By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; A03
NEW YORK -- Forty years ago, a Harlem political legend named Adam Clayton Powell Jr. refused to step down from his House seat in the face of an ethics scandal. Rather than allowing Powell to retire on his own time, an ambitious New York assemblyman took on the incumbent -- and won.
Now the onetime assemblyman, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), finds himself charged with 13 violations of ethics rules of the House of Representatives. He is being challenged by a state assemblyman named Adam Clayton Powell IV, the youngest son of the man Rangel vanquished in 1970.
There is, suffice it to say, no shortage of irony to the contest.
"We were trying to be respectful and see if he would do the right thing and retire," Powell said in an interview. "Now I'm the one who is going to take Rangel out."
Powell, 48, has long coveted the seat for New York's 15th District, which represents an area once known as the center of African American culture. He ran against Rangel in 1994 and lost by 25 percentage points.
This time is different, largely because the ethics controversies have forced Rangel to run his first real campaign since the last time he faced Powell. Rangel has been stumping around the district and reaching out to supporters. What he has not been doing is talking about Powell.
"The congressman is running against himself and the mass media and ethics cases more than anything else," said Kevin Wardally, campaign manager for Rangel, who also faces three lesser-known challengers. "This campaign is about educating voters about what the congressman has done and getting out his supporters. He doesn't need to talk about any of his opponents."
Tough talk aside, Powell plays down any echoes of a "Greek tragedy," as he puts it. In the interview, he repeatedly said that the Sept. 14 Democratic primary is no grudge match. He was 8 years old in 1970 and was living in Puerto Rico with his mother, who had separated from his father.
Still, he noted how proud he would be to take over Rangel's office in the district. It is in the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building.
Rangel is considered a favorite here, even in a year in which voters are increasingly turning against incumbents, and even as he faces critics who have seized on the various allegations against him. Those charges allege that he solicited donations from people with business before the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired, to fund a center named in his honor at City College of New York; that he did not pay taxes on a Caribbean home; that he improperly used a rent-stabilized apartment in New York as a campaign office; and that he did not properly disclose more than $600,000 in income and assets.
Many here, particularly the quarter of the population that is black, view the ethics charges as an attempt by scandal-tainted lawmakers to shift attention away from themselves and toward Rangel. They are also deeply loyal to the incumbent.
"You have to give respect to the older people who have stuck it out and brought real change," said David Lynch, a retiree who lives in central Harlem and has remained a Rangel supporter.
The congressman's formal trial in the ethics investigation is not expected to start until after the September primary, meaning that the controversy might not be receiving as much attention when voters head to the polls. If Rangel wins the primary, he could be home free. In this heavily Democratic district, the winner of the primary is almost certain to win the general election.
Powell, meanwhile, is not untarnished. Six years ago, he admitted having sex with a 19-year-old statehouse intern. He was found guilty of driving while impaired this year and his driver's license was briefly suspended.
That Powell, a former city councilman, is the strongest candidate against Rangel illustrates the complicated political dynamics here. Although there might be any number of contenders to succeed Rangel, many are content to wait for him to retire, leaving a wide-open primary. Few expect Rangel to serve beyond 2012.
State Assemblyman Keith Wright, a veteran Harlem politician, said "of course" when asked in an interview if he wants to succeed Rangel. But for now, Wright not only has said he will defer to Rangel's retirement schedule but also has become one of his top defenders.
Some observers have speculated that Rangel might resign as soon as he wins the primary: His name would remain on the ballot in November -- validation from voters -- but the district's Democratic Party would tap a new candidate for a special election.
Rangel declined to comment for this story, but such a process would give him major influence in tapping his successor and favor someone such as Wright. It would not, to say the least, favor a candidate such as Powell.
In the primary, Powell's odds of success might be better than they were the last time around, even if not for the ethics controversy around Rangel.
The district's changing demographics offer an opportunity for Powell, who speaks Spanish and has a base among Hispanics in Spanish Harlem.
According to census figures, this district, historically known as one of the centers of African-American culture, has experienced a gradual gain in Hispanics over the past two decades and is about 45 percent Latino and 28 percent black. His father was pastor of a major black church here, but Powell is more closely associated with the Latino community.
Aware of this shift, Rangel has long made inroads in the Latino community.
As a result, Powell is spending much of his time wooing the black voters in central Harlem. Many of them know little about him beyond his father.
As he was shaking hands and handing out fliers at a subway stop last week, a man shouted from his car, "Your dad baptized me!" The candidate looked down, saying nothing. Another man approached Powell and told him he would win because "what goes around comes around." The candidate was exasperated.
"It happened 40 years ago," he muttered quietly. "People make too much of the name. It takes away from me and what I have or have not accomplished in my 20 years in public service here. It's like it's a Greek tragedy."
Powell said that if the 1994 primary is any indication, the vote this time will be more about Rangel than about Powell, or his father.
"In the end, their decision will be based on whether they are ready to turn the page from Rangel," he said. "Providing an alternative is important, but most people are set -- or not -- after 40 years."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.