Rep. Charles Rangel reflects on his censure and his legacy

January 30, 2011

After it was all over - the bear hugs, the whispers, the somber theatricality - one question lingered about Charlie Rangel's censure, and it was wider than Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. How did the savvy old pol let this happen?

How did one of the shrewdest operatives in the House of Representatives, a man who rose to become chairman of the most powerful committee, Ways and Means, an expert in tax law and spending procedures, a hero to black America, get caught chiseling on his taxes? How did he let himself become the latest example of ethical lapses in Congress?

Weeks after he was censured by the House - a rebuke suffered by only 22 others in congressional history - Rangel, 80, sat for two interviews in his Capitol Hill office. Reviewing the events of the past two years, his answers were full of contradictions that seem to defy easy explanation.

He doesn't bother to conceal his rage and lashes out, in that deep Orson Welles voice, in many directions: He admits he made mistakes, but also lays blame upon a conservative ethics group and their efforts to expose him. He fingers a former chief of staff who he says didn't pay attention to details.

And he laments a political climate in which veteran members of Congress are treated like the amateur performers at Harlem's Apollo Theater (which Rangel helped save from extinction), their fate dependent on the whim of the audience.

"Nothing I did was inconsistent with what I thought was legal. It wasn't done in the dark of night!" The voice is roaring away, yelling indiscriminately at everyone in the room. He begins riffling through papers on his desk as if a document or folder might include the magic of belated redemption.

"If there's no corruption, then the corruption shouldn't have been an issue," said Rangel, who served on the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon. "Nobody's been censured when there hasn't involved the breaking of any laws."

The ethics committee, chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), concluded that Rangel had not paid taxes for 17 years on property he owns in the Dominican Republic, where he sometimes vacations. It said he raised "millions" of dollars for the Rangel Center at City College of New York from corporations that did business before his Ways and Means Committee. And it concluded that he had accumulated more than $500,000 in undisclosed financial assets.

While taking blame for what he termed "overzealousness" in fundraising, Rangel chided members of Congress who voted for censure instead of a less serious reprimand, howled about a double standard, vowed that this episode "is not over yet" and complained bitterly about the National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church-based organization that chases after public officials who may have ethics issues.

"For a chairman to violate House rules, well, I don't feel good about that," he said. "If it was done because I relied on my chief of staff, George Dalley, a Columbia Law School graduate, smart man, well, again, I do feel bad. But I didn't get a nickel!"

Rangel repeatedly mentioned people who have expressed support for him or minimized the import of the ethics violations. He recounted a train ride from Manhattan to Washington earlier that day, replete with the familiar pats on the back and warm handshakes. "Henry Kissinger grabbed me on the train . . . and said, 'You got a bum deal. You're still my congressman.' He asked me: 'Why did they vote against you?' And all I could say was: 'Congress is held in such low esteem!' "

He likes this theme of Congress and public perception. "Representatives didn't want to look soft on corruption - even if it wasn't corruption!" he said. He's started combing his hair. He's at the refrigerator grabbing a 32-ounce bottle of soda and taking a swallow. "I think the reputation of Congress is so low that to vote for me would have been seen as being soft on crime. Soft on misconduct."

But lest the nation didn't notice, he overwhelmingly won reelection last November, galloping to victory with his mane of silver hair looking quite nice, thank you very much.

On the day of the censure vote in December, Charles B. Rangel - decorated Korean War veteran, graduate of St. John's University School of Law, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, the first black chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the man who dethroned legendary Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.- stood on the House floor, vainly hoping that his colleagues would opt for a reprimand, a far milder rebuke. But the experienced House veteran didn't have the votes. The final tally was 333 for censure, 79 opposed.

"Would I hope this hadn't have happened? Bet your ass! Would I have expected, however, to receive these letters from heads of state supporting me? Meeting Kissinger on the train like that? Hearing from senators like [Orrin] Hatch and [Arlen] Specter? They've all said to me: 'You got a raw deal. You were the best before and you are still the best; nothing has changed.' "

And yet, so much had changed.

