Charles Rangel is fast becoming the man he beat.
For four decades, from his 203-vote primary victory over Harlem titan Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970 to his resignation as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee last week, Rangel built a political résumé as robust as his personality.
Like Powell, the New York Democrat wrote bills, cut deals and played political chess better than his peers — well enough to win the power that proved to be his undoing.
Now in the winter of his political life, the 79-year-old Korean War combat veteran is fighting to save his reputation, to be remembered more for his lifetime of public service than for allegations that he abused the public trust.
It was Powell’s fate to see the memory of scandal overwhelm a political career in which he commanded the pulpit of the powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church and used the gavel of the House Education and Labor Committee to advance central elements of the social-policy agendas of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy.
Rangel’s remarkable rise was different than Powell’s, as he relied on working with the system, rather than against it, to gain power. If he is able to escape the Powell legacy, it is because his style — charming, gracious and unstintingly witty — has endeared him to everyone around him. His colleagues are rooting for him, even as some must abandon him.
“It’s very painful for me to see the pain that Charlie must be enduring, because we know he had such a distinguished career and devoted 100 percent of himself to his job and a positive agenda,” Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, who has served with Rangel for 21 years in the New York delegation, said as she choked up. “It’s tragic.”
No one wanted to see Rangel suffer — not even the Republican leaders who benefit from his fall.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Rangel’s resignation was appropriate but marked “a sad day for the House of Representatives.”
For nearly two years, his personal popularity helped Rangel withstand pressure to resign his chairmanship from Republicans, good-government groups, editorialists and a handful of his Democratic colleagues.
He’s been accused of failing to pay taxes on a Dominican rental property, omitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets from legally required financial disclosures, maintaining multiple rent-stabilized apartments in violation of New York City regulations, improperly using his office to solicit contributions for an institution named in his honor at the City University of New York and accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in violation of House ethics rules.
When the ethics committee ruled against him on the Caribbean trips late last month, one of Rangel’s favorite political sayings was turned on him: “I’ll be with you as long as I can.”
Fearful of the damage Rangel’s ethical lapse could inflict on their own campaigns, rank-and-file Democrats sent a message to Rangel through party leaders and the press last Tuesday: They couldn’t stand with him any longer.
Rangel, who became the first black member of the Ways and Means Committee in 1974, surrendered the gavel the next day.
On the rise
In 1969, Rangel traveled to Bimini, a two-island enclave at the west end of the Bahamas where Powell spent much of his time as he avoided ethics charges in Washington and the fallout of a slander judgment that made it impossible for him to go back to Harlem often.
He went to apprise Powell of stirrings of discontent back in Harlem and the possibility that he could be challenged in a primary by one of several candidates — including Rangel himself — if he didn’t tend to his district.
In a scene detailed in Rangel’s memoir and Wil Haygood’s Powell biography, Powell condescendingly patted Rangel’s face, telling him, “Do what you have to do, baby.”
That insult launched Rangel’s campaign, ushering into power a new generation of Harlem leaders — Rangel and friends David Dinkins, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton — who would be a force in New York and national politics for the next four decades.
From the moment he arrived, everyone knew who Rangel was, according to Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who later co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus with Rangel and others.
“Rangel got to Congress under incredible circumstances,” Conyers said. And if anyone had missed the primary, it was impossible to miss Rangel himself.
“He’s a natural extrovert,” Conyers said.
Rangel quickly endeared himself to Rep. Tip O’Neill, the Irish Catholic Bostonian whip who would soon become speaker of the House, and he cast his eye on a seat on the Ways and Means Committee.
When Rep. Hugh Carey left his seat on the committee to run for governor, Rangel sensed an opportunity. He offered his support for Carey’s gubernatorial ambitions in a meeting in which Carey agreed to back Rangel for Ways and Means.
“I guess I did shake him down, but I swear I don’t remember doing it,” Rangel wrote later.
But Rangel ran into resistance from other members of his delegation, and it was O’Neill who found him a seat.
O’Neill so enjoyed Rangel’s company that he invited him on countless congressional delegation trips overseas, according to Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who arrived in Congress the same year as Rangel and traveled with them.
Rangel would turn his focus to the committee after running and losing a race for whip in 1986, O’Neill’s last year as speaker.
Rangel’s congressional career has been devoted to lifting up the economic fortunes of the people of Harlem, where he still lives just a few blocks from where he was raised.
He wrote a 1993 “empowerment zone” law that created tax breaks to encourage private investment in the resurrection of the area.
That was “really the critical turning point for Harlem,” Columbia University public policy professor Ester Fuchs told CQ Politics. The message that “Harlem is open for business again” was “as important symbolically as it was substantively,” she said.
Moreover, Rangel’s longtime commitment to progressive tax policies — for using the bounty reaped by the wealthy to improve the lot of the poor — has been aimed squarely at boosting opportunities for his constituents.
“I’ve always felt, as a kid, that if this great country had given me an opportunity to earn a decent or even a more decent high salary, that I had an obligation to pay taxes to keep the government going and to provide services for those people who are less fortunate,” Rangel said in 2007, his first year as Ways and Means chairman. “The distribution of tax liability has been a personal thing with me.”
Rangel insists that he will be exonerated by the ethics committee of the remaining charges hanging over his head and that his gavel will be restored. While many of his colleagues are publicly supportive of that narrative, few, if any, expect Rangel to return to the chairmanship he held for just three years.
He may seek the validation of a 21st term — Powell won a special election to succeed himself after the House refused to seat him after the 1966 election — but Rangel’s best political days appear to be behind him.
Asked last week to name the highlight of his political career, Rangel replied softly as he disappeared onto the House floor: “I guess this chairmanship.”