Charles Rangel

Why I Keep Raising Hell

Air Date: June 13, 2015

The third-longest currently serving member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Charles Rangel talks about his half-century-long career of passionate advocacy and what to do when “Raising Hell” doesn't erode Congressional obstructionism or other barriers to progress.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Few public servants have exhibited the personal fortitude, patriotism or longevity of the Democratic Representative from New York’s 13th District representing Harlem and the Bronx.

A decorated Korean War veteran and the third-longest serving member of the House of Representatives, Congressman Charles Rangel was a founding member and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took office this year, Congressman Rangel renewed his career-long call for the country to “reverse the growing tide of income inequality that threatens to put the American Dream beyond the reach of far too many people.”

Commencing the 50th anniversary celebration of LBJ’s Great Society and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Rangel penned a Huffington Post essay titled “Why I Keep Raising Hell!” In it Rangel pointed out that New York’s airport workers make less in real wages in 2014 than the Memphis sanitation workers of MLK Jr.’s era.

As he continues his work on behalf of fellow New Yorkers, I want to ask our distinguished guest about his half-century long career of passionate advocacy, and specifically, what to do when “Raising Hell” doesn’t lead to the desired outcome or outcomes … and perhaps, Congressman Rangel, you think such is the case of the 113th Congress…

RANGEL: In a sense a lot of things have been proven and that is that one can overcome prejudice and bias that has been historic in this country through the election of President Obama. But it also proves that those states that held slaves, those states that lost the war are not giving up and they still can’t get rid of the position that no matter how poor they are, if they are White, they are superior.

And, it’s a rough thing to say, but when I see the Tea Party demonstrating in Washington the same way they did against the President’s Affordable Healthcare Bill when we were marking it up, it reminded me so much when I was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King (laugh) … the, the same voices, the same “I Love Dixie” and the same derogatory remarks.

And it’s sad, it’s sad because so many Americans believe that the stigma and the pain of slavery is behind us. As with anti-Semitism, and the stigma of being Black in this country, we had moved dramatically forward and progressively in the last 300 years, but we’re no where near dealing with the problem from an economic, social point of view.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s talk about that. What are your hopes in, in the next Congress and for Mayor de Blasio?

RANGEL: Well, first of all there are a handful of Republicans that have infested the Republican Party in the Congress. They call themselves the Tea Party. Because they are responsible in number for the Republican majority, they have a commitment from the Republicans in the House of Representatives that no issue will be coming to the floor unless they agree.

That means immigration, it means livable wage, it means that they enjoy 52 times voting against healthcare. It means that everything that the country would want, they have said “No, no, no.” Having said this, they’ve been effective in reducing the productivity of the Congress, whether you’re Democrat or Republican, we haven’t produced because they won’t take up the bills.

Buy they’ve also seriously damaged the Republican Party on a national level. And I really know and believe that most Republicans don’t agree with this handful of people that its pretty clear … geographically and politically where they’re coming from, so something has to be done by the Republican so-called leadership in the House of Representatives.

The question, Alex, would be what will it be? Well, it has to be something that cannot be labeled Democratic “policy”. I think one of those things has to be immigration. Because whether you’re an economist or just a humanitarian or just a historian, you would know that that is what our country is all about. And if we talking about 14 million people, there’s no way to jail, deport … they’re part of our economy. And even the Republican Chambers of Commerce and business people know it’s essential.

I think they could find some face-saving way to allow the President to move forward. Because the wildest imagination cannot produce a credible candidate of the Republican Party in 2016 unless they have a platform with some positive program there.

If we’re talking about a, a, a living wage, it’s not just the compassionate things to do. The biggest problem we have in this country economically is the reduction of the power of the middle class.

I can’t begin to tell you, Alex, how I personally believe that this heartbeat of our economy. It’s sounds corny when I say that a poor person … sole ambition is to become middle class and provide better for their kids and better for themselves.

