Charles Bernard "Charlie" Rangel (born June 11, 1930) is the U.S. Representative for New York's 15th congressional district, serving since 1971. A member of the Democratic Party, he is the third-longest currently serving member of the House of Representatives. As its most senior member, he is also the Dean of New York's congressional delegation. In January 2007, Rangel became Chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the first African-American to do so. He is also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rangel was born in Harlem in New York City, and had a somewhat troubled childhood.
He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, where he led a group of soldiers out of a deadly Chinese Army encirclement during the Battle of Kunu-ri in 1950. Rangel graduated from New York University in 1957, and St. John's University School of Law in 1960. He then worked as a private lawyer, Assistant U.S. Attorney, and legal counsel during the early-mid 1960s. He served two terms in the New York State Assembly, from 1967 to 1970, and then defeated long-time incumbent Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in a primary challenge on his way to being elected to the House of Representatives.
Once there, Rangel rose rapidly in the Democratic ranks, combining solidly liberal views with a pragmatic approach towards finding political and legislative compromises. His long-time concerns with battling the importation and effects of illegal drugs led to his becoming chair of the House Select Committee on Narcotics, where he helped define national policy on the issue during the 1980s. As one of Harlem's "Gang of Four", he also became a leader in New York City and State politics.
He played a significant role in the creation of the 1995 Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation and the national Empowerment Zone Act, which helped change the economic face of Harlem and other inner-city areas. Rangel is known both for his genial manner, with an ability to win over fellow legislators, and for his blunt speaking; he has long been outspoken about his views, and has been arrested several times as part of political demonstrations. He was an adamant opponent of the George W. Bush administration and of the Iraq War, and put forth proposals to reinstate the draft during the first decade of the 21st century.
Beginning in 2008, Rangel faced a series of allegations of ethics violations and failures to comply with tax laws. The House Ethics Committee focused on whether Rangel improperly rented multiple rent-stabilized New York apartments, improperly used his office in raising money for the Rangel Center at the City College of New York, and failed to disclose rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic.
In March 2010, Rangel stepped aside as Ways and Means Chair. In November 2010, the Ethics Committee found Rangel guilty of 11 counts of violating House ethics rules, and on December 2, the full House approved a sanction of censure against Rangel.
Early life, military service, and education
Rangel was born in Harlem in New York City, the second of three children. His father Ralph Rangel was a frequently absent, unemployed man who was abusive to his wife and who left the family when Charles was six years old. He was raised by his mother Blanche Mary Wharton Rangel, who worked as a maid and as a seamstress in a factory in New York's Garment District, and by his maternal grandfather. Many summers were spent in Accomac, Virginia, where his maternal family had roots.
Charles was brought up as a Roman Catholic.
Rangel did well in elementary and middle school, and began working at a neighborhood drug store at the age of eight. Rangel then attended DeWitt Clinton High School, but was often truant and was sometimes driven home by the police. His maternal grandfather, an early role model who worked in a courthouse and knew many judges and lawyers, kept him from getting into more serious trouble. Rangel dropped out at age 16 during his junior year and worked in various low-paying jobs, including selling shoes.
Rangel then enlisted in the United States Army, and served from 1948 to 1952. During the Korean War, he was an artillery operations specialist in the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion in the 2nd Infantry Division, equipped with the 155 mm Howitzer M1. (While President Harry S. Truman had signed the order to desegregate the military in 1948, little progress in doing so had been made during peacetime, and the large majority of units initially sent to Korea were still segregated.) Rangel's unit arrived in Pusan, South Korea, in August 1950 and then began moving north as U.N. forces advanced deep into North Korea.
In late November 1950, after the Chinese intervention into the war, this unit was caught up in heavy fighting in North Korea as part of the U.N. forces retreat from the Yalu River. In the Battle of Kunu-ri, the 2nd Infantry was assigned to hold a road position near Kunu-ri while the rest of the Eighth Army retreated to Sunchon, 21 miles further south. On the night of November 29, the 2nd Infantry was attacked by gradually encircling forces of the Chinese Army, who set up a fireblock to cut off any U.S. retreat. The eerie blare of Chinese night-fighting bugle calls and communication flares piercing the freezing air led to what Rangel later described as a "waking nightmare, scene by scene, and we couldn't see any possible way out of the situation." During the day of November 30, the order came to withdraw the 2nd Infantry in phases, but the 503rd Artillery Battalion was sixth of eight in the order and could not get out in daylight when air cover was possible.
