NEW YORK -- Ever since he defeated the flamboyant, legendary, scandal-scarred and cancer-stricken Adam Clayton Powell Jr. by 150 votes in a 1970 Democratic primary, Charlie Rangel has been the congressman from Harlem. But now the raspy-voiced 80-year-old Rangel -- already stripped of his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee and facing a public airing of the charges against him by the House ethics committee
on Thursday -- is the beleaguered incumbent trying to stare down his last hurrah.
As Rangel's lawyers attempted to negotiate a settlement with the ethics committee Wednesday afternoon, the congressman's principal rival in the five-way Sept. 14 Democratic primary was sitting on a metal folding chair in his tiny storefront headquarters on 116th Street in East Harlem. The challenger's name (in a classic illustration of what comes around goes around): Adam Clayton Powell IV, a 48-year-old state assemblyman and the son of the man Rangel defeated 40 years ago.
Powell IV (the family has an idiosyncratic approach to numbering
) was born and raised in Puerto Rico -- and you can hear a hint of the island in his voice. Dressed in a dark suit and white shirt with a blue striped tie hanging loosely around his neck, Powell, who occasionally yawned, gave off the affable aura of a man waiting for something to happen offstage. Periodically his press secretary, Rebeca Herrero, would do a Google search of Rangel's name, questing after the latest developments from Washington. Powell himself would occasionally pause to stare at his silent cell phone, willing it to ring with news.
What follows is an edited (for length) transcript of my 45-minute conversation with Powell:
Q: You have said that this battle against Rangel has nothing to do with vengeance over his defeating your father in 1970.
A: Why would it? Why would it have anything to do with it? I was in the City Council in the 1990s. I was in the State Assembly for the last 10 years. If I wanted vengeance, I would have run against him every two years. I ran against him in 1994 and I could have run against him in 1996 . . .
Q: But you have said that unsuccessful 1994 primary challenge was partially motivated by –
A: What I said was I got it off my chest. But even that race was not about that. It's never been about that. That race was 24 years after whatever happened. . . .
I have been in public service all my life. If Rangel decided tomorrow that he would not run, I would be just as enthusiastic. It's nothing to do with him. When he was doing well, I was supporting him. In 2006, when the Democrats gained control of the House, I was the first one who spoke to him at his annual Christmas party. When he became chairman of Ways and Means, he had my full support. He obviously has a legacy after 40 years in Congress.
Q: Since you ran against him in 1994 and you're running against him now, what is Rangel's legacy in your mind?
A: A legacy of, you know, progressive politics. Fighting for, you know, some of the issues that people in upper Manhattan believe in. Honestly, the legacy of being a congressman, the insider trading. He played the game in Congress, in Washington, better than anybody else.
Q: In a way that helped the district?
A: In some ways, it did. In some ways, it just helped him and his circle of friends.
Q: Of the things that Rangel has been accused of in the press -- and may come out tomorrow in the House ethics committee -- which troubles you the most?
A: [His having] four rent-controlled apartments . . .That's truly a slap in the face to this community. Affordable housing is probably our biggest need. . . .
We haven't had any debates. I hope there will be a few. But I often say at candidates' forums or in interviews when asked, "What are you going to do about housing?" I say, "Elect me. We'll have three more rent-controlled apartments. The incumbent has four and I only have one. . . . "
Q: Do you think Rangel is going to continue as an active candidate in this primary?
A: What's going to happen? I don't know. But what I hope is that he retires -- that he announces that he is not going to actively participate in an election -- or he resigns. . . .
He just has to say: "I've had it. I've done my part for 40 years. That's it. I've leaving." He can still leave with some honor and some dignity. And that's what the people of this congressional district are hoping. The fact is that this public turmoil doesn't help anybody. For him to go through the public embarrassment of a trial -- and possibly be expelled from Congress or to lose in the election on Sept. 14 -- will be worst-case scenario.
Q: One of the reasons you are the best-known challenger to Charlie Rangel is because your father's name is on a boulevard a few blocks from where we're sitting.
A: No, no, no. One of the reasons that I'm the best-known challenger to Charlie Rangel is because I've had 20 years of public service in the City Council and, for the last 10 years, in the State Assembly. I almost resent that. I didn't just parachute in here to run for Congress. . . .
Q: One of these things that I have to ask is that you have your own ethical and legal issues: Two accusations of rape in 2004 and being stopped for drunken driving in 2008. Can you explain why voters should go from Charlie Rangel and his ethical problems to you with this kind of tangled personal history?
A: It's not tangled. The two allegations of uhh, uhh, you know, were lies. I can't stop people from lying. The first woman admitted, once it was on the front page, that it was consensual. We had a relationship.
Q: She was the 19-year-old aide in the state Legislature?
A: Yes. That was obviously poor judgment on my part. Poor judgment, but not rape. That's a highly incendiary word. And that's why it was on the front page and that's why even six years later, even though she said, "It was a consensual relation," you and others still talk about it because it's a highly incendiary word.
And the DWI was not --
Q: Just to back up -- and the second allegation of rape in the same year?
A: Was a 38-year-old woman who I had known for a while. And unfortunately she set me up. I don't know if it was for money or to try to bring me down. It was a set-up on her part. We had a great time and then when we walked into the apartment, before I could even sip my drink, she literally jumped me. And the next thing I know, she called 911 right after she slammed the door.
That's one reason why the DA never filed [charges]. The first one obviously the DA dropped because the woman said it was consensual. The second one the DA dropped because they couldn't figure this woman out, she was crazy. . . . Why I have to repeat this story for [what] appears to be the rest of my life is beyond me.
Q: And about the 2008 charge of drunk driving?
A: On that I was charged, on that I went to trial and on that I was acquitted on DWI. The jury found me guilty of DUI [Driving Under the Influence], which in New York is called DWAI. And that's akin to a speeding ticket. That's not really a crime. It's not a misdemeanor. . . .
Going back to the DWI, yes, I had two and a half drinks. I didn't think that was bad. I'm over 200 pounds. But obviously it is. Maybe next time I'll only have one drink or one and a half. . . .
Q: Why do you think you're going to win the primary given that you're going to be terribly outspent, assuming that Rangel continues as an active candidate?
A: Without a doubt, he's the one to beat. Without a doubt, he's the front-runner. Without a doubt, he's an icon of politics. That's why the media says that he's invincible . . .That's why some people say he doesn't have a race. He has a lot of trouble and he might be expelled from Congress, but his re-election is a sure thing because he doesn't have any opponents of any significance.
I disagree with that. I agree that he is the front-runner, but not unbeatable. I ran against him in 1994 when he had nothing bad going against him, everything was all good and I was young, inexperienced and just elected to the City Council a couple of years before. I was 31 years old. And he outspent me 30-to-1. Maybe $2.4 million and I had $80,000. With all that, he only won by about 20 percent . . .This time around, he will not outspend me 30-to-1. He may have $500,000 but I will have $200,000.[Note: Powell has so far raised $110,000] . . .
When I got elected to the City Council in 1991, one thing that I said to myself is that I don't want to become just another politician. There are so many like that. If I die in two years, I want people to say: I wasn't just another kiss-ass politician. . . .
Q: Are people in this district feeling more anger at Rangel over the ethics accusations or sadness that this is what has happened to him at age 80?
A: Both. Up until a couple of weeks ago, it was more anger. Now it's a little sadness. . . .
Q: What would your father say about this race?
A: I'm sure he'd be smiling from heaven with a big cigar and telling me: "Keep the faith, baby. Keep the faith, baby."