“Adam was a great man, but he didn’t understand the new Harlem,” Sutton continues. “He went down to Wyatt Tee Walker’s church on 116th Street and condemned Martin Luther King Jr. That’s when I knew he was slipping, ego getting the best of him. We told Charlie to go down to Selma to march. When he came back, we said here’s the man who wears the orange vest of courage, which is what the marchers wore … Adam thought it was all in the bag. How could anyone beat him?”
Dead since 1972, Powell still casts a shadow. Rangel’s office is in the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. In a 1994 primary, Adam Clayton Powell IV, running almost exclusively on his father’s name, held Rangel to a spindly 58 percent. Not that you’ll ever hear Charlie Rangel utter a bad word about Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He says, “I keep the faith, always, baby.”
“I couldn’t take how the Republicans were running things. The House was being destroyed right in front of me. I didn’t want to be part of it.”
Ask Rangel how come it seems like every black politician in New York is another politician’s son or daughter, and he cackles. “I call that the ‘no child left behind’ school of politics … My mother was a seamstress, there was no family business to go into.” So he rolls on, secure in his mottled skin, the self-made wise old head, dean of the delegation. “Talking to Charlie is like getting the lottery numbers early, because if history repeats itself, who’s seen more history than him?” says state assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., one of those politicians’ sons.
Retirement talk aside, Rangel never gets tired of being the congressman from Harlem. “I’ve always lived in Harlem. Never wanted to go anywhere else.” The most cosmopolitan of neighborhood guys (he can be seen cruising down St. Nicholas Avenue at the wheel of his own car, sans a single bling-encrusted bodyguard), Rangel says he’s never wanted any other office. Standing in front of the Capitol Building, he says, “Couldn’t be a senator—going all around the state, talking to farmers, taking pictures with pigs and cows? Forget that.” Likewise, he’s never been tempted to be mayor. “Staten Island? No.”
All this raises the question, if Rangel really is Harlem, and vice versa, what’s he really done for the uptown ville in his long tenure? The answer to this is a matter of perception. During the dope plagues of the seventies and eighties, Rangel was on the front lines of the farkakt war on drugs, chairman of the congressional committee on narcotic abuse. He visited South American countries, made tough-love speeches, set up programs. Yet 125th Street was still overrun by crack. Despite much legislation aimed at job creation, unemployment in his district remained among the highest in the country. After years of talking about upgrading neighborhood schools, now he says he’s “all but given up on public education. I see no relationship between what our kids get in school and the ability to make a life for themselves.”
Detractors—hard to find these days—say Rangel’s legislative activism is really “a cover,” since no one ever solves massive sociological problems like drug use and unemployment. “It’s a failure-proof, no-blame situation for him,” says one close observer. “He can always say, ‘Look, I’m only one guy. What do you expect?’ ” Others disagree. “In Harlem, you’re always going to have your cynics—people who say he’s done nothing, he’s only in it for himself. But that’s wrong,” says Kenny Knuckles, head of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, part of the $500 million infusion of public and private capital that has changed the face of Harlem in the past few years. “Charlie Rangel wrote the empowerment legislation. He made it happen,” says Knuckles.
Argue all you want whether a new condo development on every block, Home Depot, and latter-day white hipsters getting off the A train at 145th rank with Countee Cullen and Minton’s Playhouse when it comes to a Harlem Renaissance. Gentrification is a citywide conundrum. Why should Harlem be any different? There’s some irony that Rangel, a link to an earlier, more flamboyant uptown, will be remembered as a prime mover of this shinier, corporate version. It is a legacy that will no doubt preclude the rise of another Charlie Rangel, the new Harlem figuring to be full of competing power interests, not the sort of place that elects the same guy for 36 years.
Rangel says, “Housing prices are a problem. But better than boarded-up buildings. Everything changes. But Harlem will stay Harlem.”
Rangel’s ardor for his uptown vote bank was on display at a recent holiday turkey giveaway held by the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club. In the interests of decorum, you had to sign up in advance. There was to be no walk-up largesse. Told this, a grizzled man in a Florida Marlins baseball cap and using a golf putter as a cane said, “I can’t have no turkey?” Since he’d lived in Harlem all his life and always voted Democratic, he felt entitled. Hearing Rangel would be there, the man scoffed.