Friday, December 15, 2006

Ways & Means

Date: Fri, 15 Dec 2006 18:07:22 -0800 (PST)
From: "Johnny Cecilio Rivera"
Subject: Profile of Congressman Rangel
To: "Jordi Reyes-Montblanc"

I thought you may enjoy this profile of Congressman Rangel which appeared in the Washington Post's Style Section.

Ways & Means
After 35 Years in the House, Charlie Rangel Has the Power. But There Are Still Taxing Times Ahead for the Man From Harlem.

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006; C01

Back then, on the streets of Harlem, he'd take a full swing at his foes. He was a high school dropout, a dead-end kid until he picked himself up and put on that military uniform. In the Korean War he fought like hell, brought back a couple of medals, too.

After he came home, he set himself on a course straight as a ruler: college, law school, assistant U.S. attorney, politics.

Charlie Rangel is 76 now and the dean of New York's congressional delegation. It's been more than 50 years since those days as a street fighter, but this fall's campaigns brought them back in a hurry.

"The American people don't trust Charlie Rangel and his tax-happy Democrat friends because they know Democrats will work overtime to raise their taxes," is how Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) put it.

President Bush told a Florida crowd that Rangel had said "he couldn't think of one of our tax cuts he would extend."

While the leaves were falling, and the air growing crisp, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel were being portrayed as a kind of boogeyman and boogeywoman tag team.

Then Vice President Cheney chimed in.

"Charlie doesn't understand how the economy works," Cheney told Fox News Channel a week before the election.

That sent the Harlem in Charlie Rangel into the stratosphere. He wanted to punch someone. He told a reporter for the New York Post that Cheney was "a real son of a bitch."

"I actually worried about him," says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), referring to Rangel being under siege and his exhaustive campaigning.

Rangel would go home to his wife, Alma, and sigh: Lord have mercy.

"I just didn't know which direction the country was going," Rangel says of his feelings.
The funerals he attended in Harlem for troops killed in Iraq pained him. He pondered leaving the House if the Democrats didn't win.

But they did win. And victory has spoils. When the sun rose the day after Election Day, Charlie Rangel -- the boogeyman -- was the presumptive chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"In the highest chambers of the U.S. government," Rangel beams, "they cannot exclude me. Got damn!"

"He'll be dealing with issues that affect every single American," says Cummings. "Social Security, Medicare, trade with foreign countries. And taxes."

So Charles Bernard Rangel is, among other things, the tax man.

And now, the tax man cometh.

Going Up

This is a town where power is a magical elixir, the potion that erases age. The old are not old and the young are not young. They are -- given the right turn of events, the good fortune to be named chairman of this or that committee -- just powerful.

And yet so numerous are the faces of black legislators on Capitol Hill that it might not be immediately obvious: When Rangel assumes chairmanship of Ways and Means in January, he will be the most powerful black legislator ever.

"We had Bill Gray, first black chair of the House Budget Committee," says Cummings. "But Ways and Means is far above that. Charlie's being elevated adds another dimension to the happiness of the Congressional Black Caucus -- and the Democratic Party. But it's not a black thing with Charlie. It's a red, white and blue thing."

Since election night, the congratulatory messages have been plentiful.

"People say to me: 'You've waited long enough!' As if this job was just about waiting on the chair. It wasn't."

He goes on, explaining why he stayed: "It was the frustration built up over this immoral war, the tax deals geared toward the rich, Hurricane Katrina. I had that nightmare that somebody -- God -- would ask me: 'Well, Rangel, what did you do about it?' And at 76 all I would be able to say was 'I left'?"

The Road Ahead

Rangel has just come from yet another meeting. Walking into his office in the Rayburn Building, he finds messages stacked up like a deck of cards. CEOs are vying to get on his appointment schedule. Annie Minguez, an office assistant, riffles through the messages with the chairman-to-be.

"I wanna call everybody back," he instructs.

His voice is deep and raspy, his hair gray and black, wavy and elegant.

The office is decorated with African art. There's a picture of a bronze-colored soldier in the Korean War -- thin mustache, soft smile, Harlem cool: Charlie Rangel.

There's another picture of him with three friends from the 1970s -- Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson and David Dinkins, all Manhattan power brokers at one time or another -- strolling down a Harlem street on thin legs. It's a black-and-white photo and they look like a jazz quartet on their way to a gig.

The new gig isn't going to be easy. All these newly elected Democrats, the men and women who brought Rangel his chairmanship, don't necessarily agree with him.

Rangel realizes it will be up to him, Steny Hoyer, the next majority leader, and Pelosi, the next speaker, to keep the Democratic troops together. "They're not from the San Francisco City Hall of Democrats," Rangel acknowledges. "These are moderate, and maybe conservative, Democrats."

In the old days the chairmen of House committees were referred to as "barons." The power was just that epic. Which remains part of Rangel's joy -- and potential pain -- as he prepares for his new powers.

"One of my biggest jobs," he says, "is to convince Democrats that it's not in our best interests to get even if we want to get something done." He adds: "I'm convinced the Republican losses wasn't because of this country's love of Democrats. It was the frustration with the war, with Katrina, with corruption. Now, we got a two-year window."

