Charlie Rangel Wants One More Round

The Harlem Congressman -- and sometimes chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee -- says he has unfinished business; the challengers say it's time to step down.


Charles Rangel , the more-or-less former chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, says that he is seeking reelection to a 21st term. This is despite the ethical investigations that led him to leave a perch from which his Harlem constituents and others expected him to achieve so much - and despite a growing field of dreamers who want to replace him. 

Nearing 80, he is clearly a lion in winter with younger members of the pride nipping at his heels. "The reality is that people are saying that it is time to turn the page for a new chapter in political leadership in northern Manhattan," says Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the legendary Harlem Congressman that Rangel himself ousted forty years ago. "Everyone knows that change is coming. The question is when and the question is who." Powell is one of several politicians seeking the seat Rangel has held since 1971.

Another would-be challenger, a former aide, says Rangel is merely "a talking suit" doing little for the people of New York's 15th Congressional District, which now extends well beyond Harlem's borders to include predominantly white and Hispanic neighborhoods. "He wants one more go around, then he'll retire. I think it's unfair to put your district behind your own personal ego," says Vince M. Morgan. "This seat belongs to the people. It does not belong to Charlie Rangel."

About a half dozen people are now declaring themselves candidates- though they don't have to make anything official until July. All are campaigning on variations of the question: Why is Charlie running?

To that,Rangel says: "If I didn't run, the question would be ‘Why aren't you running?' I'm running because I think I have a job to do, a job to complete."

Still, Rangel expects to return to the chairman's status as soon as the ethical committee completes its work. "If I was exonerated tomorrow, I'd be the chairman the day after." He says he is still working closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even with President Obama on legislative matters.  "I don't think I have any problems at all with the President," he says. Though he was once a fixture on Sunday morning news programs, he is now something of an invisible man. He says he does not have to do TV to be effective. 

Powell, a 10-year veteran of the New York state legislature who is leaving his seat to run for Congress, says that Rangel, a man he respects, doesn't believe he needs to do much campaigning because his name is enough. Powell plans to meet commuters during morning and afternoon rush hours at subway stations, seniors during the lunch hour, and anyone else he can by knocking on doors in the evenings. That's Mondays through Fridays after the legislative session ends in late June. "On Saturdays we're going to walk the streets. On Sundays I may take the day off after a couple of churches."

Back in the district, Rangel says, people are telling him that they need him now more than ever. Morgan, a high school dropout who earned his GED and several college degrees before becoming a banker, says Rangel isn't hearing what people in the district are saying. The unemployment rate in Harlem over the past 40 years is still at least twice the rest of the city. More than 120,000 people over the age of 25 have no high school diplomas, have not earned GEDs and have very limited prospects in the legitimate job market. He claims small businesses are not in the loop even with the Obama administration's efforts. "This is what Charlie has fallen down on," Morgan says. "I haven't seen a strategic plan."

Michel Faulkner, pastor of a 60-member congregation in Harlem, says, "As a community, we deserve better." So far,  he is the lone Republican in the field of dreamers looking to replace Rangel. Faulkner played briefly for the New York Jets before earning a masters degree in education and career counseling and turning to his ministry full time. "It's a complicated mess we have," he says, with neither Democrats nor Republicans delivering to blacks and Latinos in the district. He can be independent, he says, because "my loyalty is to my God and my country."

Rangel, a high school dropout who turned his life around, is a normally jovial guy, but really chuckles when he hears that the putative candidates are saying he needs to get out of their way. He said as much more than 40 years ago when he challenged the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. - a powerful legislator in the 1950s and 1960s who was also a notorious bon vivant, loved ladies and spent much time in the Caribbean while serving as pastor of the renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church. Powell died in 1972. "There should always be people who are ambitious and who would want to serve," he says.