And if you lose that hope, or you slide into poverty because of the inability to pay your rent or your mortgage or lose you job … it is, it is so difficult to come back. Sometimes it’s impossible … to be jobless and, and homeless is to be hopeless.

The expense that’s involved in that in terms of taking care of those people that become dependent … but worse than that, the inability to have discretionary income to buy the basic things of life … and when you are able to buy. Where do you buy from? You don’t go to General Electric, you go to the local merchants … that’s where 80% of the jobs are.

That’s where the communication of biggest commercial transactions in America … are not in Washington and New York, they’re at the local stories. And that’s being shattered as we find that over half of the wealth has somehow magnetically gone to 1% of our population.

We’ve never had this type of the … of disparity in incomes. Never. Never. Never. And the whole dream that America was the place that you could go from poverty to wealth, it’s now far more difficult than it has been in the past and even Europe has exceeded the ability to jump out of a poverty class.

HEFFNER: Given the Republican obstructionism, do you wish that Americans were more adamant in protesting the income inequality that pervades this country?

RANGEL: You know, I pause because at my age I’m very reluctant to be critical about spiritual leaders because I don’t know what I’m going to have to negotiate when I get up there in Heaven.

But the truth of the matter is that the capitalistic system rewards people who work hard through profits. And there’s no moral connection between a person trying to build up profits for the corporation or the fact that they get rich at the expense of the poor.

At most there could be sound business practice in terms of the morale of the work force. But spiritually speaking the more religion you have, the whole concept of God not wanting people to be poor and sick and disabled … I, I scream out for where would be the religious community? I mean they talk enough about tithes and how you don’t get to heaven unless you give the church and synagogue some money.

But the truth is, if we’re talking about health, what could be more moral than trying to help God to keep you well. If we’re talking about environment, how spiritual it is, is God has given this world to protect for generations to follow.

If you’re talking about homelessness … they … there’s … what is the, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Torah is how do you treat the lesser of your brothers and your sisters that are dependant on you for survival.

And so when you talk about “Do I … I wish the whole country” … well that’s not going to happen. Those that got … somehow managed not to have as a priority those who don’t have.

But if we’re to have faith in God that no matter how poor you are there’s the opportunity for people to be compassionate, and if you are a country that’s based on that principle … where is that principle today?

And now some Republicans are making of poverty something to be scorned. “You don’t want to work, you, you don’t take care of yourself” … derogatory remarks at a time where we still have underemployment, we still have pain and we can’t even get the Republicans to agree to, to extend the unemployment compensation, which is far from a hand-out, this is what people pay for when they’re working.

And so, to me, there, there should be a moral outrage, especially in view of the fact that ever since Franklin Roosevelt we have had wars, none of which have been declared. It would seem to me that instead of having chaplains’ blessing the guns, that the question of who protects human life, not just in the womb, but who protects human life after they’re born and is there a connection between poverty and lack of economic opportunity and volunteering to serve, especially in combat for the nation? For my family it was, and that shouldn’t be.

HEFFNER: How do you explain the disconnect, we’re talking about religion, between purportedly people of faith and policies they espouse that really don’t relate to the Golden Rule as you delineated it.

RANGEL: I’m afraid that it’s hard for some of us to realize that those people who had a calling from God also have human failings. That we see it every day. We see it ignored every day. Every church has spiritual leaders that are falling far below the course that we think is the conduct that we deserve.

And unfortunately, something, Alex, I don’t know … you can help me out … that money does to certain people … the greed that they’re willing and prepared to put their reputation, their family’s reputation, just for more money.

And when you see people take oaths of poverty and have such a high standard and terms of same sex marriage and a variety of other things and to see the conduct that some of the members of the church are involved in, you only have to say that everybody who claims they’ve been called by God to do his or her work, they could have had a hearing defect.

