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Chairman of the Money

Charlie Rangel has waited all his life to hold America’s purse strings. Now everyone is waiting on him.

When Charlie Rangel, DeWitt Clinton High School dropout, first became a congressman from Harlem in 1971, beating the iconic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. by 150 votes, he would drive to Washington from his home on 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue in a beat-up Buick. “It was cheaper,” says Rangel in his quarry-pit voice. But mostly Rangel has flown the shuttle. Figuring how many times he’d made the trip, Rangel said multiply 36 (the years he’s been in office) times 52 times 2 (round-trips per week). From that, subtract the time Congress wasn’t in session. Still, it’s a lot of flights. But never had Dan Rather risen from his window seat to greet him.

“Mr. Chairman,” Rather said, with a slight nod of the head.

This is how it is for Charlie Rangel post-11/7, since the Democrats won Congress and the 76-year-old Harlem rep became the chairman-to-be of the House Ways and Means Committee, a body usually prefixed by the adjective powerful. Delineated in the Constitution, Congress has the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts”—i.e., Ways and Means is where the deals are cut on taxes, borrowing funds, Social Security, and control of trade and tariff legislation.

In other words, Rangel rasps, “the money.”

The Chairman of the Money tends to be a popular guy. Then again, Charlie Rangel has always been popular in Harlem, where many residents have never known another congressman. What is now called the Fifteenth District has been represented by exactly two men since 1945—Rangel and Powell. Asked if this was democracy, two guys in 62 years, Rangel honks, “The people know what they want.” Rangel has been reelected seventeen times, usually with more than 90 percent of the vote. Since “the chairmanship,” however, on One-Two-Five Street and up in Dominican Washington Heights (Hispanics make up 46 percent of the district now), wherever Charlie shows up, silvery hair swept back, iris shock tie and pocket handkerchief matched up just right, he is shown an extra helping of love.

“People come up to me saying, ‘We did it, we finally made it,'” reports Rangel, who’s been on Ways and Means since 1975, the last ten excruciating years as ranking member of the minority Democrats. “It’s like the whole neighborhood’s moving up.”

Ride with Rangel for a few days and congratulations come from every angle. They’re lining up to kiss the outsize green opal ring on his finger. One minute State Assembly strongman Shelly Silver is calling him “my great friend, one of our own … whom we can trust to do the right thing.” Then Mickey Kantor, former U.S. trade representative, is on the phone. Congrats on the chairmanship, says Cantor, and, by the way, maybe Rangel might want to talk a bit about U.S.-China trade relations? Mary Landrieu, senator from Louisiana, adds her good wishes, but what about that offshore-drilling bill?

And here comes Hillary, charging down the buffed hallways of the Capitol Building, with a hearty “Mr. Chairman!” Just the other day, Rangel ate breakfast with the senator in Harlem. Rangel figures he’ll overlook Hillary’s early pro-war stance. “If I swallowed John Kerry, I can swallow that,” he says. Rangel (who told Barack Obama to “go for it if you want; if you don’t, you’ll wind up hating yourself”) doesn’t think Rudy’s running (“He’s just building up his billings”) but hopes he does because “it’ll be fun, kicking the crap out of him.”

The whiplash over the power shift from lily-white Houston boardrooms to Sugar Hill has only begun. The other day, men from Pfizer dropped by Rangel’s 125th Street office. “He just wanted to say hello,” Rangel recounts. As for those nasty details about drug pricing (“gouging,” Rangel calls it) and exactly how the new chairman—a harsh critic of the status quo “health-care disaster”—was likely to view the role of big-time pharmaceutical companies, well, that was another conversation.

“I’ve got so many new friends these days,” Rangel says with mock amazement.

Rangel’s new status was clear enough during the recent dustup over the draft. Appearing on Face the Nation, Rangel kept to less-sexy Ways and Means issues, like the alternative minimum tax currently draining middle-class 1040s. As Charlie Rangel performances go, it was fairly uneventful. At no time did Rangel call Dick Cheney “a son of a bitch” or suggest the vice-president check into “rehab [to deal with] whatever personality deficit he may have suffered.” Nor did Rangel, as he did following Hurricane Katrina, refer to George W. Bush as “our Bull Connor,” a man who “shattered the myth of white supremacy once and for all.” Then host Bob Schieffer asked Rangel if he still believed in reinstating the draft.