In Harlem, Rangel faces Powell: The next generation
Monday, August 9, 2010
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.