Sorry, Charlie, It's Time for a Change
Perhaps he's being held to a higher standard than white politicians accused of wrongdoing, but Rep. Charles Rangel has enjoyed unwavering voter support over 21 terms in Congress. In return we have a right to ask that he be above reproach.
You could argue that, compared with previous censure targets, Rangel's transgressions were small stuff. He amassed rent-controlled apartments in Harlem at below-market rates and used House letterhead to solicit funds for a center named after him at the City College of New York. He also didn't pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic (given that he represents a district that is 46 percent Hispanic, he didn't help himself by arguing it was because he didn't understand Spanish). Even the prosecution's lead lawyer said that Rangel's misdeeds could not be classified as corruption. Doubtless, other House members have done as much and worse.
Rangel's real transgression was being sloppy and assuming that the power he had accumulated would protect him from punishment. The same hubris brought down his predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who represented Harlem for 27 years. Powell rose to head the powerful House Education and Labor Committee that crafted and passed dozens of bills outlawing discrimination in employment and education.
Powell, who -- unlike the gregarious and accommodating Rangel -- exuded arrogance and self-confidence, enraged Southern segregationists and was censured for misusing committee funds. He was stripped of his chairmanship and expelled from the House. He won re-election but was barred for two years from taking his seat, until the Supreme Court ruled that keeping him out was unconstitutional. Eventually Harlem tired of his long absences and handed the baton to Rangel, a Korean War hero who represented Harlem in the New York State Legislature.
For years, Harlemites sent Rangel back to Washington with the expectation that he would eventually lead the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He did -- for a New York minute -- until he, too, was stripped of his chairmanship. Even after censure, he could conceivably retain his seat and win re-election again -- but to what purpose? No longer a chairman, he has little clout.
Rangel's legacy is harder to quantify than Powell's. For a large chunk of Rangel's career, the House was controlled by Republicans. Yet he played a key role in passing the Economic Empowerment Zone Act that has revitalized Harlem and other inner city areas. He was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War and mischievously proposed reinstating the draft -- knowing that opposition would crystallize only when the middle class saw its sons and daughters off to war.
Rangel's district no longer encompasses just Harlem; it also includes large swaths of Manhattan's predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods. One reason he won re-election was that none of his opponents -- including a son of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., with a spotty career as a local pol -- were particularly attractive to voters. Like too many black leaders, Rangel has nurtured no successor. Chances are that an unknown would capture the seat -- even someone who is not African American.
But keeping a badly damaged politician in office out of racial solidarity is not what our predecessors fought and sometimes died for. It is not unreasonable to demand that our politicians -- and all of our leaders -- be above reproach. And we can only regain the moral high ground that we held during the civil rights movement by holding ourselves -- and our leaders -- to the highest standards. We should thank Rangel for his many years of service and ask him to make way for the next generation.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.