Charlie Rangel's Image Problem

Illustration for article titled Charlie Rangels Image Problem

There is a general consensus concerning Rep. Charles Rangel, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and power broker by virtue of his 40 years of connections and many years of raising money for candidates and causes he favors: He should make nice with his congressional colleagues, find a way to settle the ethics charges that could lead to his expulsion and move ahead in his campaign for a 21st term.

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But Rangel, this time around, is no general-consensus cat.

When Rangel did his Harlem shuffle dance at his birthday fundraiser in New York City's famed Plaza Hotel recently, he was Charles in Charge. In Washington on the House floor the day before, he seemed barely in control of his thoughts or his emotions as he castigated his fellow representatives, especially Democrats, for dragging their feet in resolving the ethics case that has been around for more than two years.

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In both settings, I could not help seeing him as yet another black leader — whether in politics, business or the cultural milieu — who doesn't know when it is time to leave the stage. It is time for Rangel to do so when he can't acknowledge wrongdoing based on slipshod ethics resulting from years of developing a sense of entitlement. I won't call it corruption.

"If it is the judgment of people here, for whatever reason, that I resign, then, heck, have the Ethics Committee expedite this," he said in a speech to Congress that lasted more than 30 minutes, one that he said was given against the advice of his lawyers and others. "Don't leave me swinging in the wind until November. If this is an emergency, and I think it is to help our local and state governments out, what about me? I don't want anyone to feel embarrassed, awkward. Hey, if I was you, I may want me to go away, too. I am not going away! I am here!" Rangel said that some of the 13 ethics charges (pdf) reflect lapses in judgment, but not corruption. "If I can't get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot at getting me expelled."

In being "brazen" and "arrogant" on the House floor, says Mike Paul, a public relations specialist who markets himself as a "reputation doctor," Rangel was essentially daring his colleagues: "Do you have the balls to vote out a guy as powerful as I am at 80 years old, to kick me out of this House?" And George Arzt, a consultant and longtime political observer, says this is "pure Charlie," adding: "Charlie is just a hell raiser, and that's what he's known for. Maybe he feels that a deal would be more imminent if he did it this way."

Maybe he is being crazy like a fox, and in terms of image, his House-floor speech might have played well back home in Manhattan, especially central Harlem. There, Arzt says, what he hears most from black constituents is this: "He's a fighter, and if he goes down, he's going down fighting, and we like that."

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So this is reality: Ordinarily, Rangel might have to work at repairing his reputation to woo these voters, says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. But, says Fuchs, "His greatest advantage is he's got no competition at this point; so even if people were unhappy with him, there's nobody compelling at this point to vote for." Given the millions of federal dollars he has brought into the district, including a huge portion of President Bill Clinton's urban-development program, along with his old-school gift for glad-handing, "most people don't think he's done anything worse than anybody else in Congress," Fuchs says.

For the record, there are four declared candidates trying to defeat Rangel in New York's Sept. 14 Democratic primary, but no one has broken from the pack — and certainly, based on their own records, they haven't made the case for trading in Charlie. They still might focus their campaigns around the themes of Rangel's age and the ethics charges, but they are generally seen as lambs for the slaughter, paving the way to a more likely era-changing election in 2012. And this is the thing: By 2012, the leading candidates might be Hispanic or white.

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For nearly 70 years, New York's 15th District, with various tweaks of its boundaries, has been considered "black." Two men have held the seat: first Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then Rangel. But long gone are the days when one would consider this a black district in a Harlem that was the black capital of the world. More Hispanics than blacks live in the district — and so do a growing number of whites, thanks to Columbia University as a magnet and the prime real estate available at relatively bargain prices for those of a certain income bracket.

That is why Fuchs says that the more Rangel calls attention to charges many people remain clueless about, the more potential voters might think he protests too much and must be guilty of something. "He needs to do a deal and get this over with so that he can reclaim some of his legacy and leave on his own volition. I think what he fears most is being pushed out and being pushed out under an ethics cloud."

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In the meantime, teams Rangel — the one in New York and the one in Washington — are cranking out press releases about campaign activities like the opening of an office in a predominantly Hispanic section of the district "as he kicks his reelection effort into high gear," as well as his push to bring "a new online and mobile application to better connect with his constituents and promote legislative interest, especially among the younger generations." This from a candidate who is not exactly an Internet master. His staff is working overtime to build an image that belies his 80 years.

He is his own best and worst adviser, by most accounts. As Paul, the "reputation doctor," puts it: "What he has decided — even with the best counsel sitting in the room — from a PR perspective, from a legal perspective and from a political perspective, is, 'Thank you for your advice, but this is what I'm going to do.' "

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In the days leading up to the birthday extravaganza, media speculation was that none of the big-name political players — including some of the colleagues in the House whom he had helped elect through his prodigious fundraising — would show up. Some, perhaps given a kind of "I'll break your knees" warning in political terms by Rangel's alter egos, caved in at the last minute.

Many no doubt took their cue and found cover from Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who had himself waffled but eventually made it clear that he would be there. Aretha Franklin bowed out because of an injury, but her replacement was not too shabby: Dionne Warwick, who serenaded the congressman with "That's What Friends Are For." Amid all this, Rangel danced. "This damn sure ain't no funeral, is it?" he declared to no one in particular.

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On his way into the Plaza gathering, one of Rangel's buddies, the ever-genteel (publicly at least) former Mayor David Dinkins, gave the finger to hecklers calling Rangel a crook. Most likely against the advice of counsel, both Rangel and Dinkins told reporters they'd let that finger do their talking for a Charles in Charge on his own terms.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York.

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