Rangel Defiant

The once-powerful New York Congressman puts on a brave front. Would-be successors have lined up to unseat him.

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You might not know it from his reaction after the U.S. House of Representatives announced plans to pursue formal charges against him for ethical violations, but Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) is in a heap of trouble. "This may sound corny," he told reporters, "but at long last, sunshine has pierced through this cloud that's been over my head for close to two years." Bring it on, he said, noting that he had asked for an investigation after various charges against him had piled up, drip-drip-drip, in the New York media. "This is what I asked for, and this is what I look forward to."

Rangel, who is 80 years old, was ousted by his colleagues as head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee (the folks in charge of taxes, among other things) when his troubles surfaced. He is about where Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. found himself in 1967. After years of tolerating his absenteeism and misuse of funds as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee (and, of course, resenting the fact that he was "an uppity Negro" who flaunted his womanizing and his love of lazing about on Caribbean beaches), Powell was stripped of his chairmanship. The House voted 307-116 to exclude him from the seat he had held since 1945. But he ran to fill the vacancy -- and won. He eventually won back his seat and his seniority after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1969. Though no longer the congressman who, working with President Lyndon Johnson, pushed through much of the civil rights and labor-reform legislation of the time, and with faltering support in Harlem, he boasted: "My people would elect me ... even if I had to be propped up in my casket." In 1970 they did not. Instead they chose Charles Rangel.

And now, among the four Democrats running against Rangel in the Sept. 14 New York primary, is Adam Clayton Powell IV, the 48-year-old Puerto Rico-born son of the colorful congressman he barely knew. The victor in that primary will face one Republican and at least one independent. "Believe me. It is time to turn the page," says Powell, a member of the New York State Legislature. "He should retire with honor, retire with dignity. He lost the chairmanship of Ways and Means. He's lost his power." Powell says this is no time for a symbolic run around the track because of crises in affordable housing, joblessness and public schools.

Think hubris. Media reports suggest that Rangel is essentially charged with thinking that with 40 years in Congress come entitlements: favors from corporate supporters and the use of loopholes to avoid paying taxes on rental property he owns in the Dominican Republic. He is charged with helping an oil-executive donor avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollar in exchange for a pledge of money for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. One perk he is charged with exploiting is access to four apartments in a renowned Harlem high-rise, Lenox Terrace, and paying well below market rates. All this will become official during the House's equivalent of the reading of charges scheduled for next Thursday.

Vincent Morgan, a community banker who once worked for Rangel, said he is saddened by the current situation, but he, too, thinks Rangel should retire now with his head held high and while he is still able to impart his institutional knowledge to someone of the younger generation -- preferably Morgan. "This would be a great time for him to do the right thing for the people of this district and invest in the next generation of leadership," said Morgan, who is 41. "We have a tendency in our community to wait for the retirement party or the memorial service before we start planning for the future. I think that's unfair, and I think that we need to start planning for the future now."

E.R. Shipp won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.

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