Old Guard

08.02.13

Charlie Rangel on Immigration, Pope Francis & His Successor

He’s survived redistricting and a censure. At 83, Harlem’s controversial House stalwart is finally confronting retirement. He won’t be going quietly. By David Freedlander.

Charlie Rangel barged into his office on the seventh floor of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, shouting “Hey hey hey! Here we go!” at 8:30 in the morning, dispatching one aide to get him coffee, another to get a file on China, and complimenting a third on the color of her dress. He settled into a leather chair in his overstuffed office. A life-size cardboard cutout of the longtime Harlem pol points to a seat on the couch, and a sign on the cluttered desk says, “No Guts, No Glory.”

There is little question that Rangel is nearing the end. First elected 43 years ago, after having defeated the man whose name adorns the building where the congressman keeps his office, he is musing aloud now about what he once forbade anyone to discuss with him: his own retirement.

But even at 83, dressed in a blue bow tie and crisp gray suit, Rangel is relentless toward those who he feels are slowing the forces of progress.

House Republicans? Have done more damage to American competitiveness than al Qaeda ever could. “What is happening is sabotage. Terrorists couldn’t do a better job than the Republicans are doing.”

The Tea Party? Defeat them the same way segregation was beaten. “It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police. They didn’t care about how they looked. It was just fierce indifference to human life that caused America to say enough is enough. ‘I don’t want to see it and I am not a part of it.’ What the hell! If you have to bomb little kids and send dogs out against human beings, give me a break.”

Surely there are some good Republicans though, right?

“Chris Christie, who is a big Northeasterner, and people only go for Christie because he is reasonable. He says something nice about the president helping out Jersey and now he is on the hit list by Republicans,” Rangel said. “And now my friend Peter King is on their hit list. Peter King, a Republican, is considered a goddamn communist.”

If Rangel has had a remarkable career—chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; four decades as perhaps New York City’s premier political powerbroker; a revitalized Harlem—the last couple of years have been an unseemly capstone. There was the keeping of an extra rent-regulated apartment, the taxes on a Dominican villa, the use of congressional stationery to fundraise for the school of public service at the City University of New York, to name but a few. In the end, he was censured by the House and stripped of his chairmanship.

And in Harlem, where he was used to winning with margins that would make Fidel Castro blush, he suddenly found his power beginning to ebb. He 2010, he drew five challengers, and eked out slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. In 2012, his district was redrawn in the decennial redistricting process and, over Rangel’s fierce objections, was moved north into the Bronx. It is a district that is now 45 percent Hispanic. Rangel faced Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican, and a handful of candidates proclaiming to represent “the new Harlem”—the rainbow coalition of the overeducated who have been moving into brownstones and can be spotted at the hip new restaurants that dot Malcolm X Boulevard.

After a messy recount and court case that whittled his vote down to a few hundred, Rangel won by a final tally of little more than a thousand votes. The experience clearly exhausted him, and the lions who have guarded Harlem’s economic and political gates for decades were given an unmistakable peek into a future that no longer included them.

Rangel has stated that people from outside of Manhattan aren’t real New Yorkers, but he said that he was receiving a welcome reception across the river.

“When I go to [new] parts of my district, I don’t feel like I am outside of my district. It is the same liberal whites and Latinos and blacks, the same problems of poverty and housing and joblessness. And,” he adds, “They love having a guy from Manhattan.”

Still, it is not the same. Rangel’s old district was geographically the smallest in the nation, bound by rivers on all sides and a zigzagging line that separates uptown from the rest of New York City. Rangel crisscrossed it relentlessly over the decade, showing up at block parties and family days and senior center picnics, and everywhere he was mobbed by people aiming to have their picture taken with him, or deliver a message from their neighborhoods.

“The pope is talking he can’t judge gays. Well, damn it to hell, ask for another message from God. ... Why is there a silence on old folks and a silence on poverty and a silence on kids?”

“That neighborhood, I am not challenged by it. Leaving New York [Manhattan], I was just more carried away with fighting against change than anything else. I didn’t ever want to leave Manhattan. I have an abnormal fixation. It’s where I was raised and it may even affect my marriage now because my wife swears that 60 years ago we would return back to her native Florida. Goddamn. Well, I never said anything like that. I may have promised her a whole lot of stuff, but I wouldn’t know how to pack up and leave New York City. And that’s the reason why the Bronx and Brooklyn were always awkward to me. Look, I would therapeutically walk down 125the Street when it came back. I could really clear my mind up fighting off people telling me I need to buy something.”

Down in Washington, Rangel has turned his attention, along with the rest of the nation, toward immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner, he says, “is basically a nice man, but he would rather be speaker than challenge that part of his party. And the proof is that nobody is asking him to support Democratic ideals, but just release his members and not demand that they have this ridiculous loyalty.”

He sees in some of the reluctance to move forward on immigration reform a fear, one that white people have of non-whites.

“Every white son of a gun from Europe has found a way to get here, and these barriers I think have a lot to do with color and the awkwardness or the uncomfortableness that a lot of whites feel about people of color,” Rangel said.

Asked, though, why black congressmen, who have traditionally resisted liberalized immigration laws, are now supportive of them, Rangel rejected the premise. “You are not going to go back to Abe Lincoln now and that bullshit are you? Blacks were tied to Abe, who freed the slaves, and so we followed the Republicans”—and called on all segments of society, including the Democratic Party, including religious institutions, to do more to help the downtrodden.

“It has to do with whether or not in God we trust. I don’t know how much God played a role in the country, but it is everywhere ... And I used to be an altar boy so that I can say, if you are talking about Jews and Christians and probably Muslims and Mormons, [there’s] the whole idea that... we are supposed to help the aged and provide health care and give kids a break and do all of these good things. What are we Democrats fighting for? We are not fighting for salvation and going to heaven. But we are fighting for Medicaid, Medicare, health care, education, jobs, helping old folks. And I’ll be damned, besides same-sex marriage, I don’t hear the voice of the church. As a matter of fact, the pope is talking he can’t judge gays. Well, damn it to hell, ask for another message from God. Here we were born. I mean, why is there a silence on old folks and a silence on poverty and a silence on kids?”

And because of this, Rangel sees a superpower on decline.

“We have been a powerless giant for a long time. It is just that there is no one there, and so therefore we dominate center stage,” he said. “But the dysfunction of the Congress and the inability of the president to make any changes has caused a lot of Europeans who admire and respect us to take another look.”

“Let’s face it,” he added. “The Republican presidential candidates didn’t make any damn sense. If it wasn’t for the presidency, it would be embarrassing as hell for me to get calls from people overseas and ask what the hell was going on.”

Rangel has been casting about for a successor. He has approached David Paterson, the former governor, about running for his old seat. The priority, people close to him say, is to find someone who can defeat Espaillat, to keep the old pre-gentrified Central Harlem power base together. It is a difficult task. Rangel has been in office for so long that there are scores of people lining up to succeed him, and all are likely to try, splitting the vote among different factions. In the interview, Rangel mentioned finding someone who “doesn’t come out of our little group,” perhaps someone from the private sector. He is holding a series of meetings with his fellow members of the old guard, trying to figure out what is next for the neighborhood.

After speaking with The Daily Beast, Rangel was summoned by his secretary, told that former state comptroller Carl McCall, Harlem Chamber of Commerce CEO Lloyd Williams, and Charlie King, executive director of the New York Democratic Party, were in the next room, waiting for him. Rangel got up and lumbered in.

“¿Como estas, amigos?” he shouted, “The press is here!”

“Ha!” responded McCall. “You’ve got to show you are bilingual.”