On the night of November 30, Rangel was part of a retreating vehicle column that was trapped and attacked by Chinese forces. In the subzero cold, Rangel was injured in the back by shrapnel from a Chinese shell. He later wrote that the blast threw him into a ditch and caused him to pray fervently to Jesus. Up and down the line of the retreat, unit cohesion disappeared under attack and officers lost contact with their men. There was screaming and moaning around him and some U.S. soldiers were being taken prisoner, but despite feeling overwhelming fear Rangel resolved to try to escape over an imposing mountain: "From the rim of that gully it just looked like everything had to be better on the other side of that damn mountain."
Others nearby looked to Rangel, who though only a private first class had a reputation for leadership in the unit and had gained the nickname "Sarge". Rangel led some 40 men from his unit over the mountain during the night and out of the Chinese encirclement. Other groups were trying to do the same, but some men dropped from the severe conditions or got lost and were never heard from again. By midday on December 1, U.S. aircraft were dropping supplies and directions to Rangel's group and others, and had a raft ready to take them across the Taedong River; groups from the 503rd Artillery reached Sunchon that afternoon. Overall, no part of the 2nd Infantry suffered as many casualties as the artillery; it tried to save, but eventually lost, all its guns, and nearly half of the battalion was killed in the overall battle.
Rangel was treated first at a field hospital, then moved to a general hospital well behind the lines in South Korea where he recuperated. He eventually returned to regular duty, then was rotated back to the U.S. in July 1951.
Rangel was awarded a Purple Heart for his wounds, the Bronze Star with Valor for his actions in the face of death, and three battle stars. His Army unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation. In 2000, Rangel reflected to CBS News that
"Since Kunu Ri – and I mean it with all my heart, I have never, never had a bad day."
After an honorable discharge from the Army in 1952 with the rank of staff sergeant, he returned home to headlines in The New York Amsterdam News. Rangel later viewed his time in the Army, away from the poverty of his youth, as a major turning point in his life: "When I was exposed to a different life, even if that life was just the Army, I knew damn well I couldn't get back to the same life I had left."
Rangel finished high school, completing two years of studies in one year and graduating in 1953. Rangel then received a Bachelor of Science degree from the New York University School of Commerce in 1957, where he made the dean's list. Then, on full scholarship, he obtained his law degree from the St. John's University School of Law in 1960.
Rangel is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He is also a member of the fraternity's World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand Alpha Phi Alpha's involvement in politics and social and current policy to encompass international concerns.
U.S. House of Representatives
As of 2011, Rangel is the third-longest currently serving House member, behind only John Dingell and John Conyers.
The strongest electoral challenge to Rangel came during his first re-election bid, in 1972, when he faced a Democratic primary challenge from HARYOU-ACT director Livingston Wingate, who had the backing of the old Powell organization and the Congress of Racial Equality, a black nationalist group that Rangel publicly denounced. Rangel had the backing of the other Democratic power bases, however, and won the primary by a 3–to–1 margin and the general election easily.
Rangel has won re-election every two years since, usually with over 90 percent of the vote and often with over 95 percent. In a number of elections, Rangel has received the backing of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Liberal Party of New York. Rangel's consistent appeal to his constituents has been due to the perception of him as a champion for justice not just in Harlem but around the world. He did face another primary challenge in 1994, when two-term New York City Councilman Adam Clayton Powell IV ran and held Rangel to 58 percent of the vote. Adam Clayton Powell IV would again challenge him, as did several others, in 2010 during Rangel's ethics troubles.
His district was numbered the Eighteenth District from 1971 to 1973; the Nineteenth District from 1973 to 1983; and the Sixteenth District from 1983 to 1993. Presently numbered the Fifteenth, it is the smallest in the country in geographic size, encompassing Upper Manhattan and including such neighborhoods as Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, Morningside Heights, and part of the Upper West Side, as well as a small portion of Queens in the neighborhood of Astoria. Early 1970s reapportionment led to the district being only 65 percent black, and by 1979 it was 50 percent black, 30 percent white, and 20 percent Puerto Rican. By 2000, only 3 in 10 district residents were black, while nearly half were Hispanic, with many of the newcomers Dominican.
