How Charlie Rangel became Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

OPINION - Like Powell, history will also record that Rangel squandered much of that positive legacy by bending and twisting the rules for his own personal gain...

There is an irony in the sometimes tragic, sometimes comical, and totally infuriating saga of embattled Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel. The irony is that the man that Rangel ousted more than forty years ago to win the prized Harlem Congressional seat is a man that he took great pains over the years to sing the praises of. That man is, of course, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Powell, despite the tumultuous end of his tenure, in which he was unceremoniously reviled, censured in Congress, and ultimately cast aside by voters because of corruption, devil-may-care irresponsibility, and political snub of his constituents — was considered by many a hero, and an icon, who furthered the cause of economic justice and civil rights for African-Americans and the poor. Rangel routinely noted that his bad final years should not cancel that legacy out.

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Powell certainly earned his civil rights spurs there. The marches, rallies, and demonstrations he led against Jim Crow segregation in housing and business, and against police brutality in the 1930s and 1940s will forever be etched in our nation’s history. The crucial role he played in ushering political game changing legislation on health and education and employment from his high perch as chairman of the congressional labor committee in the mid 1960s was of monumental importance.

Rangel is now in dire danger of following in the more unsavory historical footsteps of Powell. His Bronze Star and Purple Heart for combat with the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion during the Korea War are the stuff of legend. His contributions to civil rights battles and his prodigious output in Congress include a telephone size checklist of accomplishments; the millions that he got for job and small business programs, a model empowerment zone in Harlem, and a vast expansion of affordable and low income housing.

Then there’s the famed 1987 Rangel Amendment which barred any federal funding for businesses that did business with then apartheid South Africa. Along the way Rangel even managed to get himself arrested in a protest against human rights abuses in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in 2004. Rangel at the time of his arrest got off the memorable quote, “When human lives are in jeopardy, there should be outrage.”

Congressional Black Caucus chair Barbara Lee in defense of Rangel following his conviction on 11 counts of ethics violations made a mighty effort to place Rangel in the context of a half century of positive work for justice. “Congressman Rangel has a distinguished, demonstrated 50-year history of service to his constituents who again returned him to office in November. When his record and actions are compared with other members, reason would seem to indicate that any decision on punishment should be in line with previous findings of the ethics committee,” said Lee.
But Rangel, in praising Powell, and receiving deserved accolades for his decades of civil rights and economic justice contributions and his crucial legislative work also forgot the other lesson of Powell. Powell’s name is revered and hailed as a civil rights legend and icon. But he is also reviled and his name has become synonymous as the poster child of political graft, corruption and irresponsibility.

In the decades since Powell’s censure by Congress whenever any elected official is plopped on the hot seat for political corruption and ethics violations, Powell’s name more often than not is dredged up and comparisons are made. Rangel has remained at least publicly defiant and unfazed by that eerie parallel with Powell. Even as the controversy over his dubious financial dealings mounted, and the probes intensified, and many pundits assumed that Rangel was such politically damaged goods that he would go the way of Powell and be ousted, Rangel saw it much differently.

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He repeatedly said that no matter what’s been said about him, or what he was charged with (and now found guilty of), the only ones that ultimately count are the voters. And they have certainly borne out that contention. They have rallied behind him and he has won reelection handily. For Rangel that was simply testament to the decades of hard work, sacrifice, commitment and his ability to deliver the goods to his Harlem constituents.

Harlem voters that put him back in ignored the cracks, digs and insults that they were willing to turn a blind eye to Rangel’s shady financial dealings and ethics malfeasance, giving him their overwhelming vote confidence by returning him to office. He also benefited from the timeworn inclination of black voters to rally behind a black elected official no matter how bad their behavior if there’s the perception that he or she is the target of malicious and unfair racial persecution. Undoubtedly that feeling was there with many of the voters that backed Rangel.

But that doesn’t wipe the historical slate clean. It certainly didn’t with Powell. He was praised for his prodigious accomplishments and contributions to civil rights and economic justice. Rangel is praised for that too. But like Powell, history will also record that Rangel squandered much of that positive legacy by bending and twisting the rules for his own personal gain. Powell carries that stigma as a part of his legacy. And now sadly so does Charlie Rangel.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: