Despite House ethics probe, Charles Rangel's support remains strong in Harlem

By Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; A03

NEW YORK -- Whatever troubles Charles B. Rangel has in Washington, they haven't seemed to follow him to the streets of Harlem, where he is the only congressman many people have ever voted for, and where on sidewalks and stoops his recent trials are sometimes chalked up to conspiracy and dismissed as D.C. drama.

"I've put in 80 years on these streets, minus four with the Army," Rangel said. "They really don't think this thing is the most important thing to them."

This "thing" is the ethics investigation that has shadowed the New York Democrat for two years. A House subcommittee has been looking into whether Rangel, among other things, improperly used his congressional seat to solicit money for a college center named in his honor and failed to pay taxes on a Caribbean villa. Earlier this year, Rangel reluctantly stepped down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The subcommittee announced last week that some of Rangel's financial dealings violated House rules. On Thursday, it will release more details about what exactly the violations were.

Rangel, who has denied the allegations, didn't spend the weekend hunkered down with lawyers. He returned to New York to keep up his usual hectic weekend schedule -- cruising through the streets of Harlem from one event to the next. He rode in the front seat of a gray Cadillac, a briefing book in one hand and a cellphone in the other. He did not look like a man who could be forced out of Congress after four decades. Neither did he look like a man who just turned 80.

Dressed in a white guayabera, beige pants and white slip-ons and surrounded by a cloud of aides, Rangel strolled through the lobby of Harlem Hospital Center. He was intent on meeting every eye, shaking every hand, and offering a "darling" or a "baby" to every woman who said hello.

Constituents pressed in with questions. "Is the root of all this about the chairmanship, they wanted to take that away from you?" Thomas E. Benjamin asked as Rangel passed.

"My man," Rangel said, offering Benjamin a handshake. "What happens, happens. Wait till Thursday. Thanks for caring."

David Weaver, who was sitting next to Gloria Jackson at a table littered with Rangel reelection brochures during a health forum at the hospital, said he will reserve judgment until then, dismissing the stories in the paper as mere Washington he-said, she-said.

"I don't believe the back-and-forth. But we are in total support of the chairman. And I still call him the chairman. He's done a marvelous job for this community and this nation," said Weaver, chairman of the Community Advisory Board for Harlem Hospital Center, where Rangel spoke Saturday and had a brief question-and-answer with reporters. "They are making a lot of whether the Republicans are going to pick on him, but I don't think someone in another state won't vote for a Democrat because of what Charlie has allegedly done in New York."

Jackson, 62, said what Rangel does in New York is "walk the streets of Harlem, and people know him."

"Charlie Rangel helps us out. I've voted for him as long as I've been here. He's been there for us," said Jackson, echoing lines from the Rangel brochures people picked up at the forum. "If they take that away, we won't know who the person is."

Yet many people here do know, or at least know of, one of Rangel's three primary challengers: Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son and namesake of the legendary Harlem congressman and Baptist preacher Rangel defeated in 1970. Back then, Rangel was a young, clean-government reformer; he assailed the elder Powell, who was in trouble for questionable financial dealings somewhat similar to those Rangel is now trying to explain. Emboldened by Rangel's ethics troubles, the younger Powell hopes to reclaim the seat.

He tried once before. In 1994, Powell challenged Rangel and was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. Rangel hasn't had much of a race since then. To hear the congressman's supporters tell it, he doesn't seem to have one on his hands this time around, either.

"The Powells have been good to me, too, but Charlie's been around. Every block you go to you can see something Charlie did," Jackson said. "Affordable housing, he helped my daughter get her passport, and he was one of the main ones on health care."

That's exactly what Rangel told an audience of 300 in the hospital's auditorium. It was his committee that brought out the bill. And the president noticed.

"So I'm sitting in my office and my aide comes over to me and says, 'The president is on the telephone line waiting for you.' And I'm a sophisticated guy, but I still have to get myself together for this," he said, his rapt audience laughing and nodding. "I picked up the phone and say, 'Mr. President', and he says, 'Man, I just called to thank you.' "

But in this latest challenge -- the toughest Rangel has faced since beating the elder Powell, his mentor -- some see a kind of Shakespearean drama, a story that ends where it began.

"It's almost like deja vu. It was the father, and now it's the son," said a street vendor who went by the name Shabazz as he stood on 125th street, clutching a handful of DVDs about revolution, black power and reparations. "This Adam Clayton Powell has the name, but he doesn't have the substance. His father was a fearless black man -- you hear what I'm saying to you? He wasn't afraid to speak out. I haven't seen [the younger] Powell out here. Not in these streets. Is somebody just supposed to vote for you because your name is Adam Clayton Powell?"

Joyce Johnson, activist Jonathan Tasini and banker Vince Morgan are also eyeing Rangel's seat. Morgan used to work for Rangel, but now calls on Rangel "to hang it up." He likens Rangel to Muhammad Ali, fighting one too many fights.

"He is an institution. He's been here for the majority of people's adult lives. All they know is Charlie Rangel. But enough is enough, it's time for change and it's time to turn the page," Morgan said. "I don't think Charlie Rangel embodies what the district is today -- he embodies what it used to be."

But those 40 years, those 20 campaigns, still mean something. And when Rangel stepped out of his gray Cadillac to the sound of a bass-heavy Latino rhythm at Manhattan and West 107th Street, that's exactly what he heard.

"Hey Mr. Rangel," Willie Gonzalez said, leaning in for a hug. "We support you 100 percent."

And the ethics charges? The questions about financial improprieties? The alleged misuse of rent-controlled apartments? The Caribbean villa? "So what, you got a Caribbean villa. You like to enjoy life," Vincent Morales said. He put a hand on Rangel's shoulder. "We don't believe anything they say. They lie."

Added Jeremiah Smith, as Rangel made his way to the stage for his fifth event of the day: "They are after him because he's been a rep so long and he's the chairman and they have to find a way to get that [seat]. Sometimes it's like, out with the old and in with the new. But sometimes we need the old."

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