Who will take Charlie Rangel's place representing NY's 13th CD?
Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. back in -- well, a very long time ago
Luther King Jr. back in -- well, a very long time ago
"All politics is local."
-- former House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA)
It was, I think, a couple of weeks into the new year when the calendar arrived in my mailbox -- a really nice 2016 wall calendar produced by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, "Commemorating the Year of 'The Endless Winter.' " So nice that it made me wish I actually use a wall calendar. It was from my congressman, and I didn't remember ever receiving such a thing from him before, in all the years he's been my congressman. And my immediate thought was, the son-of-a-gun is actually going to run again.
I was told that no, he's not running again. It turned out that he'd said when he ran the last time that that would be the last, but how sure can we ever be about such things? I think a lot of people, possibly including the congressman himself, realized that he's already run for a couple of terms too many. But that hadn't stopped him before, and he survived primary challenges those last two times, in 2012 and 2014.
Oh, the margin was surprisingly close in 2012 -- less than a thousand votes over State Sen. Adriano Espaillat (occupying the seat vacated by Eric Schneiderman in 2010 to make his successful run for NYS attorney general) -- but I really don't think that after those two brushes with political death he was going to be ousted by ballot. People talk about all the demographic changes and the changes in the makeup of the district, now with that chunk of the Bronx, and no longer a majority-black district. But Charlie Rangel has been a congressman from hereabouts since 1971. When you consider the modest turnout to be expected in a primary contest, and the sheer longevity and presence of the name of "Congressman Charlie Rangel," I just don't see that he was going to go out that way. I voted against him in both the 2012 and 2014 primarires, and came away persuaded that whatever he wants to do, it would remain his choice when to stay and when to go.
I don't know who coined the phrase "is tantamount to election," referring to primary races that are, well, tantamount to election, but the phrase certainly covers the the primary we'll be having in my congressional district, New York's 13th, which includes much of Uppermost Manhattan plus a chunk of the Bronx, this coming Tuesday. Oh, I suppose it's possible that somebody could be elected to something up here in the far northern reaches of Manhattan from some party other than the Democratic one, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Howie has kept asking me to "explain" the primary race to succeed Charlie Rangel. I don't know that I can explain much, but I can venture that it's certainly a historic moment. Allowing for periodic changes in the shape and numbering of the CD, come January, when our new congressman takes his seat, the district will have been represented over the previous 72 years by just two individuals: since 1971, by Charlie Rangel; and before that, from January 1945, by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whom we're about to see describedt as " the most powerful black politician in the country during the 1950s."
Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was the first person of African-American descent elected to Congress from New York. He was both a pastor and a politician and represented Harlem in Congress. In 1961, after sixteen years in the House, he became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. As Chairman, he supported the passage of important social legislation but was removed from his seat by Democratic Representatives-elect of the 90th Congress following allegations of corruption.I apologize for the length of the above quote, as noted apparently compressed from the Wikipedia entry, but as I read it I found myself fascinated, even though I have what I thought of as abundant and vivid memories of ACP Jr. Perhaps it's because those memories are overly weighted toward the later years, which on the congressman's part became so much about self-aggrandizement and then self-preservation; that makes it easier to forget the shape of the whole career, and just how important it was. This seems to me a useful time to remember that ACP Jr. knew a thing or two about the uses of power and getting things done.
Few people under 40 may know his name now, but Adam Clayton Powell was the most powerful black politician in the country during the 1950s, helping create landmark programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start, and even contributing to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Harlem's Congressman from 1945 until 1971, his legislative and personal efforts drove the desegregation of public schools, of the military, even of the U.S. Capitol itself. . . .
In 1941, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., became New York City's first African-American councilman. By 1944, he had won a seat in Congress. It was heady, but lonely as one of the only two African Americans in the U.S. House; particularly since the other, William Dawson of Chicago, was more seen than heard, careful to not upset the status quo. He went on to be a trailblazer in Congress, paving the way for the next generation of African-American politicians. After holding office for 25 years, he was ousted in the Democratic primary in 1970 by Charles Rangel.
Adam Powell didn't behave like most African-American politicians. "I'm the first bad Negro they've had in Congress," he bragged. He made more enemies on Capitol Hill than perhaps any legislator before or since.
Voters from Harlem elected Powell as their representative nearly two dozen times. With long service in Congress comes seniority and ultimately the chance to head one of the powerful committees that draft bills that the full House and Senate eventually vote on. After the election of 1960, Powell took over as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
Adam Powell was instrumental in passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools. He challenged the Southern practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote and stopped racist Congressmen from saying the word "nigger" in sessions of Congress.
