“What goes around comes around.” That old adage may never be truer than in the case of the once-invincible Charlie Rangel, the colorful New York legislator who suddenly finds himself in a situation similar to the legendary congressman he ousted forty years ago.
Not surprisingly, the embattled Harlem lawmaker who stepped down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee earlier this year amid a troubling ethics scandal, has attracted a slew of challengers in his bid for a twenty-first term in Congress.
Rangel, who has already been admonished by the House Ethics Committee for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008, is currently being investigated for allegedly failing to pay federal taxes on a villa that he owns in the Dominican Republic; failure to report $500,000 in assets on his financial disclosure forms; and reportedly using four rent-subsidized apartments provided by a Manhattan real estate developer.
Rangel, who will turn eighty on June 11, is determined to hold onto the seat he first won by the slimmest of margins in 1970, when he unexpectedly defeated the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., but is likely to face at least four challengers in what promises to be a hotly contested Democratic primary on September 14.
But Rangel, whose free-flowing fundraising apparatus has slowed to little more than a trickle, doesn’t sound too worried. “I have no reason to believe that some of the candidates are going to campaign as hard as I am or do the things that‘s necessary,” he recently told the Wall Street Journal. “I do it every day. Some of them are really inexperienced with how to capture the imagination of the voters and take advantage of the anti-incumbent feeling that‘s there.”
That sounds strikingly similar to something the beleaguered Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., said four decades ago when he faced a host of challengers of his own. Powell had been accused of diverting staff salaries to his own bank account — an illegal practice no different than what several ethically-challenged white lawmakers knowingly engaged in at the time.
Incredibly, Powell was one of only two African-American members of Congress when he was first elected to the House during World War II. Coupled with his high absenteeism, Powell’s corruption scandal nearly a quarter of a century later paved the way for Rangel’s forty-year congressional career.
But Powell didn’t take Rangel, or any of the other candidates eyeing his seat that year, too seriously.
When asked if there was even a remote chance that he could lose that year, Powell responded with a look of disbelief on his face. “None whatsoever,” he replied.
Powell, who rarely returned to New York’s eighteenth congressional district except on Sundays — when he was essentially immune to the long arm of the law seeking to serve him with a $211,500 libel judgment, later reduced to $46,500, for calling an elderly Harlem widow “a bag woman for the police department” during a television program in 1960 — said that he wasn’t the least bit concerned about his four challengers.
Though considered vulnerable by most pundits, Powell conducted his 1970 primary campaign with his customary nonchalance, ignoring his rivals and leaving it to them to battle with his legend rather than the man himself. He was rarely seen pressing the flesh at subway stops or any of the city’s other traditional campaign venues. He also refused to debate his opponents.
In addition to Rangel, a two-term state assemblyman whose candidacy had been enthusiastically endorsed by Mayor John V. Lindsay and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, Powell also faced formidable primary opposition from Jesse Gray, a well-known leader of the Harlem rent strikes in the 1960s, and John H. Young, a public relations director for an anti-poverty program who had unsuccessfully challenged Powell two years earlier, losing by a 3-2 margin. Ramon A. Martinez, a lawyer, also entered the primary against the frayed yet defiant incumbent.
Even if he had survived the June primary, Powell would have been forced to fend off Rangel again in November since he won the Republican nomination, at which time he would have also faced opposition from city councilman Charles Taylor, the Liberal Party’s nominee.
Having briefly lost his seniority in 1967 when his conservative colleagues in the 90th Congress refused to seat him — against the wishes of the House leadership, as it turned out — the flamboyant congressman had represented his Harlem district for nearly twenty-six years when he sought a fourteenth term in 1970.
Rangel narrowly defeated Powell in the Democratic primary, winning in a closely-watched recount by a razor-thin 150 votes. Rangel’s stunning victory that year probably wouldn’t have been possible were it not for a 1,500-vote majority that he piled up in the predominantly white enclaves of the Upper West Side, a several block neighborhood that had been added to the district following a steady decline in Harlem’s population during the previous decade. Powell, on the other hand, received only forty percent of the vote in his customary Harlem stronghold.
The 62-year-old Powell, who had charged that some of the district’s voting machines had been “tampered with” while others mysteriously went missing, decided not to challenge the results of the recount, and instead tried to retain his seat by running on a “People’s Party” ticket in the general election.
Rangel, however, successfully challenged the militant minister’s independent nominating petitions, which contained only 3,377 signatures — barely more than 3,000 minimum required. Only 1,345 signatures were eventually deemed valid by the city’s board of elections.
“Big Daddy,” as he was affectionately dubbed, was no longer the “King of Harlem.”
Harlem’s love affair with the longtime pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church — the largest congregation in the district — had come to an inglorious end.
The graying lion, who once said that anyone who was elected to Congress from Harlem “could stay in there for life,” quietly sought refuge in Bimini, the most westerly inhabited island in the Bahamas, where he lived out his remaining days before briefly returning to Miami for medical treatment shortly before his death in the spring of 1972.
