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Chairman of the Money


“Hey, Charlie, just don’t let the door hit him on the way out,” says a woman on the elevator. The fact that she’s a Republican bears out Rangel’s contention that many in Congress, conservatives included, are pleased autocrats like DeLay are gone, that people are sick of thinking of the opposing party as mortal enemies.

“You’ll see,” Rangel says, turning to the woman. “I’ll be nicer than you’d think.”

As far as Rangel’s concerned, the restoration of civility is part of his job as chairman. “Most of the younger people in Congress have never experienced working in a bipartisan way,” he says. Just the night before, he attended a party for Nancy Johnson, one of the five Ways and Means Republicans who lost in the election. Clearly touched, Johnson said, “One of the worst things about losing is not getting the chance to work with you.”

Rangel allowed himself “a period of gloating,” centered on a plan to “repossess” an office that had been loaned to Dick Cheney. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Mr. Congeniality stuff aside, the Hill is abuzz as to what Rangel will do as chairman. Far more of a policy wonk than most suspect, often burning the midnight oil studying arcane trade packages, Rangel can be expected to fight off any dead-ender Republican action on Social Security privatization. He will also push for a repeal of Bush’s tax cuts. Asked if he thought any of the cuts deserved to be renewed, Rangel said, “I can’t think of one.” This doesn’t mean the business community sees no silver lining in Rangel’s rise. A recent story in The Weekly Standard, “Harlem Globetrotter,” detailed Rangel’s fondness for free trade, making the case for him as a “pragmatist,” a “deal-maker,” and potential closet globalizer.

What being chairman will do to Charlie Rangel is something else again. People talk about how he’d better watch his back, that Cheney and henchmen like Alberto Gonzalez are likely doing a fine-tooth job to see what dirt they can find on him. “Let them look,” Rangel says. In 1999, New York State attorney general Dennis Vacco charged Rangel and old pal Percy Sutton with financial malfeasance and mismanagement of the Apollo Theatre. Vacco’s successor, Eliot Spitzer, exonerated Rangel, with the proviso he remove himself from the board of the Harlem landmark. This aside, few accuse Rangel of being in it for the money. Rangel’s more concerned about “my routine.” Known to run his office like a fifties City Council member, Rangel says he’ll be a little less hands-on. “Someone else will have to return all these calls.”

Job one is filling the committee with people he likes—i.e., as many New Yorkers as possible. “I’ll try this on an equity basis,” he tells some power trader on the phone. “If not, I’ll make it happen politically.” In other words, down in the trenches. Whatever, it works. Rangel got Queens County leader Joe Crowley on the committee, the guy he wanted all along.

A chairman has to multitask, Rangel explains. To wit: He begins telling a story about how he was working in his office one night when Jorge Mas Canosa, leader of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, showed up unannounced. Mas Canosa told Rangel it might be healthier if he gave up his opposition to the Cuban embargo. “What are you implying?” Rangel wanted to know.

Rangel is interrupted in mid-story. Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sánchez has arrived.

“Mr. President!” Rangel shouts, greeting Arias and his ministers. A far-reaching discussion of U.S.–Costa Rica economic relations ensues, including much talk about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Rangel voted against. A half-hour later, after calling Rangel “one of the most powerful people on the globe,” Arias leaves. He’s barely out the door when Rangel picks up the Mas Canosa story exactly where he stopped.

However it goes on Ways and Means, depend on Rangel to be in charge. Case in point was a recent Capitol Hill breakfast for the New York congressional delegation with then Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer. Chuck Schumer was extolling Rangel as “a straight shooter,” saying how proud everyone was that “Charlie had finally reached the promised land,” when Rangel, impatient to start the meeting, let forth with an eardrum-rattling whistle. “Now,” he shouted, in Sergeant Rangel mode.

“He also can whistle really loud,” Schumer added, skulking off to his seat.

Rangel’s last hearing in the minority—on Medicare payments for “end-stage renal disease”—goes off without incident. Acknowledging that it’s outgoing chairman Thomas’s birthday that very day, Rangel says he wants the record to show that “regardless of what many may think,” he has “never had an unpleasant conversation with Bill Thomas, outside this room.” That about covers it.

Later, Rangel is still in the now-empty 1100 Longworth. It is a large, impressive room hung with portraits of former Ways and Means chairmen. Some, like Wilbur Mills (1957–1974) and Dan Rostenkowski (1981–1994), served a long time, then went down in flames. Others like Harold Knutson, Republican of Minnesota (1948–1949), are largely forgotten. James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley became president. Now the portrait of Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, will join them.


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