HEFFNER: (Laugh) Congressman Rangel, Americans by and large lament the dysfunction of Congress. As someone who’s been there when it still worked … what are your recommendations for how we can fix the system, because there are some mechanical issues that Americans wish would change beyond the two party hierarchy … whether it’s the filibuster, cloture in the Senate … you serve in the House, but are there particular changes, reforms within the system that you think would improve things? Irrespective of who serves in the system.

RANGEL: There’s no question that most all people know there are changes that could make it a more effective Legislative body. The difficulty in doing that is, is hard for me to see how.

First of all Congressional districts in the House are based on population. But they don’t say what population. And they don’t say that there’s a Federal Commission that will determine the size of a Congressional District geographically.

All they do is take the number of people that are provided by the census and divide that by 435 and you will then know which state, based on population would have one or more members of Congress.

The responsibility of determining how your are going to get that Congressional District remains in State Legislators. State Legislators, Republican and Democrats have a tendancy to agrees “You don’t bother my people, I won’t bother your people.”

If that is the pattern and say a state has 25 Representatives, Republican and 25 Representatives that are cut for … just for purposes of discussion … for Democrats … it means that no matter what I say as a Democrat, I’m going to get re-elected. So I don’t have to be involved with the national good, I want to be involved with my re-election. And the same thing with you.

Bringing us to the table to discuss something in the middle. It has to take a patriotic type of thing that is abundantly clear that the community Republicans and Democrats are fed up. As far as I’m concerned, we’re pretty close to that now. For people really don’t care about the party, they don’t care about what it is, they just think that we’re not performing and something dramatically should be done. And they’re right.

HEFFNER: Do they understand the malady that is gerrymandering?

RANGEL: No, it’s, it’s unfortunate how little people understand about politics. I mean a primary election, how many of your viewers know that the primary election basically is for the party to select who is going to be the person to represent the party before November’s general election.

Now, if indeed, it’s a Democratic district, the fact that they win the primary means that there are no choices for the people come in November because if it’s a 98% performing Democrat or Republican district, once you win the leadership as the candidate, you’ve won.

Now there’s some people who really believe “Well, I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republic, I’m Independent”. Wait a minute, if you come from a district that is considered a red Republican state, or a district that’s considered a blue Democratic state … an Independent’s vote doesn’t count for anything. Because they were not involved in the selection.

You have to be a member of that party. And so, if you see the turnout in America … it is painfully, woefully … “We don’t participate.” The only times you have a peak is every four years when there’s a Presidential.

Now in New York State, the courts decided that in order for our men and women overseas to participate, that we will have a June primary. The State says that they’re going to have a September primary for State Representatives.

We could have saved $50 million dollars, if we had moved the State primaries to the Federal primaries and we would have had a bigger turnout because there would be far more candidates coming.

But the State did not do that again and again and again. So comes June 24th and in the State of New York all the candidates that are running for the candidacy of their party will be on June 24th. And then they’ll be another primary for the State legislators and then, of course, in a couple of years, they’ll be the Presidential.

HEFFNER: Well that confusion would elicit some apathy. But let me ask you, would you support a Constitutional Amendment banning State legislatures from practicing gerrymandering?

RANGEL: I don’t think you need a lot of bans, Alex. You first have to show what is not working fairly. And I would think that if you had a respectable panel, a commission that was bi-partisan and trying to figure out what’s best for the country, then you have to persuade the voters that what they got needs to be fixed.

And so, if you start banning, then at the conventions, which side are your on? And once you lock into a position, it means you’re asking for stalemate.

But if you’re talking about “Let’s examine our system as it is nationally … let’s examine the Electoral College system. Let’s see why the popular vote should not prevail in a Presidential election.”

There are so many things that, if people like you can encourage other people to express their views, the more people that can say after listening to a program, “Gee, I didn’t know that, I better get a little more active”.

Because what I say, no matter how people vote on June 24th … for god’s sake, don’t wake up on June 25fh saying, “I didn’t know they had an election.” So, all of the things that we’re talking about banning … if not the State Legislators who? In many states, the states delegate the responsibility to an independent master that does all of this.

