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Knocking on Harlem's Door

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The Old Guard, Rangel, today.  

Rangel soon won public office himself, and as a state assemblyman in the mid-sixties, he became a favorite of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In late 1969, Rockefeller asked Rangel to go to Bimini and see if Powell could be coaxed out of his self-imposed exile—Rockefeller thought it would help him with the black vote. Powell, suspicious, kept Rangel waiting. When he finally sat down to talk, it was in a dim bar, the congressman surrounded by island pals and ordering up rounds of drinks. Rangel has always claimed he went to Bimini with no notion of running against Powell, but as the awkward conversation wound down and it became clear Powell had little interest in returning to Harlem and Washington full-time, Rangel warned that he might become one of the candidates challenging the incumbent. “Do what you have to do, baby,” Powell replied, patting Rangel on the cheek patronizingly. Then he left, sticking Rangel with the bar tab.

One year later, Rangel defeated Powell in the Democratic primary by just 150 votes. Much of the margin came from the white West Side segment of the district.

The Harlem that first elected Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the mid-forties was a destination. It was the Harlem of W.E.B. DuBois, Roy Wilkins, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and Langston Hughes, where money flowed in after World War II and a new freedom was in the air, with the desire for real equality close behind it. Powell was a perfect expression of the neighborhood’s exuberance and restlessness, leading brave boycotts and picket lines that broke employment color lines from department stores to Con Ed.

Rangel, as a neophyte congressman, represented the seventies Harlem of James Brown and Frank Lucas, an increasingly poor and tense neighborhood that was shedding its middle class as it slid from the preeminent black enclave to an impoverished center of urban ills. Rangel’s task has been much different from Powell’s. So has his style. “Adam didn’t have any friends. He had a whole lot of followers that loved him,” Rangel says, in his deliciously rascally voice. “When I got to Washington, I found out that he acted like he was a very lonely man. After the receptions, he would stay at one place on Logan Square, he would listen to music, he would prepare for his sermons. And when he wasn’t alone, he was with tens of thousands of people.”

Rangel is plenty blunt: “I don’t see why Richard Blumenthal’s campaign and his political career isn’t just deep-sixed,” he tells me after the Connecticut Democrat was caught inflating his military record. “It seems to me he would be cooked meat.” He’s also taken plenty of moral stands, on everything from apartheid to the draft. But he became a leader in Washington by pragmatically making friends on both sides of the aisle, building consensus and coalitions while accumulating seniority and moving up the ladder, slowly. “Charlie wanted to live in Congress,” says Bill Lynch, the Harlem political consultant who helped elect David Dinkins mayor and has long advised Rangel. “He understood that whole process down there, the horse-trading that went on down there, the backslapping—he was the best at it. He loved it. We used to go off to the fat farms of Pritikin together, and I thought we’d sit by the pool—but the whole time he was on the phone to his office.”

Powell carried with him the overtones of the civil-rights struggle and, for all his insider connections, a countercultural image. Rangel was from the start a power player, and his tactical sense fit perfectly with the changing times and a changing Harlem. Sutton proved the ideal partner, analyzing every possible angle and making sure the Harlem machine assembled a deep and loyal roster of county committeemen, district leaders, and community-board members.

Together with David Dinkins, then the city clerk, and Basil Paterson, a Hugh Carey–era New York secretary of State, they became known as the “Gang of Four,” a quartet that gave black New Yorkers a louder voice in public-policy issues and a larger share of the patronage pie. Whatever its flaws—millions of public dollars were sunk into a Sutton-Rangel deal to prop up the Apollo Theater—the gang’s tactics brought real rewards. Rangel, in the mid-nineties, spearheaded legislation to create the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, steering $300 million in public development funds to the neighborhood. “There had been so many cycles of growth in the city, and they all passed Harlem by, because there was no way for an outsider to come in and do business in Harlem without having to deal with a lot of gatekeepers,” says Ester Fuchs, a Columbia University professor of public affairs who helped write the original empowerment-zone proposal. “The zone became an alternative way to invest in Harlem. Residents were desperate for retail, and it supported small businesses like Amy Ruth’s and big things like Harlem USA and Target. It’s a huge part of Charlie’s legacy.”


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