Politics

Charlie Rangel on How America Changed

First elected in 1970, New York Democrat is in his final days in the House

Rep. Charles B. Rangel looks back on his career in his near-empty office on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

This year’s election taught Rep. Charles B. Rangel that America has changed.

“It’s abundantly clear that the standards that Alexander Hamilton expected to find for candidates for president have been lowered,” the New York Democrat said, speaking of President-elect Donald Trump.

“It’s ironic that we find a person that, by all standards, has more experience and is better qualified, having a two-and-a-half-million-votes edge in the popular vote and Donald Trump edging out in the Electoral College vote,” he added.

For two generations, Rangel has been the only congressman Harlem residents have ever known. He is the second-longest-serving current House member, behind only Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr., and has been in office since 1971.

Rangel, 86, knows Congress, and the country, better than most.

He knows why Trump and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders became the voices that resonated with a good part of America that felt left out.

“Hard workers, for a variety of reasons, have seen economic and social advancement ceilings put on their ambitions,” Rangel said.

“The old thing, if you work hard in this country, you can get ahead. Well, the misconduct of Wall Street, the recession, globalization, inventions, science, technology, have really put a damper on middle-class people to advance as rapidly as they have in the past,” he said.

He wondered if Congress “missed the boat” by not doing enough on infrastructure, education or technology, which could have helped Democrats in 2016.

“If we had concentrated in these areas as the president did with universal health care, I am confident that the bitterness, the frustration, the racism, the anti-immigrant factor, would have not raised its ugly head when the economy is doing better by the middle class,” he said.

“It’s the middle class that the jobs come from. If people don’t have disposable income, if they’re not able to purchase the basics, if small businesses can’t hire people, then you have a problem,” he added. “And we did have a problem during the election, and we still have it.”

UNITED STATES: File photo - Congressional Black Caucus Members with Actor Melvin Van Peebles outside the U.S. Capitol. Left to Right: Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.); Rep. William Clay, Sr. (D-Mo.); Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.); Rep. Robert Nix, Sr. (D-Pa.); Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.); Melvin Van Peebles; Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio); Rep. Yvonne B. Burke (D-Calif.); Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); and Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) (Photo courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University).
Congressional Black Caucus Members with Actor Melvin Van Peebles outside the U.S. Capitol. Left to Right: Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.); Rep. William Clay, Sr. (D-Mo.); Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.); Rep. Robert Nix, Sr. (D-Pa.); Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.); Melvin Van Peebles; Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio); Rep. Yvonne B. Burke (D-Calif.); Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); and Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas). (Courtesy Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University)

Rangel leaves Congress with a suggestion for those he leaves behind: Look beyond your district and make the whole country a priority.

“It’s no question in my mind that redistricting has made this a Congress of partisanship. My wife and I look at old photos of friends that we’ve had in Congress, trips that we’ve made together, and it’s so hard to believe we can’t tell whether our friends are Republican or Democrat.”

Rangel is the longest-serving member on the Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired for three years. Questions about campaign practices, including setting up a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office, underreporting the rental income of a Dominican Republic vacation house, and not disclosing personal assets forced him to resign his chairmanship in 2010. 

The Ethics Committee pursued 13 charges against him and the House, under Democratic control, voted for an official censure in late 2010. In 2013, he filed a lawsuit to overturn the censure, but a federal appeals court dismissed it two years later.

Rangel makes his way to a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center after he was censured on the House floor for ethics violations in December 2010. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rangel makes his way to a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center after he was censured on the House floor for ethics violations in December 2010. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rangel credits legislation he has been involved in such as empowerment zones, an affordable housing bill, and the earned income tax credit for improving his district.

Since he was first elected, he said his district has gone from “rats and crime and people had two and three locks on their door” to one where “people are fighting to get in.”

“It’s quite a place of destination for people looking for decent housing, sound schools and job opportunity,” he said.

But his district’s makeup was also changing.

Over the years, it’s gone from majority black to majority Latino. Redistricting ahead of the 2012 election added a part of the southern Bronx. 

He often ran unopposed in Democratic primaries and won over 80 percent of the vote in general elections, but he faced contentious primaries in 2012 and 2014 against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, winning by a margins of 2.5 and 4.7 percentage points, respectively. Espaillat is replacing him in the 115th Congress.

His explanation for why his last two challenges were so close: “Being the first thing and the first person from a particular group of people tends to polarize,” he said of Espaillat, who is the first Dominican-American elected to Congress.

[Longtime Thorn in Retiring Rangel’s Side Wins New York’s 13th District]

In his final days on Capitol Hill, Rangel introduced a bill with California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer to eliminate the Electoral College, following Hillary Clinton’s  popular-vote victory.

“When you’re out of Congress, you run around saying, somebody ought to do something about that. But what the hell? I got tied up in with Sen. Boxer and we introduced legislation to repeal or review it,” he said.

The House and Senate bill, introduced in mid-November, would abolish the Electoral College and also provide for the direct popular election of the president and vice president.

As he enters his closing days in office and looks back on the years, Rangel said that despite the partisanship, some of his last years plagued by scandal and his contentious final campaigns, he “cannot think of anything negative that I’ve done or wanted to do in politics because of the opportunity I had.” 

“I can’t think of anything that would tee me off during those years enough that I would not be reminded how blessed I am,” he said.