Social Security and Medicare are but two of the issues that will be on the agenda. "If we drive a program that improves the condition for America, I refuse to believe that is 'liberal.' Poverty and a lack of education is a threat to our national security."

There will be no time for revenge. But he hasn't forgotten.

"I wanna make certain you know how mean they were!"

He's talking about Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the outgoing chair of Ways and Means. "The whole idea of legislating, of having the right to fight, was taken away," he says. "Tom DeLay and Bill Thomas were completely excluding Democrats from legislating. I'd have these photo ops -- which was the only time I'd get invited over to hear Thomas."
He can't quite stop himself now. His Harlem is up.

"They sent messages to their own senior members that they would not become chairman unless they were in lock step with their right-wing agenda. Many of my GOP friends didn't receive chairmanships because they were not in lock step with the right wing. Even tax bills that we Democrats supported, the GOP would put a poison pill in there and say, 'Go out and say the Democrats voted no.' "

He's hunched over his desk.

The power of a baron -- and yet, with a Republican in the White House, he's got to wield it like a ballet dancer.

"Fortunately, my age and seniority wouldn't allow me to wait till 2008 before I can become a real legislator. Everything we do, people are watching and looking toward 2008. That's why I hope we can be productive. That's the carrot I've been giving the administration."

He goes on: "Before the vice president took me on, most people didn't know who the hell Charlie Rangel was."

Which is not quite accurate.

Man of the House

Harlem, that historic neighborhood on Manhattan island, has given the world so many figures who became symbols: Father Divine and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., James Baldwin and James Weldon Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Countee Cullen.

It's both a community and a state of mind. But just as Los Angeles is no longer the city of "Chinatown," Harlem isn't the Harlem of the Cotton Club. Huge swaths have been gentrified and there are occasional protests by the poor about being moved aside. The Liberation Bookstore, where activists and African exiles used to hang out, is gone. But the famed Apollo Theater is still there. Sylvia's soul food restaurant hangs on. Scholars still troop to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Charlie Rangel first received national attention when he took on the legendary Powell in 1970 and defeated him in the Democratic primary. Rangel had been appointed an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1961. Later he was elected to the New York State Assembly. Powell was a bulwark on behalf of President Johnson's War on Poverty legislation in the 1960s but had been expelled from Congress in 1967 for ethics violations, a cataclysmic downfall for the political lion. (The Supreme Court overturned the House action.)

In 35 years in the House, Rangel has become a Harlem institution himself. He helped change the tax laws to punish U.S. companies that continued to do business with the South African apartheid regime. "Africans have a tremendous respect for him as a person," says Julius Coles, president of Africare, an aid organization. "The man has been in the forefront of the battle for African rights."

Rangel also worked with Republican lawmaker Jack Kemp to create federal "empowerment zones." The legislation provided tax incentives and federal business development opportunities to distressed inner-city areas.

"Like Adam, Charlie is a son of the community," says H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University and Rangel's first administrative assistant on Capitol Hill. "He didn't parachute in. There's no one in central Harlem who can challenge Charles's street bona fides. In Harlem, Charles has got, as the kids say, 'street cred.' "

His liberal record -- the ACLU gives him a 92 percent lifetime rating -- does worry many conservatives.

"I don't like Charlie Rangel's view of the world," says Daniel Mitchell, a tax economist and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "His economic outlook could lead to a French-style welfare state. We'd end up with high unemployment, less competitiveness and slower economic growth. The kind of stagnation like we see in Europe."

But Kemp says that Republicans shouldn't dread the coming of Rangel. "Look, Charlie wants for this country what Republicans want: reduced tax burden, reform of the alternative minimum tax and a cleaning up of the cumbersome tax code of America. I don't think Republicans should fear Charlie Rangel. But you do have to be prepared for the Charlie Rangel one-two punch."

Not long after the election, Rangel started rumbling again about wanting a military draft, believing too many poor kids go overseas to fight. Few believe a draft will become a reality. "But Charlie made everyone aware, for at least a moment, of the inequities of service," says former West Virginia congressman Bob Wise, who has known Rangel for two decades. "It was consummate Charlie: He's forced everyone to look at it."

Not long after the election -- call it the tail end of the one-two punch -- Rangel told the New York Times: "Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?"

It led to a firestorm of newspaper headlines and jokey radio musings.

"I was trying to explain why the federal government gives more to a different state," Rangel says. "You have more poor folks in Mississippi than in New York. But I put my foot in my mouth. That was dumb. Everybody likes to live in their home town. I'm going to visit Mississippi. The love is in the making up, as someone once said."

Making the Rounds

It wasn't exactly a victory lap, but there were trips to make after the election. A lot of folks touched him in the airports, stepped in front of him as he emerged from office buildings. They just wanted to talk a minute. Some just nodded. Old black men. Bellhops.

" Got damn!" he says, remembering all those faces. "I feel so good. Just so good."
The poor kid from Harlem -- who became the gentleman from Harlem -- cometh.
He says he doesn't forget where he came from.

"I was in South Carolina in the days before we won," Rangel says. "This elderly guy introduced me to his grandson. The grandfather said to his grandson, 'If the Democrats win, this man gonna be head of the Ways and Means Committee.' The grandson said, 'What is Ways and Means?' And the old man said, 'I don't really know. All I know is, it's awesome!' "

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