Rep. Charles Rangel (D)
New York 15th District
Harlem, for many years America’s most famous black ghetto, is rebounding from decades of grim times. Harlem’s development came relatively late in New York City’s history. When Alexander Hamilton and Roger Morris built mansions in northern Manhattan, they were far out in the countryside. Early critics of Central Park questioned the necessity of setting aside open land when picnickers could always go to Harlem. By the late 19th century, Harlem had become a commuter neighborhood for Germans and then Jews and Italians. After the turn of the century, real estate speculators began constructing blocks of impressive brownstones, hoping to capitalize on the impending arrival of the subway. But overbuilding led to high vacancy rates, and some landlords, in desperation, agreed to rent to African-Americans, as long as they were willing to pay a premium. After generations of being shunted from one neighborhood to the next as the city developed, black residents were willing, and the neighborhood soon turned into the locus of New York City’s African-American community. Harlem expanded from its nucleus around Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, while the Italian neighborhood to the east later known as Spanish Harlem grew outward from 116th Street and Pleasant Avenue. Many great black Americans—W. E. B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Ellison, Joe Louis—lived in northwest Harlem’s Sugar Hill.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
For a long moment in history, Harlem was a center of writers and professionals and entertainers. The rosters of the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in the 1920s and 1930s were filled with the names of great artists still remembered today. Back then, the WPA Guide described Harlem as “the spiritual capital of Black America.” But starting with the riot in the summer of 1964, Harlem endured decades of deterioration. Hundreds of brownstones were abandoned or pulled down. As successful black families moved out—to Springfield Gardens in Queens or Williamsbridge in the Bronx or to the Westchester or New Jersey suburbs—Harlem’s population shifted increasingly toward welfare dependency and criminal gangs, and it declined by a third between 1970 and 1990.
Starting in the 1990s, Harlem began to recover. The federal government gave $300 million in investment capital, and the huge drop in crime under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made Harlem real estate valuable again. Brownstones were renovated, vacant city buildings were sold off, neighborhood schools were upgraded, and arts spaces opened. Harlem was made a federal enterprise zone, with favorable federal and state tax treatment, and the Metropolitan Economic Revitalization Fund pumped money into new developments, as did Calvin Butts’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Younger African-Americans are returning, while visitors from overseas, especially Japan and Europe, flock to the area for historical tours, prompting a boomlet in niche hotels and guest houses. The façade of the Apollo Theater has been restored, a new Harlem pier has been constructed, and supermarkets and chain stores have opened. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton opened his post presidential office at 55 W. 125th Street in Harlem. There has been a double-digit percentage increase in median household income in Harlem since 2000. The upward trend abated somewhat in 2008 as Wall Street’s problems reduced investment and charitable donations.
Politically, Harlem has been heavily Democratic ever since the 1930s, when black voters switched from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt. Harlem got its own congressional district in 1944 and elected Adam Clayton Powell Jr., minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and a brilliant orator who became the most famous black politician of his time. He was the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee when it passed the Great Society programs in 1965, but was excluded from Congress in 1967 (illegally, the Supreme Court later ruled) for refusing to honor a New York decree in a libel case.
Today, the 15th Congressional District of New York includes not just Harlem but all of northern Manhattan, down to 89th Street on the west side and 96th Street on the east side. On the west side, the district’s southern reaches include portions of the white, liberal Upper West Side as well as the Morningside Heights precincts around Columbia University. On the east side, at 96th Street, the railroad comes out of the tunnel that runs under Park Avenue to Grand Central Station, and the Upper East Side gives way to Harlem. Spanish Harlem, just to the north, was once Italian (it was Fiorello LaGuardia’s political base) and later heavily Puerto Rican. Today, “El Barrio” has fewer Puerto Ricans and more Mexicans and Dominicans along with some gentrifying whites. Still farther north, the district includes Washington Heights and Inwood, both heavily Latino and the center of Dominican life in New York as Dominicans replace Puerto Ricans as New York’s most numerous Latino group. Overall, the district in 2007 was 28% black and 46% Hispanic, figures that testify to decades of black flight from Harlem and the continuing inflow of immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. In 2004, this was the most heavily Democratic congressional district in the nation, voting 90% for John Kerry for president. Democrat Barack Obama won it in 2008 with 93%, his second best in the nation, after New York’s adjacent 16th District.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D)
Elected: 1970, 20th term.
Born: June 11, 1930, New York City .
Education: N.Y.U., B.S. 1957, St. John's U., LL.B. 1960.
Family: Married (Alma); 2 children.
