Charlie in a Cage

Illustration by Darrow

C harlie Rangel is on a hot streak. In September, boiling at the federal abandonment of predominantly black New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina, Rangel blasted President George W. Bush as “our Bull Connor”—hyperbole verging on hysteria, but at least it was emotionally satisfying, and it came from Rangel’s heart. Then, a month later, he ripped Dick Cheney, saying, “I would like to believe he’s sick rather than just mean and evil.” The vice-president came out of hiding just long enough to suggest that the 75-year-old Rangel is getting senile.

Now the seventeen-term congressman is strafing his own team. Last week, Rangel repeatedly mocked Eliot Spitzer because the prohibitive favorite in the 2006 governor’s race had dared to choose a black running mate, State Senator David Paterson, without consulting Rangel, who months ago announced he was endorsing a black lawyer from Buffalo, Leecia Eve, for lieutenant governor.

The attack on Spitzer, a fellow Democrat, was enough to make you think Cheney might be right about Rangel. Well, almost enough. What the latest outburst surely did was raise a question: Does Charlie Rangel know when to shut up?

Rangel is a man of substance, a Korean War vet and an anti-poverty pioneer. He’s also, increasingly, the unleashed id of New York politics, a welcome antidote to our other cautious and calculating electeds. After days of sarcastically flaying Spitzer as “the world’s smartest man,” Rangel tries to claim he isn’t angry. Tell him that sounds ridiculous and Rangel responds slyly, “Hey, compared to the things I can say, that was no big deal.”

Spitzer’s campaign has seemed surprisingly rattled by the challenge of Long Island’s Tom Suozzi. Choosing Paterson is an attempt to seal up the city’s black vote in a Democratic primary against Suozzi, but its messy unveiling came across as an unforced error, and a gratuitous humiliation of Eve. Yet Spitzer can’t be completely unhappy that he’s annoyed Rangel, if it reinforces Spitzer’s reputation as a man willing to take on the entrenched.

For Rangel, the episode isn’t really about Spitzer and Paterson anyway. Two other forces are driving his dyspepsia. The first is that after years of media mythology about a political “New Guard” rising in Harlem, shifting class and racial demographics are creating multiple New Guards. One significant group is composed of politicians who’ve either come up through the Democratic Party ranks or were born into the game (or, like David Paterson, both), yet don’t completely owe their political lives to clubhouse lions Rangel, David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, and Basil Paterson. This New Old Guard includes people like Melissa Mark Viverito, a 36-year-old Puerto Rico–born union organizer who was elected to East Harlem’s City Council seat in November.

The larger threat to Rangel & Co. comes from people like Clyde Williams—the New New Guard. When the first black president, Bill Clinton, moved to 125th Street, Williams came along as domestic-policy adviser. Williams, 43, is now an operative at John Podesta’s new-Democrat think tank. “We’re among the people who, in the past decade, made a conscious decision to live in Harlem,” Williams says. “We’re looking for something different politically, not the conventional wisdom.” Williams and a handful of friends run a political-discussion series that attracts hundreds of Harlem residents. Rangel has appeared before the strenuously nameless group. But so has Michael Bloomberg, in the middle of the 2005 mayor’s race. Doctrinaire Harlem Democrats assailed Williams for inviting the Republican mayor. “We offered Freddy Ferrer the opportunity to come speak,” Williams says. “We don’t care about party affiliation. Who’s gonna take care of my needs?—that’s the dynamic.”

After years of media mythology about a political “New Guard” in Harlem, multiple New Guards are now arising.

Williams has been employed in politics much of his adult life, as have some of the other important New New Guard players, like Larry Scott Blackmon, Kevin Wardally, and Terence Tolbert. Yet the majority of people in Williams’s growing Harlem political circle have no interest in running for office, and many are transplants from other boroughs and other states. They’re lawyers and real-estate developers and Wall Streeters. They’re writing checks to politicians, and they don’t think in clubhouse patterns. Ask Williams what he makes of the Spitzer-Paterson-Rangel-Eve blowup, and he answers obliquely but tellingly. “It’s as if certain people want you to make a choice between Senator Paterson and Leecia Eve,” he says. “The days where you can only have one African-American candidate are gone.” Contrast that independent thinking with Rangel’s explanation of why he was upset with Spitzer for picking Paterson: “We already had a candidate.” We means the Old Guard gang of four. The gang Spitzer is betting he can win without.

A second drama underlies Rangel’s recent outbursts. When the Republicans grabbed control of Congress in 1994, they dashed Rangel’s two-decade dream of becoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was within nameplate-engraving distance of becoming the most powerful black elected official in American history, and for the past twelve years, Rangel has lived with that bitter disappointment. Then the hope of another career-capping post, a Gore-administration ambassadorship in some cozy Caribbean nation, was snatched away. The decline in Rangel’s relevance in Congress coincided with his ballyhooed role in creating Senator Hillary—an intersection of impotence and kingmaking that must gnaw at Rangel.

Thanks to Iraq and Abramoff, the Democrats have an unexpected, and slim, hope of retaking the House this fall. The prospect of having one last shot at Ways and Means is so tantalizing that it’s helping stoke Rangel’s agitation. And the predicament would make Rangel a purely sympathetic character, if he weren’t lashing out at fellow Democrats.

“In a couple of weeks, this won’t even show up on the radar screen,” Rangel says of the spat over David Paterson. He’s right. But that comment is another indication of what’s dispiriting about the twilight of Rangel. The man has done great good in his career. Now he’s been eclipsed in Washington, in legislative creativity and career potential, by newbies like Barack Obama and Harold Ford Jr. So Rangel expends tremendous energy on maneuvering and posturing. This is the Rangel who showed up at City Hall in October, the star attraction at a Bloomberg press conference hyping a new minority construction-job initiative—and diluted some rare, desperately needed momentum for Ferrer, who was flogging Bloomberg for ducking the Apollo Theater debate. That day, Rangel attributed his appearance to statesmanship; he didn’t need to state the obvious, that Bloomberg was a lock to win reelection. But if the Democrats somehow retake the House in November, it would be a double boon to New York: Ways and Means chairman Rangel would send us plenty of pork. And he’d finally be fully occupied again in D.C.


Charlie in a Cage