As a matter of fact, as far as these Congressional lines are concerned, do you think the State Legislature drew them? No. The State Legislators were busy drawing their lines and were reached a deadline. The courts took it away from the State Legislature and they did whatever they did (thumps the table) and that’s what we got today.

HEFFNER: I asked you about a Constitutional Amendment, although that may seem like a drastic measure because the system really, in the eyes of many Americans is a parasite right now. I mean it’s being eaten alive. Do we need drastic change?

RANGEL: Alex, to be honest with you, when you’re going on 84 years old …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

RANGEL: … and you talk about a Constitutional change, I have often said, “At my age, I don’t buy green bananas”.

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

RANGEL: I mean … in the future I think that people are going to have to decide why they think there’s a change. You’ve got to be interested in, in, in the status quo … you have to know something is wrong, if you’re going to advocate change.

And once the system is locked in, it takes some feeling emotional and politically to get people to ask for change. I mean we have every ten years some spike in terms of “We ought to do something about that”.

But in terms of the priority that people have in living and working and providing for their family, this don’t get on their radar screen. It really doesn’t. And it’s sad because we go into other nations. We monitor their elections. And it’s shameful, you know, what happened in Florida where the courts decided who the President of the United States was going to be. And where states go out of their way to discourage people from voting. And we’re telling other people we monitor their elections. And quite frankly as a patriot and not as a Democrat … it was embarrassing to watch the Republican Presidential debates.

Imean with the exception of John Huntsman … I know his father and his father said “Charlie, do you think its … the country is prepared to accept a Mormon for President?”

I said, “John when those Tea Party people get rid of you … get a’hold of your son … they going to tear him apart, no matter what his religion is”. And they did.

But if you had foreigners visiting New York and they were watching that on television to see who could outsmart the next fellow as to how right … to, to the Right they could go and how they’re going to have to re-adjust for the general election, I’m afraid that if something dramatic is not done, the Republican Party, nationally, as we know it, will not exist. And I’m scared to death of single party Republic.

HEFFNER: Thinking toward the future, if Congressman Rangel could flip a switch, would he still support instituting a draft?

RANGEL: You have to ask Charles Rangel …

HEFFNER: (Laugh) He’s sitting in front of me.

RANGEL: … why does he think a draft is important. And Charlie Rangel, sitting before you, would respond … if the military is there to be prepared to put themselves in harm’s way because the President feels that the security of the country is endangered … who determined … of the American family … who’s going to make that sacrifice.

Traditionally it has been those who volunteer to serve. I don’t know how many people from Harvard or Yale or the Ivy League schools says “Hey I hear there’s something going on in Iraq … I want to volunteer to do it.”

But I do know that people like me who dropped out of high school, that recognized there was a GI Bill and a key perhaps to a better education … or the fact they wanted security for their family with a check every month, or the fact that the highest recruits come from areas of lowest, highest unemployment.

I say this … that if you want to put troops in danger, you should have a mandatory draft at that time. Which forces me to allow the Congress to think that every tme they do this, they’re thinking of their kids, their grandkids, and people in the community. So I would hope there would never be an occasion for a draft. But I don’t see how we have all of these war hawks in Washington, that don’t give a darn, they don’t go to the funerals of these kids.

The saddest thing in the world, Alex, is to have some immigrant mother, who’s son volunteered because he thought that he or she could get closer to citizenship and when the Congressman walks in, “Please tell them, Congressman, how my son was a hero.” I mean, that’s painful. That is painful.

So, I think that if you think the country’s in trouble you should be … you should love this country as much as I do and be prepared to make some sacrifice.

HEFFNER: Congressman Rangel, I’m glad the social justice mission is still intact. And I want to thank you so much for joining The Open Mind today.

RANGEL: Great show, I’ve enjoyed every bit of it Alex.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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