It sounds like a political grudge match for the ages: Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, battered by ethics charges and stripped of his chairmanship of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, defending his seat against Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the legendary Harlem lawmaker Rangel ousted 40 years ago.
But despite the 13 ethics charges against him and a trial that could take place before the Nov. 2 general election, Rangel goes into next week’s New York Democratic primary with a 20-to-1 financial advantage, support from the state’s political elite and empathy from many constituents who believe he got a raw deal.
“Leave the man alone. Why are they trying to get him out of there?” asked 84-year-old John Person, a resident of Rangel’s district. “What are they messing with him for? They hate to see a black man do anything, don’t they?”
Rangel has racked up $1.8 million in legal bills so far in fighting the charges from the House ethics committee. The allegations include using House stationery to solicit money for a New York college center named after him; failing to disclose at least $600,000 in assets and income in a series of inaccurate reports to Congress; using a rent-subsidized New York residential use apartment for a campaign office; and failing to report and pay taxes on rent income from a beach villa in the Dominican Republic.
The prospect of an embarrassing public trial hasn’t deterred Rangel, the fourth longest-serving member in the House, even if it further tarnishes Democrats already bracing for steep losses in November. Friends and allies have rallied to his side despite a nudge from President Barack Obama, who suggested Rangel end his career “in dignity.”
Labor unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union have contributed the maximum allowable to Rangel’s campaign, and the New York State Labor Federation endorsed him at its summer convention.
Rangel’s glitzy birthday fundraiser last month at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel drew plenty of high profile political attendees, including Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for governor; and independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All praised Rangel’s years of dedication to the city.
Not everyone is enamored of Rangel in the 15th Congressional District that includes Harlem, long the center of New York City’s black political and cultural establishment. The area has become gentrified in recent years and the population is more ethnically diverse. Many younger voters saying they feel little connection to the 80-year-old lawmaker.
“The man has been serving the community since before I was born,” local resident Barthesda Debry, 32, said. “I’m not here to judge him, but just retire, just resign. Leave the politics to younger people.”
It would seem a ripe environment for Powell, a 48-year-old state assemblyman born in Puerto Rico who speaks fluent Spanish but has deep ties to black Harlem. His father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was a longtime civil rights leader and one-time pastor of the neighborhood’s famed Abyssinian Baptist Church. The elder Powell served in the House for 25 years before losing to Rangel amid ethics allegations of his own. He died in 1972.
The younger Powell never hesitates to mention his famous pedigree on the campaign trail. He announced his candidacy last spring on a stretch of Seventh Avenue known in Harlem as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
“The response from the public has been overwhelming,” Powell said in an interview. “It’s not just my history of public service and my father’s legacy. People are ready to turn the page.”
But Powell has an exceedingly thin legislative record in the Assembly, where he has served since 2001, and has struggled to explain personal baggage of his own.
He was arrested for drunken driving in 2008 and found guilty of driving while impaired, a misdemeanor. He was also investigated, but not charged, in connection with two sexual assault allegations in 2004. Powell said both encounters — with a 19-year-old legislative intern in Albany and a woman in Manhattan — were consensual.
Powell has struggled with fundraising, pulling in just over $126,000, compared with $2.6 million for Rangel. As a result, Powell lacks basic campaign infrastructure like a program to identify supporters and get them to the polls.
“We don’t have a turnout operation yet,” he said. “Maybe we can put together some phone banks.”
Rangel nonetheless has appeared to be unnerved by Powell at times, even as he maintains a guarded optimism about winning re-election.
“I’m not overconfident,” he said, “but I just don’t remember losing a race for Congress.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York and Larry Margasak in Washington contributed to this report.
Source: The Associated Press.