By Larry Margasak
WASHINGTON – Just about everyone likes Charlie Rangel.
Republicans pump his hand, Democrats put their arms around his shoulders and women of all political persuasions give him pecks on the cheek.
Spend some time with the 80-year-old congressman from New York City who’s been striding the Capitol’s halls for four decades on behalf of residents of Harlem, and there’s little evidence he’s become someone to avoid because of an ethics cloud that’s more likely than not going to darken in days to come.
Colleagues in both parties still gravitate to the gravelly voiced, outgoing, backslapping Rangel four months after fellow Democrats persuaded — and Republicans hounded — him to relinquish one of the most powerful jobs in Washington, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
“Amiga,” he shouts in the Capitol subway to Cuban-born, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, using the Spanish word for female friend.
“Amigo,” she belts out in return.
“Hey Ritchie,” Rangel booms as he passes Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who’s seen by many as a Ways and Means chairman in the future.
Behind the scenes, it’s a different story. A few Democrats have returned money that Rangel raised for them. His influence is sapped.
His wife, Alma, warns him not to be naive about the glad-handling.
“You know,” she tells him, “they’re putting you on.”
How did it come to this?
Rangel follows in a tradition of Ways and Means chairmen such as Reps. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., and Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., who waited decades to become congressional titans, then lost that perch through ethical lapses.
“Some members are old school,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel and a defense lawyer for many politicians in trouble. “As they rise in seniority … they think less about (rules) changes that occur under their nose.”
Rangel lost his post because his conduct gave Republicans an ethics issue that’s ripe for exploitation, just as Democrats in 2006 and 2008 successfully seized on GOP ethical lapses.
Nervous about losing House seats this year, Democrats persuaded Rangel to step down after the House ethics committee concluded in February in a relatively minor case that Rangel violated the chamber’s rules on gifts. The committee said Rangel should have known that corporate money paid for two trips to Caribbean conferences. Rangel insists he didn’t know. There was no punishment.
More ominous is an investigation into activities far more likely to touch the nerve of voters: Rangel’s failure to pay taxes on income from a Dominican Republic vacation villa; his rent-subsidized apartments in New York; using official stationery to raise money for a college center bearing his name; and his belated disclosure of assets revealing he was far richer than people thought.
Rangel joined the Ways and Means Committee in 1974 and ascended to chairman more than three decades later. He says the pain of having his integrity questioned is terrible, but he tries hard not to show it.
He dresses immaculately, his gray hair neatly combed back, the color matching his mustache, and his pocket handkerchief matching his suit. He walks with a spry step.
He remains a workaholic, sometimes forgetting breakfast even though he scoops oatmeal into a cardboard cup at a House cafeteria each morning and carries it back to the office. Some busy days, he warms it in the microwave for lunch.
“There’s been a force out there. People feel they have to say something supportive,” Rangel says as he walks through the Capitol’s underground subway.
“She says it’s unseemly,” Rangel says of his wife’s advice. “I say, ‘Suppose it’s not real. As long as they keep saying these things until I die, what difference does it make?'”
But he admits, “It’s still painful. It’s times like this when I have to reinforce the facts: I’m alive, I’m well, and 60 years ago I could have died when I was surrounded by hundreds of Chinese” in the Korean War.
Rangel came back from that war a Harlem hero with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He says he’s constantly measuring his current troubles against the 20-degree below zero days of Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, 1950, when he was wounded, but survived while fellow soldiers died all around him.
He always falls back on the title of his autobiographical book, which comes from his wartime experience: “And I Haven’t Had A Bad Day Since.”
Long before he was chairman, Rangel took care of his Harlem constituents, many of them poor. He sponsored empowerment zones with tax credits for businesses moving into economically depressed areas and developers of low income housing.
As chairman, he pushed bills with tax relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina, tax breaks for small business and stronger environmental and labor rules in trade agreements, tax rebates for consumers and an increase in the minimum wage. He was a major player in passage of President Barack Obama’s $862 billion stimulus program, one-third of it tax cuts.
But Rangel lacked the power of some of his predecessors.
He was a longtime advocate of health care reform, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., passed him over for guiding Obama’s overhaul to passage. An important part of the House’s climate change legislation was given to another committee, when it could have gone primarily to Ways and Means.
House leaders forced him to reverse himself and manage a bill to tax away Wall Street bonuses after he told reporters that would be a misuse of tax law.
Leadership aides said those decisions were part of the strategy to pass important legislation and didn’t represent a loss of confidence in Rangel. Other committee lawmakers, however, believe Rangel was hobbled by his ethics problems — and these decisions reflected that view.
Says Rangel: “There’s no way I could have taken it personally. The speaker is more hands on in committee work than before.”
But, chatting outside a House elevator, he recalls how things used to be, how the legendary Rostenkowski, who ran the committee from 1981 to 1994, would never have stood for a loss of power. When Rangel was given a leadership post of deputy whip, Rostenkowski asked him whether he was loyal to the committee or the leadership.
“You can’t do both,” Rangel said he was warned.
In 1970 Rangel upset a Harlem legend, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. — a pastor, civil rights leader and a man known for his womanizing and his absence from his district.
This year, Rangel announced his re-election bid days before his birthday. One of his primary opponents is a son of Powell, Adam Clayton Powell IV.
In Harlem, Rangel ruled as one of the Gang of Four — African-American politicians who achieved top political posts: David Dinkins, a one-time New York mayor; Basil Paterson, who rose to deputy mayor and New York secretary of state; and the late Percy Sutton, Manhattan Borough president.
He marched with Martin Luther King. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
At a meeting of New York political leaders after the February ethics report, Dinkins spoke about his friend.
“Mayor Dinkins was very emotional,” recalled Lloyd Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. “He said if not for Charlie Rangel, there would not have been a Mayor Dinkins.”
Dinkins declined in an interview to talk about Rangel’s troubles. “He is my brother, my friend. My interest is in his welfare,” he said.
Williams momentarily seemed worried about Rangel’s future.
“I fear these mistakes will become too much of his legacy,” he said.
Quickly, he switched to a more optimistic tone. “When the venom is out of the air, Charlie will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary political leaders in the history of this country.”