When you have served nearly half your life in Congress as Rep. Charles B. Rangel has done—“and 86 years in Harlem,” as he likes to say—you have every right to rest on your laurels, or just rest. But such is not the case for the retiring congressman. He has a few more miles to go before he sleeps, and a few of them began almost immediately after he stepped down from his august position during the recent primary election campaign for his seat.
As expected, the race to replace Rangel in his leadership role in the 13th Congressional District was hotly contested. Former State Senator Adriano Espaillat narrowly edged Assemblyman Keith Wright, who had been endorsed by Rangel. With the congressional lines of the district redrawn four years ago and a large swath of it now in Washington Heights and the Bronx, a Latino candidate had a more favorable chance of winning. An additional factor that did not augur well for African American candidates, mainly from Harlem, was that there were too many of them. Forced to share the ever-shrinking black vote in the district, the candidates basically neutralized each other, particularly when Espaillat had no Latino candidate capable of minimizing his numbers. His fellow Dominican, Guillermo Linares, fared poorly.
Since it was such a close race, Wright thought about a recount and then a delay to await absentee and affidavit ballots. Apparently this strategy, which Espaillat had done in two previous losing efforts against Rangel, was dropped and with Rangel as the mediator, the two top vote getters had a pow-wow at Sylvia’s Restaurant. After Wright conceded, Rangel addressed the press conference. “We have enough room for everyone to work together,” he said, “and the only way we can achieve it is to work together with unity.”
The Lion of Lenox Avenue, one of his sobriquets, had roared.
Even as he exits his perch in the nation’s capital, Rangel has an assignment, a diplomatic move to ensure that his large footprint is not muddied with contention and confrontation. Too much of that had occurred during the campaign.
It was time now to set aside the differences and stabilize the district, which lately had become increasingly challenging for Rangel. Still, right down to his last days in office, the representative was sending out press releases and emails about various issues impacting his district and the nation.
Looking back over his career, it’s remarkable to note that for each year in office he authored or co-sponsored a major bill. One piece of legislation he has passionately fought for has proved elusive, and that’s his bill to reinstate the draft. His Draft Act would open the draft to women and require everyone between the ages of 18 to 25 to register for the Selective Service System. “Armed conflict is unpredictable, chaotic, and costly,” he told the press. “When I served, the entire nation shared the sacrifices through the draft and increased taxes. But today, only a fraction of America shoulders the burden. If war is truly necessary, we must all come together to support and defend our nation. As a Korean War veteran, I know the toll war takes.”
Even so, there were a slew of legislative victories, particularly during his tenure as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Whether for people in his district and his launch of the Empowerment Zone Act, or abroad with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the warp and woof of his political weight was felt. His influence has been decisive as well, as a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. It’s no exaggeration to say Rangel has spent half his life continuing the legacy of his predecessor Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as a representative of Harlem. He defeated Powell by a mere 150 votes, a margin of victory even smaller than Espaillat’s recent triumph. “All I really had to do was to dominate the vote in my own district, because it was the heart of the congressional district, geographically, politically, and numerically,” Rangel said, recalling that race back in 1970. Rangel maintained his base, but he believes he won the primary against Powell because of the reformed Democratic precincts on the Upper, Upper West Side. Over the succeeding years, that is, every two years for the next forty-six years, Rangel would be successful in keeping his seat with only a couple of real hiccups from opponents. His tenure in office is an American success story, one that he recounted in a 2008 tome entitled And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since. It’s a title that begs the question of the “since.” When was this last bad day? Perhaps it was back on the streets of Harlem when he was a fatherless high school dropout. Maybe when he had a dead-end job pushing racks in the garment district. It might have been when he was in the Army and the recipient of a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after narrowly escaping death during the Korean War. Or it could have been the long 54-mile walk during the civil rights march in Selma in 1965 that left its mark on this feet. And it could have been the day he was found guilty of 11 ethics charges by the House Ethics Committee panel. That could have been the day. Any one of these days might have been a turning point in his life, but Rangel is as savvy a writer as he is a politician, and the title, metaphorically, is merely a device to lure you into his story, a