Rangel censure specter draws sadness, scorn in NY
NEW YORK — The prospect of a public scolding in Washington for Rep. Charles Rangel over ethics violations has drawn both sadness and scorn in his Harlem neighborhood, where he was just re-elected with 81 percent of the vote and remains an icon to residents who say they’ll be the ones to decide his political fate.
“Charles Rangel has done so much for this community in the Congress, I think he should go out when he damn well pleases,” said Rachel Cummings, a 56-year-old substance abuse counselor. “He’s not going to walk away with them saying, ‘He’s guilty of this, guilty of that.’ Give him a break.”
Last Thursday’s 9-1 House ethics committee vote to recommend censure for the Democratic lawmaker came days after the same panel convicted him of 11 violations, including failure to pay taxes on rental income from a villa in the Dominican Republic and operating four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem instead of just one. Censure is the most serious congressional discipline short of expulsion; the full House will probably vote on the recommendation sometime after Thanksgiving.
Rangel pleaded with the ethics panel to show him “fairness and mercy” and said he’s not a crooked politician out for personal reward. While his House colleagues will determine his punishment, the prevailing sentiment back home is that any decision on Rangel’s future in Congress ultimately rests with him and the voters.
Rangel, 80, has represented Harlem for 40 years and remains a beloved figure even as some constituents have grown weary of the ethics scandal. A co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, he helped steer millions in federal funds toward the revitalization of Harlem, and has long been the political and cultural heart of New York’s black community. He’s also been an outspoken crusader against illegal drugs, which he says have devastated minority populations.
Rangel has long used his membership in the powerful Ways and Means Committee to revise the tax code to help low — and middle-income people. He served briefly as chairman of the committee until the ethics investigation forced him to step aside last spring.
“He’s certainly established a national profile over his career on issues his constituents care about,” Fordham University political scientist Costas Panagopoulos said. “That said, even though voters are willing to re-elect him by wide margins it doesn’t mean they’re not critical. They think what he did was wrong but they see him as an effective legislator.”
Indeed, along 125th Street, Harlem’s bustling central corridor, residents expressed mixed feelings about Rangel’s conduct and the censure recommendation.
Cornelius Rex, a local marketing consultant, said he thought Rangel had been unfairly targeted because of his race.
“This has been going on in the Congress and Senate for years and they haven’t prosecuted white folks the way they’ve gone after Charlie Rangel,” said Rex, 53. “He’s someone that’s upstanding in Harlem, he’s a legend, a pioneer. Someone I grew up around and who I truly respect.”
Nonprofit fundraising consultant Mark Jones, 41, said he believed Rangel had abused his position, but added that voters have demonstrated steadfast support for him over the years.
“He’s forgiven, but I get disappointed for these politicians who’ve been in office so long they think it gives them the right to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it,” Jones said.
Rangel faced the toughest re-election challenge of his career in September’s six-way Democratic primary, which included Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the legendary Harlem lawmaker Adam Clayton Powell Jr. whom Rangel defeated in 1970.
But Powell and the rest of the field proved fairly weak and Rangel ultimately won 51 percent of the primary vote. He cruised to an easy win over Republican Michel Faulkner in the general election.
The elder Powell — the only other person to represent Harlem since it was given its own congressional district in 1944 — was also undone by an ethics scandal.
A civil rights leader and pastor at Harlem’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, Powell served until 1967 when the House voted to exclude him amid evidence he had mismanaged the budget of the Education and Labor Committee, which he chaired. He won the seat back in a special election, before losing to Rangel in the 1970 Democratic primary.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a Harlem resident and civil rights leader, said the elder Powell’s example was instructive in determining Rangel’s future.
Sharpton told a crowd at Rangel’s 80th birthday fundraiser in August that Rangel’s ethics battle was akin to a “political crucifixion.” In an interview this week, Sharpton said he believed the violations were serious but said Rangel’s fate, like Powell’s before him, should be determined by voters.
“When it was time for Powell to go, Harlem decided,” Sharpton said. “If and when it’s time for Charlie Rangel to go, we’ll decide that. It won’t be imposed by people outside the community.”