Bill understood the importance of early detection. He helped safeguard the health of children and adults by successfully establishing early detection programs in city hospitals and fighting asthma, infant and maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS. Bill was an original lead sponsor of the NY Health Act to make quality health care more accessible through a single payer plan.
A strong proponent of public education, Bill fought to give every single child the same opportunity to succeed that he had. He made sure that funding for computer technology, public libraries and school playground rehabilitation were municipal government priorities. Bill was a leading voice in maintaining The City University of New York’s mission of access and excellence, winning funding to increase scholarships, full-time faculty staffing, and college prep courses at the public university.
Bill was always in the community. He walked and jogged the streets, seeing firsthand the challenges his constituents faced, and hearing concerns and feelings about what needs to be done. He rode the buses and subways, staying in constant touch with the people he served. Bill was at tenant meetings, community meetings and senior centers. He was always there for us.
Above all, Bill was a loving husband, father, and friend. He adored his wife, and loved watching his many family members and loved ones succeed. He was an avid runner, completing several New York City Marathons during his 74 remarkable years. And when he wasn’t working up a sweat, he was often well-fashioned in his signature suits, complete with brimmed hat and bowtie.
In the early morning of May 16, 2023, Bill passed away at home in his beloved Harlem. He is survived by his loving wife, Pamela Green Perkins; his children, Kiva, Medjha, William, Margaret, Rebecca and Maximilian; his brothers, Gerry, Richard and Michael; grandchildren Marquis, Conasia, Kamaal, and Kiyara; and a host of other relatives, friends and community members. He was preceded in death by his mother Helen.