Rangel, who captured 89 percent of the vote in November, was reelected in 1972 — easily defeating Livingston Wingate, a Powell protégé, in the Democratic primary — and has never been seriously challenged since.
Like his controversial predecessor, however, it is now Rangel — a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and one of the most colorful members in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives — who finds himself fighting for his political survival. Like Powell, who faced no fewer than four challengers in the 1970 Democratic primary, Rangel suddenly finds himself fending off an array of candidates eager to replace him in the 112th Congress.
Unlike faint-hearted Democrats on Capitol Hill who fear that he could become a poster-boy for the GOP this autumn, Rangel — in a particularly strange twist of fate — plunges ahead in the same way that Adam Clayton Powell refused to go quietly into the night some forty years ago.
He’s not going down without a fight.
But it won’t be easy. Among others, New York’s longest-serving congressman will be pitted against Adam Clayton Powell IV, a state assemblyman and son of the civil rights leader and longtime congressman that Rangel unceremoniously unseated two years into the Nixon presidency.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but the animosity still lingers.
Like father, like son, the younger Powell, who was born in Puerto Rico, boldly challenged Rangel — then a twelve-term congressman — for his party’s nomination in 1994, but lost badly. Rangel had taken nothing for granted against the young and energetic son of the man many Harlem voters believed had been the most influential African-American politician in U.S. history, adopting the slogan “Keep the Power” and assembling a top-flight campaign staff headed by political guru Bill Lynch.
He won with 61 percent of the vote.
This time things promise to be different. In declaring his candidacy on April 12, Powell set the stage for what should be a fascinating showdown between two of Harlem’s most storied political names. In his press conference, Powell, 47, said that while he hadn’t forgotten that Rangel had prematurely ended his father’s political career, it was “time to turn the page” — meaning, of course, that it was time to retire Rangel.
Several other candidates have also joined the fray, including development banker and ex-Rangel staffer Vince Morgan and Joyce Johnson, a former president and chief executive of the Black Equity Alliance. Johnson, the New York field director for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, quietly entered the race a few weeks ago.
Labor activist Jonathan Tasini, who recently abandoned his long-shot quest to wrest the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination from Kirsten Gillibrand — Hillary Clinton’s potentially vulnerable successor — also recently joined the race for Rangel‘s seat. Tasini, who had been endorsed by actress Susan Sarandon, peace activist Cindy Sheehan and historian Howard Zinn, garnered 124,999 votes, or 16.3 percent, in an ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton in New York’s 2006 Democratic primary.
A former president of the National Writers Union, Tasini, 53, says that Rangel has become a symbol of a broken system…“a decent man who needs to be replaced.”
Tasini scored a coup of sorts on Tuesday evening, winning the endorsement of the Barack Obama Democratic Club, a newly-formed organization in Upper Manhattan. He also came within a dozen votes of defeating Rangel at a meeting of the influential Three Parks Independent Democrats a week earlier.
Moreover, State Senator Bill Perkins, a former city council member, and Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell — a former public defender and the first openly gay member of the New York State Assembly — have also indicated that they’re considering possible candidacies.
Republican Michael Faulkner, a Harlem pastor and former defensive lineman for the New York Jets, is also running, but is given little chance of success in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
The latest to join the fray is Craig Schley, a former Rangel intern who tossed his derby into the ring on May 19. A former fashion model, ex-electrician, one-time Atlanta firefighter and jack-of-all-trades, the impeccably-dressed graduate of NYU had challenged Rangel in 2008, polling 3,708 votes against his former boss on the Voices of the Everyday People for Change Party, a political entity that he created earlier that year.
His late-starting campaign that year is hardly indicative of his potential in the current race.
A virtual unknown, Schley quickly made a name for himself in the district a few years ago by organizing opposition to the proposed rezoning of Harlem’s famous 125th Street — an area that had already experienced rapid gentrification and where former President Bill Clinton maintains an office — converting that historic area into a glittering business center with high-rise office towers and expensive condominiums that threatened to displace dozens of small businesses and moderate-income tenants.
Described by the Village Voice as “buoyantly idealistic,” the 46-year-old community activist is again running as a third-party candidate. This time his name will appear not only on his own line, but possibly that of the potentially-potent Independence Party — a ballot-qualified party familiar to most New Yorkers. In 2009, Mayor Bloomberg received more than 150,000 votes on the party’s line in his bid for a third term, or nearly triple his margin of victory.
Endorsed by baseball scion and veteran Wall Street financier William A. Shea, Jr., and comedian Paul Mooney, a writer for the late Richard Pryor, Schley believes he has a fighting chance in November.
“Every now and then, the wind of evolution speaks to a generation of people and whispers in their ear…’It‘s Our Time‘…we are those people and that generation,” he told Uncovered Politics.
The affable and ambitious third-party hopeful could be positioned perfectly in November, especially if Rangel — tainted by scandal and a continuing ethics probe — survives a bloody and divisive primary with only 30 or 35 percent of the vote.