For the better part of the last two weeks, speculation in both the nation’s capital and the streets of Harlem has centered on the fate of embattled New York Democrat Charles Rangel. Dogged by an ongoing series of probes and rebuked last week by an ethics panel, Rangel temporarily but reluctantly abdicated his powerful position as the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
At this juncture, it’s uncertain at best whether the pugnacious Harlem legislator – the dean of New York’s Congressional delegation and arguably the most powerful elected official in the state – will bow to increasing public criticism and step aside for good. Given the broad range of ethical lapses of which he stands accused, many observers believe he should permanently relinquish his chairmanship of Congress’ powerful tax-writing committee. A separate but growing number think that after 41 years in Congress, the gravelly-voiced, colorful Congressman would be best served by fading away completely from public life.
Rangel’s lengthy Congressional tenure is a portrait in the benefits – and pitfalls – of incumbency. The Congressman has a near-legendary ability to dole out largesse for his constituents and political supporters alike. He has no shortage of powerful allies, both in Congress and in New York’s state’s notoriously byzantine political machine. And four decades on Capitol Hill have assured his place amongst the Democratic Party’s most senior members, not to mention in the influential Congressional Black Caucus. As such, he has unassailable influence on a wide range of legislative matters.
But if Rangel’s political taint has any particular upside, it at least affords Harlem’s voters something they haven’t had the benefit of in quite some time: viable options for his potential replacement.
Harlem is a Democratic stronghold; so naturally, most of the most prominent names floated most recently are longtime Democrats. One of the most compelling storylines in the battle for Rangel’s seat involves Vincent Scott Morgan, a former aide to the Congressman who has already announced his intent to challenge the Congressman. Potential contenders also include Joyce Johnson, a relative political neophyte who has run for public office twice.
But one challenger who can’t be entirely discounted is Michael Faulkner, a Republican and former football player with deep Harlem roots. Admittedly, Faulkner’s candidacy might be quixotic at best, given’s Harlem’s strong Democratic bent. That said, his emphasis on common-sense policy solutions and community-building could give his candidacy some ballast in what is shaping up to be a powerful anti-incumbent tide this midterm election season.
And Rangel’s outsized personality and ability to deliver the bacon for his district may not be enough to sate the desire for fresh leadership. According to a recent Fiscal Policy Institute study, Harlem’s unemployment rate hovers near the highest level of any other neighborhood in the city. Given Harlem’s dearth of economic opportunities and palpable need for results, Rangel’s status as a liberal lion and top dog in Congress may not be able to spare him from increasingly restive voters. The Congressman himself is all too aware of this fact, having wrested his Congressional seat from civil-rights firebrand Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970, in what was then an upset victory. If Rangel does decide to step aside, an electoral free-for-all could easily ensue.
In light of the current jobless economic recovery, conventional wisdom would argue in favor of a candidate with private-sector experience. Nonetheless, Rangel is still a force to be reckoned with, even with his advanced age and ethical problems. But even the trappings of power – and a desire to hold a Congressional seat until it putrefies – may not be enough to earn Harlem’s senior Democrat his 21st trip to Washington.