story that includes his long and prosperous 52year marriage to Alma Rangel, for whom a marvelous assisted living facility with 88 units is named. Of all the episodes of his eventful life, nothing is more beguiling than his membership in the Gang of Four, a legendary quartet that evokes visions of the Three Musketeers. In many respects, the four—Rangel, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, and David Dinkins—had adventures, particularly in the legal, political, and entrepreneurial realms, that would compare favorably with the escapades of the musketeers. It’s always fascinating to hear or read about how four great men came together to forge a friendship that is forever. Two members of the gang with a bond that would have made even Damon and Pythias envious, are no longer alive—Sutton died the day after Christmas in 2009 and Paterson two years ago on April 16. As expected, Dinkins and Rangel were crestfallen having to say goodbye to their partners. In 2013, the memory of Sutton was still fresh for Rangel as he sang his praises at the Harlem Fine Arts exhibit. “I am so pleased to be part of this wonderful event that honors my dear, dear friend Percy,” said Rangel. “Percy would have been happy to be here. He was a huge advocate for the arts. The arts are a crucial pillar in the development of our communities, our youth, and our culture. That’s why I have been committed to protecting funding for the arts and related educational programs.” Whenever Rangel is asked about Paterson he reiterates what he said when his friend died, “I have never heard an unkind word about Basil Paterson in the over 60 years that I’ve known him.” Dinkins and Rangel, the youngest of the Gang, are still as active as ever, appearing at sundry events, workshops, lectures, committee meetings, and practically every event sponsored by the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. Both are key members of the Harlem Think Tank, hosted by President and CEO of the Chamber Lloyd Williams, and H. Carl McCall. A major undertaking by the chamber nowadays is the Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival, a cultural exchange, beginning during Harlem Week, and in February when a number of artists will travel to Havana for concert performances, exhibits and workshops. Rangel, who traveled to Cuba in March of this year as part of a bipartisan delegation with President Obama’s visit, is a logical choice to co-chair in partnership with Mayor Bill de Blasio for the festival. “I would have never imagined in 1995 when Fidel Castro visited Harlem that I would be traveling to Cuba with our own sitting President to meet with Raul Castro in effort to open new doors between our two nations,” Rangel said in an email from Cuba. That cultural door will be opened wider as the festival gains momentum and support from Governor Cuomo, who through his emissary, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul has fully embraced the initiative. Like Rangel, the state sees some grand opportunities to expand trade, culture, and goodwill with a nation viewed for many years as a pariah. Rangel capped off a recent meeting between the various parties involved in the festival by noting that England had voted to leave the E.U. and that Donald Trump was talking about building a wall to keep Mexicans out, “but here in Harlem we are building a bridge to Cuba,” he said. And in a few days Mayor de Blasio will host an event at Gracie Mansion to give his “olé” to the festival. So, right down to his last days in Congress, Rangel has lost none of that vigor, none of that desire to keep his hand on the pulse of his constituency, overseeing the recent primary election that has ushered in a new representative. Adriano Espaillat is guaranteed victory over Tony Evans, an African American Republican in the general election in November. Rather than learning his way around the corridors of Congress, Espaillat better get ready to continue the sit-down strike Rangel participated in during the closing session of Congress in which the Democratic representatives expressed their frustration at their colleagues across the aisle. “I have marched, I have sat-in, I have been involved in all types of demonstrations, but I have never felt more proud to see my colleagues of the Democratic Party actually say that this government is going to stop until there is a response from the Republican leadership,” Rangel said at the end of June. “I am proud that we are saying enough is enough; we are not going to take a break; we are not going to go home unless a bill comes to this floor to control the violent use of guns.
“When I marched from Selma to Montgomery I didn’t have the spirit that some of my Southern brothers and sisters had,” Rangel continued. “I just thought that this was going to be another in-vain demonstration, but my God, people came from all over the country to join with us and civil rights and voting rights came to be a part of that.” There is sure to come a time when the Lion of Lenox Avenue will no longer be roaring on the ramparts for social justice or attuned to the electorate, but he has left a most impressive legacy. Rangel can look back and know he has inspired a pride of hopefuls, all of them dedicated to prowling the precincts with the same tenacity and integrity. Yes, the Lion can sleep tonight. He’s been a most resourceful leader; one that hasn’t had a bad day since, well, you know when.