In Rangel’s Defense


Cross-posted at WNYC’s It’s a Free Country.

I began working for Charlie Rangel in his now-infamous rent-controlled campaign office in the summer of 2006 as an intern still in high school. I have continued to proudly work for him, as well as other Congressional members, ever since. I agree with District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the greatest New York crime-buster of the 20th century, who said Rangel is being “railroaded” and that “he’s done more for the people of New York City than anybody else.”

Having, even at my young age, an understanding of what transpires in Washington on a daily basis, I’d like to briefly illuminate the inordinate sanctimony and hypocrisy of the very institution that is now demonizing Rangel – an institution, his record shows, Congressman Rangel served proudly for decades.

One of the most disturbing charges against Rangel is that he used official letterhead to solicit contributions to the City University of New York (CUNY) for a Public Policy school that would bear his name. This charge is ludicrous on so many fronts. How can critics and the public villainize someone who is trying to get funding for a public university in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods? CUNY’s sole purpose is to educate those who neither have the means nor resources to go elsewhere. I would also like to point out that this is infinitely more appropriate than sitting Presidents who raise money out of the Oval Office for their personal presidential libraries (they all do it).

Of course, the strongest argument against Rangel is that he was soliciting contributions from corporations which had legislation before the Ways and Means Committee. Perhaps we should also ask, though, which of America’s corporations doesn’t have legislation before said committee?

Again, regarding the letterhead, I would like to reiterate that we’re talking about public education in Harlem, a place more synonymous with gang shootings and “Harlem on Fire,” than education. And the one person who believed in Harlem and has lived in the same apartment building since 1970 is Charlie Rangel. He always believed in Harlem, and he certainly always believed in making it a better place, and the cornerstone to a better Harlem was better public education in one of America’s lowest income districts.

Finally, what’s worse: a Congressman trying to raise money for a public university in Harlem who uses the wrong letterhead, or a Congressperson on the Energy and Commerce Committee – who accepted money from the oil industry to get elected – sitting down in his prized Congressional office under the American flag with an oil lobbyist to discuss pending legislation? I think the answer is pretty simple here. America should, too.

Indeed, two long years of investigations and millions of dollars later, the Ethics Committee was able to charge Rangel for 11 sloppy errors over the span of his 40 years in Congress. Each of the 11 charges against Rangel lack the two most fundamental pillars of corruption – intent and self-enrichment. Meanwhile, the born-again ethicists continue to portray Rangel as a staple of Washington corruption and continue to slander Rangel’s illustrious 50-year career. This, even after the lead prosecutor for the Ethics Committee investigation, Blake Chisam, said he “saw no evidence of corruption” and that the congressman was simply “overzealous in many things he did, and sloppy with his personal finances.” Watching the Ethics Committee hearings was the equivalent to watching a teacher punish the loudest kid in the room but not the worst behaved.

Congressman Rangel’s is an incredible story that helped define a generation of black Americans and what they are capable of accomplishing. A high school dropout in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, a decorated Korean War hero, and eventually, a law school graduate made possible by the G.I. Bill, Rangel quickly turned his eyes and heart to public service. He was able to defy tremendous odds to overcome great racial inequality and institutional racism, becoming one of the biggest movers and shakers on Capitol Hill, eventually becoming the first-ever black Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

While his outspokenness and power made him beloved on Capitol Hill, it also made him an easy target for his critics and adversaries across the aisle. Despite the ongoing calls for his resignation by cynics and the constant branding of his integrity as a corrupt individual, his detractors were lacking one major element to their hit story – Rangel was never corrupt.

Rangel’s great accomplishments as a lawmaker, ardent supporter of civil rights and his impressive ability to pass legislation may be tarnished in future books, but in the minds of his constituents he will always be Harlem’s angel. Year after year the voters of Harlem overwhelmingly re-elect their leader, who took a district on fire and brought economic life to it, so much so that Bill Clinton’s office is now famously in Harlem.

In the end, it was unintended sloppiness that got the best of Rangel. It’s sad to see the legacy of one of America’s great leaders and public servants tarnished by those eager to contemptibly paint him as a corrupt, self-enriching, self-serving Washington insider with little regard for the actual facts.

Alex Leopold is a Political Science Major at Concordia University in Montreal. He is presently on academic exchange for the year as a Killam Fellow at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. Alex has worked in Congressman Rangel’s campaign for the past five summers in addition to working with other members of New York’s Congressional Delegation. Alex currently serves as Finance Director for the Manhattan Young Democrats.