However, by the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee's budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing sittings of his committee. He was also under attack in his District, where his refusal to pay a slander judgment made him subject to arrest. He spent increasing amounts of time in Florida.
In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship. The full House refused to seat him until completion of the Judiciary Committee's investigation. Powell urged his supporters to "keep the faith, baby" while the investigation was under way. On March 1, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him. Powell said, "On this day, the day of March in my opinion, the end of the United States of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Powell won the Special Election to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion but did not take his seat. He sued in Powell v. McCormack to retain his seat. In November 1968, Powell was again elected. On January 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress; but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority. In June 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member.
In June 1970, Adam Powell Jr. was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. That fall, he failed to get on the November ballot as an Independent; and he resigned as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Now you look at that 72-year run, January 1945 to January 2017, and you think maybe "dynasty." You may note in particular the resemblance in the shapes of the careers, from the rise to prominence and power to the engulfment in scandal, including the critical loss of the House committee chairmanship that carried with it so much influence. Of course you also note that in 1970 it was the crusading young Charlie Rangel who shoved his enfeebled predecessor out of the seat.
I believe that the young Charlie was motivated, in 1970, not just by opportunity but by genuine outrage over the disgraced Adam Powell's abuses of power. Which would make the shape of his own, much longer House career at the very least ironic. One hopes against hope that the lesson isn't the obvious one -- you know, about all power corrupting. But it's hard not to think that in the end it comes down to the money, all that money floating freely around the tables in the various houses of government. It would be easy to understand if even a relatively innocent young pol, once he becomes aware of all that moving money, takes to thinking, "Now just a dag-blamed minute here, didn't my people elect me to keep an eye on all that? Making sure it goes to, you know, the right kind of people?"
So in a lot of ways the race to succeed Charlie is like a lot of local contests around the country, having to do with who's going to take "a seat at the table." One wrinkle is that the tables at which Adam Powell and Charlie Rangel took their places, both the "little" local ones and the more magnificent ones where they set up shop in D.C., are table that aren't places where people like them are generally welcome to sit. (I might add that I don't expect whoever wins Tuesday to be a major player at the D.C. tables -- no Adam P or Charlie R on the national scene, in other words.)
SO WHO'S GOING TO SUCCEED CHARLIE?
That what every wants to know, right? Who's on deck? And the answer is: a whole bunch of people. Hey, it's an open congressional seat, here in NYC, which contains the highest concentration of political wannabes on the planet, right?
I suppose you could argue the demographics of the district, or minutely scrutinize the positions-on-the-issues staked out by each of the contenders, the way we usually do here at DWT. But it seems to me to come down to who comes to feel like the most comfortable fit for the distract, or at any rate can persuade enough constituents to think so.
For those who place great store by names, there's even an Adam Clayton Powell in the field: Adam Clayton Powell IV, or at any rate one of the Adam Clayton Powell IVs. (The other ACP IV is, as you would expect, the grandson of ACP Jr., being the son of ACP III. The candidate ACP IV, however, is a son of ACP Jr., being the 16-years-younger half-brother of ACP III.)
Charlie has endorsed Assemblyman Keith Wright to replace him.
But the candidates who seem best positioned to emerge from the field are Assemblyman Keith Wright, who on April 30 received the endorsement of Congressman Rangel himself, to go with an assorment of other local-pol endorsements, and State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who mounted primary challenges against the congressman in 2012 and 2014 -- and, as noted, came pretty darned close the first time.
Now Espaillat isn't a firebrand or crusader, and when he ran to hold on to his State Senate seat after losing in the 2014 congressional primary, former City Councilmember Robert Jackson scored some hitts on his Senate work record. But I kind of like that Adriano isn't a natural at being a glad-handing pol. I remember walking past him one morning trying rather forlornly to campaign outside one of the less-used local subway entrances, at the base of a cliff, looking like he'd rather be almost anywhere else. I also kind of like that he doesn't attract much enthusiasm from the people looking to attach themselves to a potential new political table-sitter.
I've never regretted voting for Adriano Espaillat for the NYS Assembly and Senate, or for Congress in his 2012 and 2014 races against Charlie R. So why wouldn't I vote for him now?
Mostly I think of Espaillat fighting good local-issue fights, usually on the side of the people who don't otherwise have much access to power. You may have noticed, for example, that the pols attached to the recent successful campaign to "save the supermarket" up on Hudson Heights were Senator Espaillat and the two local city councilmembers, Ydanis Rodriguez and Mark Levine.
I felt bad the other night when I cut off an Espaillat campaign phone caller, saying, "I wish him well. I'm voting for him." Well, I do and I am, and I didn't want to waste any more time listening to the phone spiel.
Now, does that explain everything? (Does it explain anything?)