Military career: Army, 1948–52 (Korea).
Elected office: NY Assembly, 1966–70.
Professional Career: Asst. U.S. atty., S. Dist. of NY, 1959-64; Legal cnsl., NYC Housing & Redevel. Bd., Neighborhood Conservation Bureau, 1963–68; Gen. cnsl., Natl. Advisory Comm. on Selective Svc., 1966.
The congressman from the 15th District is Democrat Charles Rangel, first elected to the House in 1970 and now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel grew up in Harlem and served in the Army in Korea, where he rescued 40 men from behind the lines in Kunu-ri and was awarded the Bronze Star. He graduated from New York University and St. John’s University law school, served as legal counsel in several government agencies and was elected to the New York Assembly in 1966. He was part of a group of young black politicians—among them Basil Paterson, Carl McCall and Percy Sutton—who for many years dominated Harlem and greatly influenced New York politics. In 1970, Rangel challenged Powell in the Democratic primary and narrowly won. Remarkably, these two iconic and often controversial figures have been the district’s only representatives for two-thirds of a century. Like most Harlem politicians, Rangel has long argued that government aid and racial preferences are needed to solve Harlem’s problems.
|Charles Rangel (D-WF)||177,060||(89%)||($4,209,400)|
|Edward Daniels (R)||15,668||(8%)|
|Charles Rangel (D-WF)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (94%), 2004 (91%), 2002 (88%), 2000 (92%), 1998 (93%), 1996 (91%), 1994 (97%), 1992 (95%), 1990 (97%), 1988 (97%), 1986 (96%), 1984 (97%), 1982 (97%), 1980 (96%), 1978 (96%), 1976 (97%), 1974 (97%), 1972 (96%), 1970 (87%)
Aside from some early successes on trade and increasing the minimum wage, Rangel’s first two years as chairman in the 110th Congress (2007-08) proved relatively unproductive and often contentious, as his proposals came under veto threat from the Republican White House. Despite pressure from liberal Democrats, Rangel made little effort to alter the Bush-era tax cuts, which were scheduled to expire in 2010. He won House passage of a bill extending an adjustment in the alternative minimum tax to protect middle-income taxpayers, who increasingly have been forced to pay a tax that originally targeted only wealthy taxpayers. The Senate passed a similar bill. Rangel worked with other Democrats to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, but failed in October 2007 to get a sufficient number of Republican votes to override Bush’s promised veto. He collaborated with other House committees on changes in tax law for the energy bill of 2007. And in 2008, he backed the federal bank bailout of financial institutions, though Ways and Means played a relatively minor role.
In 2009, Rangel said he was eager to “have a head start” in legislative planning for the new administration. “Time is not our friend,” he warned in July 2008, describing the multiple challenges on tax policy, health care and entitlements legislation. With Obama as president, Rangel moved quickly to enact the long-discussed children’s health-insurance expansion, and he helped craft $348 billion in tax cuts over five years in the administration’s $787 billion economic-stimulus bill. He also joined other senior House Democrats in extended discussions on health reform. Somewhat less expected was his assertive role on climate-change legislation. Environmental legislation traditionally has been under the control of the Energy and Commerce Committee, but Rangel held numerous hearings on a proposed carbon tax.
Rangel’s chairmanship has been marred by numerous ethics controversies uncovered by the New York Times. It reported that Rangel maintained four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem, despite state and city regulations stating that such apartments were supposed to be primary residences, that he failed to report rental income from a real estate investment in the Dominican Republic, and that he used his congressional stationery to raise funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York. Perhaps most damaging, The Times reported that Maurice Greenberg, one of the biggest shareholders in financially troubled American International Group, gave the Rangel school $5 million from a foundation he controlled in 2007, and that Rangel in early 2008, supported a provision in a tax bill that saved AIG several million dollars a year. Rangel steadfastly denied wrongdoing, and in September 2008 he requested a review by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Republicans demanded that he be removed as chairman while the inquiry was ongoing, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to do so.
Rangel combines political shrewdness with a lot of personal charm and a penchant for extravagant rhetoric. When a bipartisan majority voted to end racial preferences in broadcasting in 1995, Rangel lashed out in a letter to then Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, a Texas Republican, saying, “Just like under Hitler, people say they don’t mean to blame any particular individuals and groups, but in the U.S. those groups always turn out to be minorities and immigrants.” Archer refused to speak to Rangel, the ranking member of the committee, except in public committee meetings. During the 1990s, Rangel defended President Bill Clinton against impeachment with great vigor, but he did not always get along with Clinton. And he resented it when the administration negotiated directly with Republicans, leaving congressional Democrats out of the loop.
