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.
"Why should he not run?" she says. This "it's my-turn" stuff is nothing new but she says her generation was willing to actually plunge into the fray rather than just offer opinions. That meant doing grunt work for politicians at any level. It meant joining - or in some cases, forming - tenant associations, block associations, neighborhood community boards, hospital boards and the like. They endured endlessly-boring meetings, cleaned up playgrounds and painted common rooms in urine-scented housing projects while gang members menaced them. "It was the start of some building blocks," she says, indicating how unimpressed she is with many of those who have criticized Rangel's stewardship and have said they intend to run against him.
Powell is probably the most formidable of the challengers. He bears the name and likeness of the father who died when he was a youngster growing up in Puerto Rico, and he also has a record as an assistant district attorney, a member of the New York City Council and a member of the New York Assembly. Not all of it is stellar, but it's there.
When asked what he wants to accomplish in a 21st term, Rangel returns to the theme of his personal legacy. It's that "when I leave the Congress, everyone would know that I didn't do anything to embarrass my family, my friends, my community," he says. "I've done better than a good job in protecting Americans, my district and the city and state of New York."
He says he is running to assure that Obama's next two years are successful, and he thinks he can use his seniority and well known arm-twisting abilities to the President's advantage. "There are a lot of things that we started that we haven't finished," he says, including issues of tax reform and trade. The 2010 elections are really as much about individual candidates as about President Obama, who like members of Congress, now has two years to serve.
However it goes, this elder whose challengers call a dinosaur will probably be tweeting by September. A few days ago, he had a session about blasting his campaign into the 21st century: Twitter, Facebook and all that stuff.