Charlie Rangel stood on Lenox Avenue in front of his blue-gray Cadillac and opened his arms wide. The Observer had just asked the 81-year-old, 21-term congressman if he intended to run for re-election next year, and the expansive gesture was meant to convey something like, “After seeing all that you have just seen, what do you think?”
Indeed, Mr. Rangel had been out late the night before at a gala for the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club, where he had cut it up on the dance floor, and by the next afternoon he had already appeared on Huckabee, gone to three NYCHA Family Day events, one senior center luncheon and two block association parties, posed for approximately two dozen photographs, given out 40 “Vote Rangel” notebooks and told at least three old women he admired their hairdos.
“This is what I do. All the time. Every year—election year, no election year. I am addicted to this. I love it.”
This week Mr. Rangel will once again host his annual birthday fund-raiser at the Plaza. It will have little of last year’s hoopla, back when Mr. Rangel was locked in the toughest re-election fight of his career and mired in an ethics investigation that resulted in a censure resolution. Then, for the first time, members of the press were allowed in (most of whom slapped their foreheads at the ostentatious display). Protesters amassed outside and were treated to a rare one-finger salute from former mayor David Dinkins. Republican operatives were posted at the entrance, hoping to videotape Democrats heading inside for future negative ads.
But at that time Mr. Rangel retained at least a slim chance of regaining the chairmanship and New York Democrats were compelled to pay tribute once again to someone who had always spread around his own considerable largesse.
This time around, after Mr. Rangel squeaked past the 50-percent mark in 2010, there is a sense in political circles that he may finally be overstaying his welcome. His clout in Washington is greatly diminished. The money that he would raise at the annual fund-raiser was once spread all over the country, but now, Mr. Rangel mostly needs it for his own battles. Going to the fund-raiser has become something like visiting with cousins: you go, partially out of obligation, partially out of fondness, but on the whole wish you didn’t have to.
“People are still supportive, out of respect, but there isn’t the enthusiasm there that has been in the past,” said one Harlem political operative. “I think the last time people stood up and supported him because they felt bad. This time I’m not so sure.”
Despite Mr. Rangel’s relentless neighborhood touring there is still some question as to whether or not he will actually go through with another run. Most politicos thought 2010 would be the end of it, and that he would anoint a successor and spare himself the indignities of life in the minority. His wife, Alma, is said to be strongly against another campaign. The shape of the district will likely change after redistricting, becoming more white and middle class or Hispanic and working class, or both.
And despite the affection that his constituents shower him with, nowhere is there more of an itching for Mr. Rangel to step aside than in his native Harlem. There, a generation of one-time young political upstarts have grown old waiting around for Mr. Rangel’s retirement.
“He will be 83 years old. It’s time for Mr. Rangel to step aside and make room for new leadership,” said Vince Morgan, a community banker and former Rangel aide who challenged him in 2010 and has vowed to do so again. “He is the devil that we know.”
Mr. Rangel knows that he is toxic, and he still sees the ethics investigation last year as a way to weaken his contributions to the Democratic Party.
“At one point I was invaluable to our victories. At another point I was a heavy load as we had to explain what the ethics committee had done. No one needs dead weight,” he said. “If they have to explain you more than why they should be re-elected, that’s a problem. So it was two-fer. One, Rangel wouldn’t be able to come in there and help, and two, the candidates would have to explain why they took my money.”
As Mr. Rangel cruised around Harlem on Saturday, he again and again brought up news reports over the past month that revealed wrongdoing on the part of the ethics committee. The chief counsel in the case against Mr. Rangel has now said that if it had all come to light earlier, the case would have been dismissed.
Rather than hope the episode will be forgotten, Mr. Rangel tells anybody who will listen that “there is not a scintilla of evidence that there was any wrongdoing.” If he could somehow be exonerated, it would mean that era of tabloid coverage and returned campaign contributions would finally be over, and Mr. Rangel would rightly resume his place as one of the chieftains of the Democratic Party.
The Cadillac pulled up in front of the Bethune Gardens Senior Center on Amsterdam Avenue. Inside, a dozen or so residents were bent over macaroni cheese and collard greens, but before Mr. Rangel got out to reminisce with them, he sat and stared out of the front window of the car.
“Life goes on and on. You’ve got to roll with the punches. Who said the truth shall make ye free? Somebody?”
He got out of the car.
“Okay! Bethune! Old folks! Let’s go!”
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