Republican Bill Thomas of California succeeded Archer as chairman. Notoriously acerbic and uncollegial, Thomas made few if any moves toward bipartisanship. In 2003, a Ways and Means meeting on pension legislation ended in chaos when Democrats led by Rangel walked out in protest, charging they hadn’t had time to review a substitute bill the committee was considering. Thomas called the Capitol Police to remove the Democrats from the library where they had gathered, and in their absence, Republicans approved the bill by voice vote. Rangel later offered a resolution to nullify the meeting and chastised Thomas but dropped the effort after Thomas went to the House floor and made a tearful apology. Yet the committee was never able to work in a bipartisan way. Rangel also protested when Thomas excluded him from the House-Senate conference committee on the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill. The only Democrats Thomas allowed to participate were Senate Finance Committee members Max Baucus of Montana and John Breaux of Louisiana, who favored Thomas’ bill.
Rangel has opposed some of the international free-trade agreements of recent years, but has proven open to compromise on others. After becoming chairman in 2007, Rangel moved to have the full committee, not the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, handle trade agreements. The subcommittee is chaired by liberal Democrat Sander Levin of Michigan, who has taken a harder line on labor and environmental provisions. In 2000, Rangel worked hard for a bill to cut tariffs on apparel and other imports from sub-Saharan Africa, despite opposition from labor unions, textile interests and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. During 2004, Rangel did not take a position on the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, though many Democrats opposed the agreement. There are many Dominican and Central American immigrants in New York.
One of Rangel’s priorities is a permanent change in the alternative minimum tax to prevent it from ensnaring middle-class taxpayers. Rangel has suggested making up the lost revenue by restricting foreign tax shelters or by narrowing the gap between taxes owed and taxes paid. But he has made it plain many times over the years that he would adamantly oppose eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes—a deduction worth a great deal to New Yorkers, whose state and local taxes are relatively high. Rangel opposed President George W. Bush’s proposal for individual investment accounts in Social Security in 2005, saying, “There’s no guarantee the market’s going to work for you.” He helped write the Federal Empowerment Zone law, the Low Income Housing tax credit and the Targeted Jobs tax credit. He was a key sponsor of the 1993 increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. All those would help turn around places like Harlem.
On foreign policy, Rangel has long advocated eliminating sanctions on trade with Cuba. He favors allowing Haitian and Dominican immigrants into the United States on the same basis as refugees from Cuba. Rangel voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002 and the following year called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Late in 2002, he called for a revival of the military draft, contending that “a disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.” He introduced a bill in 2003 to require some form of national service, military or civilian, from Americans ages 18 to 26, and found 13 cosponsors. When House Republican leaders brought it to a vote in October 2004, he called it a “political maneuver to kill rumors of the president’s intention to reinstate the draft after the November election” and voted against it, saying it had had no committee hearings. It was voted down 402-2.
Earlier in his House career, Rangel’s main emphasis had been trying to curb the illegal drug trade. Starting in 1983, he chaired the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control and seldom missed a chance to relate other social problems to the prevalence of drug abuse; he was chairman until 1993, when the committee was abolished along with other House select committees.
In the 2008 election, he was an early and vocal supporter of home-state Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her pitched battle with Obama for the Democratic nomination. “This ain’t no time for a beginner,” he told the New York Times in January 2008, referring to Obama’s relative inexperience in the Senate. Despite pressure from many Democrats, including many of his constituents, he stuck with Clinton until the end; he reportedly advised her on, and encouraged, her June 2008 decision to withdraw from the race. He was denied a speaking appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Denver that summer.
Rangel has long been a major player in New York’s city and state politics. He strongly backed his old friend, Democrat Carl McCall, for governor in 2002, and in December 2001, he said he would vote for Republican George Pataki if the nomination went to McCall’s rival, Democrat Andrew Cuomo. But in 2006, he gave Cuomo a hearty endorsement for attorney general. That same year, he was frosty toward Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer after Spitzer chose a running mate who was not Rangel’s first choice: “When Eliot Spitzer, the world’s smartest man, is telling me that he has picked his candidate and knows that his candidate can win, who am I to question the world’s smartest man?” Rangel said.
Rangel has been easily re-elected every two years. In 1994, he faced primary opposition from the son of his predecessor, the Puerto Rico-raised Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV. Rangel spent $1.4 million and won 61%-33. In 2007, he published a memoir, And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress.