When Charlie Rangel said he wouldn’t back down from ethics violations charges and calls to step down from his seat in Congress, he really meant it.
At a debate on Monday night with his primary opponents, all of them a couple decades younger than him, he mocked President Obama for saying that the 20-term Democrat from Harlem should “retire with dignity.”
“Frankly, he has not been around long enough to determine what my dignity is,” Rangel said about the president. “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity.”
The fall of a leader may be a tragedy for Harlem, but national (and local) Democrats have reduced Charlie to a footnote — at open, empty war with the president, he does not sound like a threat to any Democrats’ electoral hopes except for his opponents. Despite the pro forma celebration of his birthday a few weeks back — attended by Senator Schumer, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson — his decision to fight for his political life seems more of a nuisance than an obstacle in the way of national Democratic hopes. (For obstacles, turn to Fox News and wait five minutes or less for the next mention of the words “Ground Zero Mosque.”)
But oh, what a nuisance. His strongest opponent, Adam Clayton Powell IV, has now taken off whatever gloves he was wearing beforehand, last week holding a big press conference on the street named after his father (who was himself an aging congressman stumbling in a fog of corruption when Rangel defeated him in 1971). He was supported by Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and drove home the point that Rangel was too corrupt to do well by Harlem.
However, Powell IV may not be the best man to call for a restoration of dignity, given his drunk driving record and other legal troubles. He’s aware of that problem now. “My mistake was one night of having maybe one too many, if you will, so to speak. His mistake has been a pattern of years and years and years of abuse of disrespect for the laws, of thinking that he’s above it all,” he said at the press conference. It’s a sign of the absurdity of this race that the reformist candidate’s strongest card is the one where he points out that his crime was less problematic.
Powell has added in a wrinkle to his attacks in recent days, saying that Rangel intends to actually step down upon re-election, which would open up the race to a hand-picked heir apparent like Assemblyman Keith Wright. While Rangel dismisses these accusations as crazy-talk, it also is becoming clear that Harlem voters might really need it to be true. Despite what Powell says, the only way they can really have a choice, after all, is if Charlie gives them one.
But he probably won’t. And the slow march until the September 14 continues, sounding like a circus, feeling like a tragedy. The morning after the election, no matter what happens, there is little chance it will feel any different.