Rangel was an original member when the Congressional Black Caucus was formed in 1971. In 1974 he was elected its chairman and he served in that role until 1976. He has remained a member of the caucus ever since.
Rangel is known as an energetic, genial, and sociable politician, one who is able to gain friendship and influence by means of charm, humor, and candor. He is called "Charlie" by everyone in Congress, from the highest-ranking members to the custodial employees. Of his political skills, 1980s Ways and Means chair Dan Rostenkowski said, "Charlie has the gifted knack of getting you to change your position, and you actually enjoy doing it. Compromising isn't so unusual in Congress. Enjoying it is." The New York congressman's ability to use humor to catch others off guard before making a political point has been called "Rangeling" by lobbyists and others on Capitol Hill. Many of his closest friends and allies in Congress have not been other African Americans, but white representatives from working class or rural districts; O'Neill aide Chris Matthews said these members were "tied emotionally and culturally to the people they represent."
Rangel has been described as having a meticulous appearance. Long-time mentor Percy Sutton recalled, “In the beginning I called him Pretty Boy Rangel, to denigrate him, because he was one of those handsome types, hair pushed down and that mustache. But he had a way about him, with that great humor, an ability to influence people.” Later, The New York Times described him thusly: "After three decades in public life, the portly, gravel-voiced Mr. Rangel, who is very much the Old World-style gentleman yet sprinkles his sentences with mild profanity, still takes politics personally." In contrast, Rangel and his office have long been disorganized, with criticism even from supporters for taking on more things than he can keep track of. The congressman's life has been dominated by politics, with no hobbies and few friendships outside of it. Loyalties to Rangel were severely tested during the height of the ethics investigations of him, when a number of political figures bailed out on a lavish 80th birthday gala planned for Rangel at New York's Plaza Hotel.
Rangel is known for his blunt speaking and candor, which are rarely meant to be taken personally. This tendency has grown as he has gotten older and less bothered by what others think of him. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he said, "Well, as Rhett Butler once said in Gone With the Wind, if I'm gone, quite frankly, I don't give a damn." In any case, he has fairly often made controversial remarks.
Some have been linked to his caustic criticism of the Bush administration during the decade of the 2000s. For instance, his frustration over the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina led him to compare, in September 2005, Bush to a 1960s symbol of white opposition to the African-American civil rights movement, stating: "George Bush is our Bull Connor." (Rangel's comparison was still being cited by political commentators several years later as an example of incendiary rhetoric.This led at the time to a public exchange of unpleasantries with Vice President Dick Cheney, who said, "I'm frankly surprised at his comments. It almost struck me — they were so out of line, it almost struck me that there was some — Charlie was having some problem. Charlie is losing it, I guess." Rangel responded by saying, "The fact that he would make a crack at my age, he ought to be ashamed of himself ... He should look so good at seventy-five." Rangel again expressed his displeasure with the vice president in October 2006 – after Cheney had said that "Charlie doesn't understand how the economy works" – by opining that Cheney is "a real son of a bitch" who "enjoys a confrontation", and suggesting that Cheney required professional treatment for mental defects. The White House said that the vice president did not take Rangel's comments personally and had a "big hearty laugh" over them.
Rangel could sometimes find the other side; following the 2006 Hugo Chávez speech at the United Nations in which the Venezuelan leader implied that Bush was the devil, Rangel said, "I want President Chávez to please understand that even though many people in the United States are critical of our president that we resent the fact that he would come to the United States and criticize President Bush ... you don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and you don't condemn my president."
Other remarks of Rangel's have revolved around Rangel's feelings about his home state and city, such as disparaging the state of Mississippi or suggesting that President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama might be unsafe if they visited New York. In both cases, apologies from the congressman followed. And some have just compounded problems that Rangel already had, such as remarks after his ethics issues had started coming to light about Governor of Alaska and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin being "disabled" that were seen by some as insensitive in light of her family or as evidence that Rangel was out of control.
Awards and honors
Rangel was given the Jackie Robinson Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. In 2006, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the Washington International Trade Association.
Rangel has received a number of honorary degrees, including ones from Hofstra University (1989), Syracuse University (2001), Suffolk University Law School (2002), and Bard College (2008). In 2006 he received a Presidential Medal from Baruch College.
December 30th, 2011