The 86-year-old Rangel is leaving Congress on his terms, after 46 unforgettable years, both because of his policy legacy and for the colorful personality, defined by that trademark raspy voice, that he brought to Capitol Hill.
By late Tuesday night, as his anointed successor trailed a longtime Democratic rival, Rangel’s staying power — outlasting calls for resignation during an ethics scandal and then defeating younger challengers — appeared all the more remarkable.
The results, giving the edge to Dominican-born Adriano Espaillat, a state senator from across the river in the Bronx, all but assures that this onetime bastion of black America will be represented by a Latino in Congress.
There may never be another congressman quite like Rangel.
A power-broker in Harlem and a dealmaker on the Hill, Rangel hails from a now extinct era when committee rooms were fiefdoms of bravado that stoked fear in party leaders. They were the focal points of legislation and hubs of influence. Corporate titans, Wall Street executives and big labor bosses paid their respects to the gavel-toting chairmen when Rangel, a former chair of the powerful Ways and Means panel, came of age.
Those clubby ways landed Rangel in ethics trouble six years ago, prompting President Obama to suggest that he should retire “with dignity.” But Rangel refused, standing firm for another six years in a way that put distance between his ethics imbroglio and his retirement.
“I don’t know what was on his mind, quite honestly, when he said it,” Rangel said of the president in an interview Tuesday after voting.
But he said he knows what Obama thinks of him now: “This guy from Lenox Avenue is retiring with dignity.”
Lenox Avenue is the main hub of Harlem, also named Malcolm X Boulevard, where the Harlem Renaissance grew in the 1920’s and where Rangel has lived most of his life.
A high school dropout, he wasn’t destined for much until he enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean War. In 1950, Rangel earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star leading a company from out of the grasp of Chinese soldiers — an experience that has framed his life and gave him the title of his 2007 autobiography, “And I Haven’t Had A Bad Day Since.”
The New Yorker came home, got his high school degree, enrolled in college through the G.I. bill, taking a sharp turn in a life.
“The difference from where I would’ve been and where I am now has been the G.I. bill,” Rangel said Tuesday, announcing that his post-Congress mission will be raising funds for a scholarship program at City College of New York.
After law school at St. John’s, Rangel became an assistant U.S. attorney and forged a “Gang of Four” alliance with three other up-and-coming Harlem players: Percy Sutton, a future Manhattan borough president; David Dinkins, the future first black mayor of New York City; and Basil Paterson, father of the future first black governor of the state. With their help, Rangel ousted Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the 1970 primary following the flamboyant incumbent’s own ethics troubles.
On Capitol Hill, Rangel saw few familiar faces. He co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus with just nine members (it now boasts nearly 50).
Charm, persistence and the ability to cut a good deal were his hallmark. On the Ways and Means Committee, with its power over taxes, entitlements, trade and health-care policy, Rangel helped punish corporations that did business with South Africa’s Apartheid regime, advanced trade deals with African and Caribbean nations and helped draft the Affordable Care Act.
When Democrats won back the House majority in the 2006 midterms, Rangel became chairman, capping an amazing journey from the Korean winter amid Chinese gunfire. His chairmanship ranks as the most powerful gavel ever held by an African-American in Congress.
The honeymoon was short. Rangel’s old-school ways did not comport with the new era, especially after then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) pledge to “drain the swamp” of misdeeds. Rangel failed to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal assets, sought massive donations from corporations for a City College wing named after him and failed to pay taxes on a Dominican villa.
He could’ve settled for minor punishment, but he bungled his way into a formal censure, just shy of expulsion. His speeches veered from defiant to remorseful, tearful at one point in begging the ethics committee to spare him — shouting at his colleagues at other times.
“I’m not going to be judged by this Congress,” Rangel said Dec. 2, 2010, after the overwhelming censure vote.
Just as Congress changed over Rangel’s career, so too did his Harlem-based district, shifting from black to brown as it is now 55 percent Latino. A new collection of young Turks decided Rangel was ripe for the taking just as Powell was in 1970. For three straight elections, Rangel scrambled back home like never before just to win the Democratic primary.
Rangel defended his misdeeds by saying it wasn’t about lining his own pockets. Friends said it became important for him to triumph in a few more elections to ratify his standing back home, avoiding Powell’s fate.
“Thank God I never had to decide between doing the right thing or being defeated at the polls,” he said Tuesday in the interview.
This year, Rangel decided to let others take the torch.
His wife, Alma, whispered “another historic moment” to Rangel as they walked away Tuesday from P.S. 175, two blocks from where he grew up. He called her his “new boss” as they held hands after casting votes for his ally, state Assemblyman Keith Wright.
Later that night, Wright discovered Rangel’s one-of-a-kind magic couldn’t be transferred to him. He narrowly lost to Espaillat.
Still, Rangel has no regrets.
“Since November 30, 1950, no matter what crises we have gone through individually or collectively, Charlie Rangel has been blessed never, never, never to have a bad day,” Rangel said.