Controversial and charismatic, Charles (Charlie) Rangel has been part of the New York political scene since the 1960s. The affable and charming politician has served a number of Upper Manhattan districts, including Harlem, as a Congressional representative since 1971. Currently serving his 23rd term, personal scandal and political triumph have marked Rangel’s tenure. Now 84 years old, Congress’ most senior member is facing retirement from political life and the burden of legacy.
Harlem Born and Bred
Rangel’s parents were Puerto Rican native Ralph Rangel and Virginia born Blanche Mary Wharton Rangel. The couple lived in 1930s Harlem and had three children. Rangel’s father was an on-again,off-again presence in the household and left for good when the young boy was only six. Eventually, Rangel started getting into trouble at school and with the law. His grandfather worked within the Court system and often called in favors to keep his grandson free of legal entanglements. Despite the good intentions of those around him, Rangel dropped out of high school at age 16 and considered his next move.
The Korean War
Rangel joined the Army and served during the Korean War as an artillery operations specialist. Wounded during an intense and debilitating battle with Communist Chinese forces, Rangel showed superior heroism and leadership skills. In the face of disorganized leadership and despite his low rank, Rangel led 40 men to safety from behind enemy lines, saving their lives and his own. He received multiple recognitions for his actions including the Purple Heart, Bronze Star with Valor and three battle stars. He also received a new perspective on life. Upon his honorable discharge as staff sergeant, Rangel vowed to do more with his life at home.
Political Life Calls
Upon returning stateside, Rangel went back to high school to complete his degree and, eventually, college and law school. A number of early jobs within the legal field deepened his burgeoning interest in politics. Rangel became part of the “Gang of Four,” a coalition of African-American men interested in pursuing political office. The other three members were David Dinkins, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton, who Rangel considered his political mentor.
Rangel’s political career began in earnest in 1961, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy appointed him assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In 1967, he was elected to the New York State Assembly. An historic election in 1971 catapulted him into Congress when he defeated Adam Clayton Powell.
An All-Too-Human Man of the People
Beloved by his constituency, Rangel became known for his genuine concern for the people of his district as well as his ready smile, outspoken candor and dapper appearance. He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and actively worked to eliminate tax credits for any and all taxes paid to South Africa’s apartheid government. Rangel worked hard to equalize the playing field, creating a federal empowerment zone in Upper Manhattan and authoring the low-income tax credit designed to stimulate affordable, urban housing. Housing concerns, however, were one of the multiple scandals which would rock the foundation his career was built upon.
Rangel stunned voters when news erupted of his personal use of four rent-stabilized Harlem apartments which he rented way below market rates. He combined three apartments to form a living space and utilized one as his campaign office, a violation of city and state regulations. Rangel’s popularity started to dip.
Other scandals were waiting in the wings, including inappropriate use of Congressional letterhead for fundraising purposes and misuse of a House parking garage space in Washington, D.C. He was also accused of failing to pay taxes on a rental property in the Dominican Republic and failing to report other sources of income, including the sale of a home.
As a result of these numerous infractions, Rangel stepped down as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Despite a lessening of his standing in the House amid concerns about his legacy to the office and a charge in 2010 of violating 13 counts of House rules and federal laws, Rangel prevailed and won the next election. His formal ethics trial started shortly afterwards, and he was found guilty of 11 charges. Pleading for fairness and mercy, Rangel received a sanction of censure by the House and was required to provide restitution for back taxes. At the time, Rangel was quoted as saying, “I know in my heart I am not going to be judged by this Congress. I’ll be judged by my life’s entirety.”
It would appear that he was right. Now serving his last term in the U.S. House of Representatives, the outspoken Congressman continues to be all that he ever was and to serve the people of Harlem and surrounding areas. His political life coming to an end, he lives with his wife, Alma, in Harlem. They have two children and three grandchildren.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.