Shrugging the weight of his troubles off his shoulders for a few hours, Rep. Charles Rangel basked in the glow of praise from a host of Democratic officials, longtime backers and New York players at a lush 80th birthday bash/fundraiser at The Plaza Hotel that was closely monitored for mood and attendance in the wake of the House ethics case against him.
There was a palpable sense of frustration among some Rangel supporters with some of the pressure on him. Even the normally reserved former mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, flipped the bird to a loud heckler who was shouting "crook" to almost every African-American man who entered the hotel.
But inside, it was a happier mood - even though some guests privately acknowledged that it might be the last pre-campaign birthday fundraiser that Rangel holds. Starting Thursday morning, he'll be pivoting toward his re-election campaign and the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
The Harlem Democrat was clearly moved — and said as much – by the outpouring. But he was also buoyant as he stood on stage for more than two hours, with wife Alma beside him for much of the event, in the storied hotel's chandelier-appointed and gilded Grand Ballroom.
"I've been to a lot of funerals but this damn sure ain't no funeral!" quipped the embattled congressman into a microphone. He ended the night dancing solo on stage to raucous applause from the remaining guests.
"This has been a real moving experience for me that I will never, never forget," he told the crowd, "and you being here over the many, many years has given me the strength to do what has not been convenient, but to do what we know is right. We're gonna win this one....Please, remember me in your prayers, because we know it really works."
Then, he asked, "Is the bar still open?" before people began chants of "Si Se Puede!", Spanish for "Yes we can," the famous Obama campaign mantra.
Rangel's campaign said it had sold out the event’s roughly 800 tickets (though slightly fewer than that attended). Guests munched on buffet-style meals of beef, seasoned vegetables and risotto (there was also a Kosher table). Rangel blew out candles on a massive birthday cake.
The event had been plagued by bad news and expectations of weakened attendance in the leadup to it. Even the headliner, Aretha Franklin, had to cancel thanks to an injury. Dionne Warwick filled in and sang a few songs, including "That's What Friends Are For."
Gov. David Paterson served as the emcee, but despite his gift of gab — and occasional tendency to turn the focus on himself — he kept the event moving.
There were some surprise attendees — the Rev. Al Sharpton had been a "maybe" up until the event. And while there were a small handful of major Democratic donors, such as longtime Rangel boosters Victor and Sarah Kovner, and Janice Shorenstein, there were few boldface contributors on hand.
Since the House ethics committee announced that Rangel would face a public hearing on 13 counts of breaking House rules and federal regulations governing the behavior of lawmakers, the congressman had been beating the bushes to make sure that people were attending — with personal calls, robocalls and repeated tweets. Some major Democrats bowed out — Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Mike McMahon, for example — and some past sponsors of the event didn’t do so this year, saying they were concerned about the appearance.
Still, the room was packed with longtime backers from his congressional district as well as figures such as Kathy Wylde of the Partnership for New York City, publicist Ken Sunshine, election lawyers Jerry Goldfeder and Henry Berger, and singer-activist musician Harry Belafonte. Gov. Paterson's father, Basil Paterson, who's also close with Rangel, was on hand.
Longtime Rangel ally Hazel Dukes, asked about some of the drop-outs from the party, said, "Felix Rohatyn doesn't live in the district. The president of Met Life doesn't live in the district!"
Dinkins, the city's first and so far only African-American mayor, was muted when asked by POLITICO about his gesture toward the protester who'd been heckling many attendees outside the hotel.
He explained that there had been protesters carrying "signs saying Rangel must resign....one of the fellows called me by name. It was at that point that I gave him the finger. That's the whole story."
Asked which name, first or last, and he said, "He used at least my last name and (maybe) my first...you can't make much of a story of that."
Among the more notable speeches of the night was from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who mocked those who suddenly sent regrets about attending.
A few people "couldn't be here tonight because as they tell it, either they had to get a haircut or they knew they were going to have a headache,” Bloomberg quipped. “But Charlie, as you know, they were with you as long as they could be."
Sharpton, meanwhile, blasted the press for its intense coverage of Rangel’s woes and said, "You started and executed a political crucifixion...but stay tuned for a political resurrection."
The House committee’s central charge against Rangel is that he abused his office — stationery, aides, mailing privileges and leverage — to raise money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, a project that would cement his legacy in New York. In addition to pushing for earmarked federal dollars for the center, Rangel is accused of improperly pursuing multimillion-dollar contributions from sources with interests before the House Ways and Means Committee, where he served as the top-ranking Democrat and later as chairman. Rangel has acknowledged making mistakes but has denied that they were intentional.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who had clearly been split about whether to go, gave an impassioned speech defending Rangel's work in Washington. And Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said that Rangel had fought "for New York through thick and thin and never let us down when it comes to delivering" for the state.
Throughout the room, people discussed in small groups the speech Rangel had given from the House floor in defense of himself on Wednesday -- "Don't leave me swinging in the wind 'til November," he had said -- and generally agreed that he had to defend himself.
"I had concerns" about the charges, said longtime Rangel booster Priscilla Christianson, who traveled from Fairfield County, Conn. to attend. "(But) we've all made judgment errors in our lifetime."