If you wanted proof of Charlie Rangel's extraordinary clout in his hometown, go no further than the Grand Ballroom of New York's Plaza Hotel on Wednesday night. The congressman's 80th-birthday party is his traditional campaign fundraiser, and there was speculation for weeks in the media that politicians would stay away in droves to avoid the taint of corruption.
Instead it was an all-star turnout, with Dionne Warwick on stage and a galaxy of Democratic politicians in the audience, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson, state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former New York Mayor David Dinkins and the Rev. Al Sharpton. The 800-seat dinner, with prices ranging from $200 to $2,500, was sold out — apparently, according to one news report, because Bloomberg broke the dam of hesitation and announced he was going.
"I've been to a lot of funerals, and this damn sure ain't no funeral," rumbled the gravel-voiced Rangel, a 20-term member of the House, who is facing a Democratic primary and a congressional ethics trial in September. Bloomberg poked fun at those who skipped the event rather than give fodder to their opponents for celebrating with Rangel. "I know a few people couldn't be here tonight, because as they tell it, either they had to get their hair cut unexpectedly or were sure they'd have a headache," Bloomberg said.
Sharpton turned his ire on the news media. "Don't turn your cameras off, don't put your notepads down. You have started and executed a political execution, so stay tuned for a political resurrection."
The sentiment appeared to be that, although Rangel is facing serious difficulties, he has served his New York constituency well over the years. "Charlie delivered for New York," said Cuomo. "He delivered for this nation." In his long tenure on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Rangel oversaw legislation on taxes and budgets. He gave up the chair he gained with Obama's election in 2008 under pressure from fellow Democrats when he came under investigation.
Apparently, standards of discomfort in Washington are different from New York. Last week, after negotiations for a settlement reportedly failed, the House announced Rangel would be tried on 13 ethics charges, including failure to declare property owned abroad and misuse of House stationary to raise funds for a college center named after him. President Obama, by speaking of Rangel's service in the past tense and suggesting he end his career "with dignity," has hinted that he would like Rangel to step down. Ten conservative Democrats have also asked him to resign.
Instead, the congressman who defeated the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. 40 years ago — who had his own ethics issues — has grown increasingly defiant. He delivered a bizarre 38-minute speech on the House floor Tuesday declaring, "I'm not going anywhere."
He pleaded for an early trial. "Don't leave me swinging in the wind till November," he said, invoking images of a lynching. Rangel could face the toughest primary election of his career on Sept. 14. One of his opponents is the son of the man he defeated 40 years ago, Adam Clayton Powell IV, who has served in New York's state legislature. The House is unlikely to start the trial until it returns from its break, meaning his Manhattan-based district will cast ballots without knowing the verdict of his trial. In the meantime, Rangel raises money that will mostly go to his legal bills and basks in the glow of his loyal supporters, with Dionne Warwick providing the soundtrack: "That's What Friends Are For."