Rangel laments partisanship: ‘It’s time to get out’
As he packed up his offices on Capitol Hill one final time, Rep. Charles B. Rangel reflected on the divisions in Washington and the political strife cleaving the American electorate.
The way the silver-haired Harlem Democrat sees it, he couldn’t have picked a better time to retire.
“I did not ever think about leaving. I have mixed feelings,” he told The Washington Times on a recent sunny afternoon on Capitol Hill. “But the way the political races have turned out, I can’t wait to get out of here.”
For 46 years Mr. Rangel has represented the same Harlem district where he grew up. He scaled the heights of congressional
power, chaired the tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means, plummeted in an ethics scandal that cost him the chairmanship and subjected him to the humiliation of censure on the House floor, and bounced back to win re-election to two more terms in the House.
The congressman, renowned for his genial disposition, didn’t try to hide his disgust with Donald Trump’s upset win of the White House, with the Republicans’ success in keeping control of both chambers of Congress or with the fellow Democrat — a bitter political rival — who is succeeding him in representing New York’s 13th Congressional District.
“I think the elections have made it less painful for me to leave. One of the things that I’ve always said: ‘If you don’t enjoy each and every day as a public servant and a member of this great Congress, it’s time to get out,’” he said.
Mr. Rangel, 86, lamented the fierce partisanship that has come to dominate the nation’s politics and poison relationships on Capitol Hill.
“As my wife and I look at photographs that were taken over the last 40 or 50 years, it’s hard sometimes to think who were Democrats and who were Republicans. Relationships were so much closer, and that doesn’t exist today by a long shot,” he said.
Those misgivings bled into the lingering resentment over his House Committee on Ethics conviction in December 2010 on 11 counts of misconduct, including use of a rent-controlled residential apartment in Harlem as a campaign office, failure to pay taxes on rental income from his beach villa in the Dominican Republic and using official House letterhead to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at The City College of New York.
“I’m convinced that I was targeted” by Republicans in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, said Mr. Rangel. “However, I’m a politician, and I understand it.”
Still, Mr. Rangel insisted that he had put that episode behind him and was satisfied with the legacy he is leaving behind after 22 terms as a congressman.
“When I had my portrait hung in the Ways and Means Committee, Republican leadership and Democratic leadership said what a great courageous legislator I was,” he said. “I’m leaving at the height of my career in terms of the respect as the legislator who has had more bills signed by the president than anybody in Congress.”
“I cannot find it in my heart to complain about anything,” he said.
From Korea to Capitol Hill
Mr. Rangel, currently the second-longest-serving member of Congress, can trace his lifetime of public service back to his stint in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, where he earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star when he led a group of soldiers out from behind enemy lines despite being severely wounded.
He came home to Harlem to earn a law degree, become a lawyer, assistant U.S. attorney, New York assemblyman and then congressman.
His congressional district, like most congressional districts across the country, has experienced demographic shifts over time. But Mr. Rangel said that those changes didn’t justify the identity politics that were injected into congressional campaigns in his district, which is anchored around Harlem but also includes the more Latino neighborhoods of Spanish Harlem and Washington Heights.
In the past two elections, Mr. Rangel engaged in fierce primary contests against fellow Democrat Adriano Espillat, who is succeeding him and will be the first Dominican-American in Congress, reflecting that the longtime majority-black district has become majority Hispanic.
The 2014 primary race between Mr. Rangel and Mr. Espillat degenerated into an exchange of accusations of race-baiting. Mr. Rangel hasn’t forgotten.
“I’ve never had a political fight or a party fight or a city council or state legislature [campaign] based on race or color or where you were born or what language you speak, and I just hope my successor, [who] brags about being the first undocumented worker and the first Dominican [in Congress], fully appreciates that he represents 700,000 people that come from all over the world,” said Mr. Rangel.
Mr. Rangel defeated Mr. Espillat in primaries in 2012 and 2014, but his rival won a close primary vote this year over Assemblyman Keith Wright, whom Mr. Rangel strongly endorsed to succeed him.
In the interview with The Times, Mr. Rangel looked back at his career in Congress with a sense of satisfaction, recalling his role in the 1990s creating the Empowerment Zone Act that helped spur economic revival in Harlem and other inner cities.
“Quite frankly, it’s been such a terrific journey, and I’ve enjoyed each and every day, and just thinking about retirement has brought new and exciting ideas — raising money for the kids, taking my wife and family places we always wanted to go or go back to. So it could not be a more rewarding journey that I’m taking,” he said.
He spoke with emotion of his namesake Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship Program, which funds postgraduate education for students, particularly minorities, seeking to enter the U.S. Foreign Service.
“I’ve seen these kids around the world just so excited as they represent not just the State Department but the United States of America,” he said. “That wasn’t always the case, and we’ve still got a long way to go. But it is so important that foreigners, when they go to the U.S. Embassy, that they see a piece of America, and I’m seeing it every day with the hundreds of kids that are enrolling in the program and doing their studies, graduating and being assigned all over this world.”
Mr. Rangel said that he still views his political career and his life as a blessing, recounting, as he often does, how he became a war hero.
“Whatever low points I’ve had, it’s been more than compensated for me being able to count my blessings,” he said. “I can always say that I was shot and almost captured by the Chinese on Nov. 30, 1950. The temperature was 20 below zero, and I had given up and thought I was dead or soon would be — and I survived. And I haven’t had a bad day since.”
“It’s not a corny expression,” he said, “because when anything looks like it’s going to be a couple shades below making me happy, I can remind myself how lucky I am.”