A Living Memoriam: Charles Rangel

Charles Rangel used to be my congressman.

I was born and raised in the Bronx and attended John F. Kennedy High School, which is located in the borough's southwestern corner, a neighborhood called Marble Hill. Once upon a time Marble Hill was part of Manhattan, but in 1895 the city fathers had an army of workers move the Harlem River to create a faster shipping lane to the Hudson; they built a canal that severed Marble Hill from Manhattan, turning it into a small island. However, politically it remained part of Manhattan, even after it became physically attached to the Bronx in 1914 when a branch of the river was filled in.

I voted for the first time in 1992 while living in Marble Hill, a few blocks from my old high school. I defiantly refused to vote for any major party candidates in that election (a position I still hold to with some firmness), instead casting ballots for Ross Perot as president and an assortment of fringe candidates in the local elections. Of course no one I threw my support behind won anything. Instead, for better and for worse, the nation got Bill Clinton. And in the House I would continue to be represented by Charles Bernard Rangel.

Even then Rangel was already an institution in New York. He'd accomplished the unthinkable by unseating Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. for the right to represent Harlem in 1970. Powell himself was a living monument, a larger than life character who had outmaneuvered Tammany Hall to become the first African American to represent New York State in Congress, and only the second in America since the end of Reconstruction (1877). When Rangel bested him, it was in the shadow of a corruption scandal. Once an important trailblazer, Powell had devolved into a slacker who spent most of his time in the Caribbean, and an embezzler who, among other things, funneled congressional money to his third wife through a no-show job while she was living in Puerto Rico. In light of such scandals, the House voted not to seat Powell in 1969. He sued and eventually won in the United States Supreme Court; Powell might be a crook, the Court ruled in Powell v. McCormack, but Congress had no right to refuse seating a duly elected official.

By 1970, Rangel was a well-connected, 40-year-old lawyer and politician who had come up the hard way. A Harlem native, son of a black mother and absent Puerto Rican father, young Rangel had been a "juvenile delinquent," dropping out of school at age 16 and getting into minor scrapes with the law. However, he turned his life around when he joined the army at 18 and soon found himself on the front line during the Korean War. He served in the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion in the 2nd Infantry Division; although President Truman had ordered the military integrated in 1948, the same year Rangel had signed up, desegregation was slow to come about. Rangel saw heavy action against the Chinese Army, watched his friends die, was injured by shrapnel, and though only a private, he led his men to safety during three days of sub-zero temperatures. He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor for his service.

As my congressman he eventually rose to rarefied heights, becoming a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, the senior member of New York State's large delegation, and by 2007 the chairman of the House's powerful Ways and Means Committee. But, sadly, he eventually followed his predecessor and former nemesis Powell down the path of corruption. A House Ethics Committee recently caught him with his hand in no less than eleven different cookie jars.

On Dec. 2 the House censured Rangel. It is Congress' most severe punishment short of expulsion. It required him to stand contritely before his peers as he was publicly reprimanded. This is the first time that the House has censured someone since 1983, when the penalty fell upon Dan Crane (R-IL) and Gerry Studds (D-MA) for sexually exploiting congressional pages. Rangel of course did nothing so horrific as that. Rather, he ended up going down a path similar to Powell. 40 years in Washington's insular culture fed his vanity and left him out of touch with reality. He became too accustomed to power, favors, and privilege, and he fell into the trap of feeling immune and invulnerable. He hid money from the IRS and he skirted rules while raising money for a university library that will bear his name.

It has been a long time since Charles Rangel represented me in Congress, and I never voted for him in any of his 20 elections. And while he was an early critic of the ravages drugs wrought on urban neighborhoods and was instrumental in improving Harlem's economy, I have not agreed with all of his policies and decisions while in office. Furthermore, I have no doubt about his guilt. Nevertheless, I feel a small stirring of loyalty as I agree with my former representative on one count: the Congress has punished him more harshly than it has some others who have brought far greater shame upon that august body. Indeed, just last week, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay showed barely a fraction of Rangel's class as a Texas jury convicted him of money laundering, part of a plot to circumvent the rules that govern our democracy. Beyond that, the list of outright criminals, ranging from thieves to sexual predators and everything in between, who have disgraced our Congress with their foul antics in recent years, is too long for this short article to bear.

Charles Rangel has overstayed his welcome. For all the good he has done, the bell yet tolls. However, I will not publicly revel in his downfall. Once upon a time he represented me, first in Korea and then in Congress, though I never asked him to. Now I shall represent him, though he knows me not.