Those who know Rangel and have seen him since his censure have noticed a changed man: hurt and somber no matter what he might say on trains between Manhattan and Washington. "His spirit hurts for himself and for his wife, who cried almost daily during this ordeal," said Inez Dickens, a Harlem councilwoman and Rangel confidante. "Most of the charges related to CCNY and the Rangel Institute. Well, it was for poor kids. CCNY used to be free. It isn't anymore."

Arthur Barnes, a retired health industry executive and board chairman of Harlem's National Jazz Museum, has known Rangel for more than 50 years and said that he now feels both pity and embarrassment for him. "He was not himself during those public pronouncements," Barnes said, referring to Rangel's intemperate comments about the ethics committee. "This man had an ambition to be chairman for 40 years. It comes to him - and then it's over."

Barnes said he knew Rangel would not take the ethics hearings quietly. "His reaction was a normal Harlem reaction: If you are attacked, you fight back. This was a dagger to his heart. He thought he might only get a slap on the wrist."

He goes on: "It's a devastating mark against his legacy. There will be no asterisk. The rules are the rules. How can you not pay your taxes? He was ridiculously careless. Coming up we were taught you have to be better than your competition. It's inculcated into your psyche. But you get comfortable with power. You grow complacent."

It has not been lost on Barnes that it was Rangel who himself called for the investigation. "It seemed as if he enjoyed the drama. As if he enjoyed the fight. But why enjoy the fight if you can't win?"

Rangel has genuine vitriol for the National Legal and Policy Center, which filed complaints against him with the Federal Elections Commission, the IRS and the House Ethics Committee. He claims that investigators for the group followed him to the Dominican Republic and broke into his office.

"Am I a Republican and conservative? Yes, I am," said Ken Boehm, chairman of the NLPC. "But we didn't enter Congressman Rangel's office and no one had access to his office."

There were fingers pointed at George Dalley, Rangel's former chief of staff, for alleged inattention to House procedures and filings during the imbroglio. Dalley retired from the congressman's staff in 2009 and won't talk about his own role in the Rangel follies. "I'm just not going to get into that," he said. "Let me just say that his legacy will not be diminished by a politically motivated decision."

Rangel first came to Congress in 1971, after he defeated the legendary and controversial Powell, who had been in the House since 1944, the first congressman elected to a new seat created for Harlem. Powell was often at odds with segregationists in the Democratic Party, but his endurance paid off when, with the election of President John F. Kennedy, he assumed chairmanship of the House Education and Labor Committee.

But Powell - who once wrote an article about ethics for Esquire magazine, accompanied by a picture of a sepia-toned man beneath palm trees - soon ran into ethics concerns himself. He third wife held a no-show job on his staff payroll; he took comely young aides on European jaunts. In January 1967, Powell was stripped of his chairmanship. Three months later, in a move that made front-page headlines around the country, Powell's colleagues voted to exclude him from his seat. He won it back in a special election, but returned to Congress without power or seniority (the Supreme Court later ruled that his exclusion had been unconstitutional). In 1970, he lost the Democratic primary for his seat to Rangel, a young Harlem attorney.

The parallels are hardly lost on Rangel. "When I came down here," he said, "I found so many members of Congress who wanted me to believe that they were in love with Adam Clayton Powell. I would say: 'How can you tell me you love Adam Clayton Powell and you voted unconstitutionally to kick him out?' And they would say: 'I didn't say I disliked Adam. I just said there's no way I can explain to my constituents that I voted for Adam Clayton Powell.' So, I don't care what the issue is, people say: 'If you gotta explain your vote, you got a problem.' "

Here comes another eruption: "Goddamn right, I'm reflective! I was the first black chairman of the committee."

He slumps in a chair and begins reading constituent mail. He says he might write a book. He says he has to figure out how he'll pay his six-figure legal fees. "I wanted the investigation. I've since learned to never call for an investigation of yourself!" he said, with a rare burst of laughter.

His biggest regret: "After all this was over, the press never said, in a headline: 'Rangel Found Not Guilty of Self-Enrichment.' "

Rangel checks himself in the mirror: the mane of silver hair, the canary-yellow pocket square. Stripped of power, censured, he glides down the marble hallway, step by step into a new phase of his political life.

"Did you see me out there on the House floor," he asked, "fighting for the health-care bill? That's right, still fighting."

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