I don’t exactly remember the first time I met Rep. Charles Rangel. I do know his career in Congress and mine in radio have slightly overlapped. He was serving his second term when I began my radio career in 1973.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve interviewed him, through good times and bad for both of us. I’ve admired his work in the House of Representatives, and said so. I also said so when I thought he was getting the shaft, which he did more than once.
And so it was on Thursday, December 19th, that Charles Rangel announced he was running for a 23rd term in Congress. I for one was happy to hear it.
Charles Rangel has faced some formidable opponents in his time, including the person he first beat back in 1970. Last time around, in 2012, a state senator from Upper Manhattan came dangerously close to defeating the Lion of Harlem. That bid fell short.
The senator, Adriano Espaillat, has broadly hinted he’ll make another run. At least two Harlem clergy people have been the subject of media reports saying they may run. At his announcement news conference Thursday, none of this seemed to faze Charles Rangel (I can’t call him Charlie, not even in print). When asked about opposition, he said he was unconcerned about any opponent.
Through the years, I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of Charles Rangel. I’ve been criticized for defending him, mostly by callers to my radio programs that never lived in his district. In fact, I was part of an effort to show citywide support for the congressman when the House Ethics Committee was breathing down his neck. There was a rally for him at City Hall, organized by my friends Ken Sunshine and the late Bill Lynch. As we waited for the rally to officially start, a member of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration walked by, on his way inside City Hall. I heard him say to Bill, “You do know Charlie Rangel brings about a half billion dollars in federal money to the city each year, don’t you?” Bill smiled, because he knew. My jaw dropped because I didn’t.
Critics will often ask “What has Rangel done for Harlem?” It may not be obvious, and hasn’t been all that obvious to me, even though I walk through the neighborhood regularly. I can think back 40 years, to the Harlem I work in when starting my radio life. I remember Sylvia’s when it was just a lunch counter, and the Chinese restaurant that stood where Sylvia’s Also is today (the old heads told me that Ho Chi Minh worked there was a college student back in the ’20s).
Yet when someone asks what Rangel has done for Harlem, it’s not about buildings or artifacts. It’s about people. Walking across 125th St. on this unusually balmy Thursday in December, I was struck by the number of middle aged and older black folks who still call the street home. Yes, there’s been gentrification, and the displacement it causes, but there are still vendors, and people walking along the street I’ve seen for decades. They still call Harlem home in large measure because Charles Rangel has looked out for them.
He hasn’t been able to beat back all market forces in the neighborhood, but he’s kept the community affordable for enough folks that Harlem still has its unique pulse and rhythm. You know, that which is created by people.
And so, Charles Rangel runs again. He’s not just running in Harlem this time. He’s got a good sliver of the Bronx that he’ll have to convince that he’s still the best man for the job.
I wouldn’t bet against him.
Would love to know your views…