Even a politician is entitled to a presumption of innocence. Yet, reading the papers and listening to television pundits, one would get the impression that Congressman Charles Rangel is guilty -- until proved innocent -- the reverse of a basic American right.
I don’t know how his peers in Congress will evaluate the charges against him when he’s put on trial but I know some things about him that have not been publicized lately.
He was a war hero. He has always acted as best he could to help needy people.
Here’s an example. On July 21, 2005, Congressman Rangel appeared at a Bronx hospital called Calvary, where a woman lay dying. She had only a few days to live but she had a last wish -- she wanted to realize her dream and become an American citizen.
A reporter told Congressman Rangel about it. The next day he appeared at the bedside of Gloria Canonizado, a housekeeper from the Philippines. He was carrying a little American flag, which he presented to her. And then he gave her a framed certificate with her name and the words: “Honorary American Citizen.” There, of course, is no such category under law but Gloria Canonizado, with tears in her eyes, accepted the framed certificate. Rangel told her how proud he was to meet her and doctors and nurses said she died a few days later, happy.
I witnessed the little ceremony. I saw the warmth and gratitude in her eyes -- and Rangel’s tearful reaction.
In November, 1950, Charlie Rangel won the Bronze Star in the Korean War when he was wounded while helping to rescue 40 men behind Chinese lines in freezing temperature. He got the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. “The battle,” he later wrote, “was a nightmare becoming a reality. And I haven’t had a bad day since.” That became the title of his memoir.
Now, a House ethics committee has charged Rangel with various violations including: use of a rent-stabilized apartment in Harlem as a campaign office, use of Congressional stationery to raise money for a project dear to his heart, building the Charles Rangel Center for Public Service at City College; use of other rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan; and failure to account for income from a beach house he owned in the Dominican Republic. There will be a public trial to see if the charges can be proven.
Rangel said in a statement: “At long last sunshine will pierce the cloud of serious allegations that have been raised against me in the media. I will be glad to respond to the allegations at such time as the ethics committee makes them public.”
On Friday, he added: “When a person is elected to public office, there is a higher level of honesty and openness and transparency that’s on him rather than just an ordinary citizen.”
One political consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, told me Rangel’s record of helping underprivileged people for four decades was unsurpassed. In forty years, he said, Rangel rose to a leadership role in the Democratic Party in Harlem, where he was considered one of the “gang of four”: Rangel, David Dinkins, Percy Sutton and Basil Paterson.
Sheinkopf noted his accession to Congress in the 1970s and how he helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus and served on the Judiciary Committee and later the House Ways and Means Committee, ultimately becoming chairman. He joined the battle against drug trafficking and secured 5 billion dollars in federal funds to support urban communities.
He took an active role in the civil rights demonstrations of the sixties. Sheinkopf said Rangel made it easier for people with modest incomes to get mortgages. “He also was not afraid to take on tough customers like Mayor Koch or Mayor Giuliani -- and he helped poor people get affordable housing. He took a stand on police abuse. He was a leader on Democratic, bread and butter issues.”
But Sheinkopf insisted: “It’s time for him to go, with our gratitude for his years of service. If he stays, he diminishes his role in history. He should go with our deep thanks. He should be shown the door and leave with dignity rather than stay and be torn apart by a pack of snarling dogs.”
Rangel may not follow Sheinkopf's advice. He’s been a fighter all his life. And, at 80, this man who climbed from the streets of Harlem to become dean of the New York delegation, may not give up.
In my view he is superior to some of the people calling for his scalp. He may have a big ego but he also has a big heart. I can’t say the same for some of his detractors. Egotism is a sin many politicians have -- and many reporters and tv pundits have the same sin. But not all are willing to go to bat for the underdog.