Rep. Charles Rangel Reflects On Surviving Political Storm

Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat from New York, is serving his 21st term in the House of Representatives. The veteran lawmaker was re-elected by an overwhelming majority in November, despite facing charges which led to his censure by colleagues for ethics violations. In a special Tell Me More broadcast from the Big Apple, host Michel Martin speaks with the New York politician, who was the first African-American to chair Congress' powerful Ways and Means Committee.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We've traveled to my hometown, the Big Apple, and to NPR studios in the heart of the city for a special broadcast. We're going to introduce you to the incoming artistic director of the dance powerhouse, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. That is later in the program.

But, first, another New York icon, Congressman Charles Rangel. He's now serving his 21st term in Congress representing Central Harlem, East Harlem, the Upper West Side and Washington Heights. He's a Democrat, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was the first African-American to chair one of the most powerful entities on Capitol Hill - the tax writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Last year he came under fire from his congressional colleagues for ethics violations and lapses in paying his own taxes. Despite that, he was reelected last November by an overwhelming margin. He was subsequently censured by his colleagues, a serious rebuke. But he remains in office, the third most senior Democrat in the House and he's with us now from his offices in Washington, D.C. Congressman Charles Rangel. Thank you so much for joining us.

Representative CHARLES RANGEL (Democrat, New York): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, when you think back to when you first took the oath to become a member of Congress, did you ever think you'd serve 21 terms?

Rep. RANGEL: Not at all. This has been a fascinating experience. It's like an unending post graduate course. And to be able to see the changes in your community, the nation and the world, and to be a part of it and to be able to change things, it is something that you really can't describe. You have to feel it and I have and I thank god for the experience.

MARTIN: And I know that your career is not over yet. But when you think back over the course of it, is there a proudest moment for you?

Rep. RANGEL: Well, when Nelson Mandela was finally released and I had a chance to visit with him, I had no idea that he even knew my name or who I was. And when we were introduced he says, oh no, that's not just Charlie Rangel. In South Africa they call him the bloody Charlie Rangel for introducing the amendment that cut off tax benefits for American multinationals that were in South Africa. So it went a long way in bringing all of those people out of South Africa, cutting off support for the South African government. And I just in my heart know I played some small role in that.

And to me it's just a very warm feeling to believe that one guy from Lenox Avenue could have some impact on an international situation that caused people to live without dignity.

MARTIN: The Republican leadership and the president have all said that they are now committed to trying to work together, you know, across the aisle. You would think that unemployment, for example, would be a natural, you know, area of agreement with unemployment at more than nine percent nationally and certainly minority unemployment, you know, far higher than that.

Do you see any sign of bridging the gap between the parties, or of a shared commitment to addressing these problems? Or any shared areas of agreement so far?

Rep. RANGEL: Not so far, Michel. Right now they are attempting to fulfill at least the best they can, the campaign promises. One, to kill the president's bill. They know they can't do that as it relates to affordable health care. But so far they haven't brought up anything that would improve the economy or to create jobs. Another thing is that they're still juiced up with getting rid of the president. And if that's their top priority, they take the position that they can't cooperate with him on anything.

And there's a hatred part of human beings, in part, in a very small part of the Republican Party that really has no respect for the president as a human being. And this is infectious and contagious and from time to time you see it, you hear it. And I only hope that Americans, not Republicans, but Americans really would remind them that human life, human dignity, job opportunity, economic growth, is far more important than just party labels.

MARTIN: You really think that there are a group of people who hate the president? In fact, during the Super Bowl, you remember that the Fox News personality, Bill O'Reilly, interviewed the president and he asked him that. He said, you know, how do you feel about the fact that, you know, so many people hate you? And the president said, they don't hate me, they don't really know me. But you really think there are certain people who hate the president? And if so, why?

Rep. RANGEL: Well, I suspect - and I haven't been trained in psychiatry - but that when you are hopelessly unemployed or when you've felt the pain of not being able to take care of your family or provide food and shelter, that you need a scapegoat. You really need someone to blame. And when I was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and we were preparing the president's health bill and I had to go outside the Capitol to get to my office and I saw these faces of anger and cartoon portraits of the president and things that were so disgraceful, and I saw the hatred that were in people's eyes as they demeaned the president of the United States.

And quite frankly, it reminded me of the faces I saw in Selma when I was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King. And so I don't think the hate is specifically for him, but he has been, even on television with some of the talking heads as well as the people have their regular program, they have used him in order to encourage people to dislike and to hate him.

And so you find a lot of this hatred during any depression, any deep recession and it's truly unfortunate. But I think the American people, we've overcome so much in the past, that I'm very optimistic.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

I'm speaking with Congressman Charles Rangel of New York. He's the third most senior member of the House of Representatives, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. We've caught up with him in his office in Washington, as we are broadcasting from New York.

How do you feel going forward? Do you feel you'll be able to be as influential as you'd like to in this current Congress?

Rep. RANGEL: Well, yes, because my colleagues have admitted that they got caught in a political crisis. We're being fair and equitable during the time of rough politics. It's a bad time to be looking for fairness. But I think history is the proper recorder of one's influence in their deeds and what they've done. But I feel very comfortable in making certain that our country moves forward, my community moves forward. And once again, I have an opportunity to participate.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about whether you feel that you've moved past the censure vote last December. You were censured by a vote of your colleagues for ethics violations. You were the 23rd congressman to receive this punishment and the last in 1983. At the time, you said, compared to where I've been, I haven't had a bad day since. And of course that's a reference - your autobiography is titled "And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress." I did want to ask, what did you mean by that, and do you feel you've moved forward?

Rep. RANGEL: Well, quite frankly, if anyone, you know, takes time to read the record and find out that in the two-years investigation that I called for, they found no evidence of corruption or self dealing or self enrichment, and the head prosecutor indicated that my biggest problem was overzealousness in trying to raise money for minority kids at the City College of New York, and sloppiness in terms of the filing of papers where there was no evidence or intent to deceive anyone.

Having said all of that, it came at a time where the partisanship in the House and the integrity of the Congress has been at a long-time low for the Congress, and certainly the partisanship at an all-time high. And so it is what it was, but it ain't over until the full record is there. And I am more than confident, not just with my constituents, but with people all over the country, indeed the world, that you read the facts and you recognize that due process and equity was not a part of the judgment. And I'm confident too, that this story is going to be told and told soon.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I do want to ask about events going on in the Middle East. As we are speaking now, the demonstrations have been going on in Egypt for weeks, culminating, last week, in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years. What do you make of these developments?

Rep. RANGEL: You know, when I think of Egypt as the basis of civilization and science and technology and to see how so many of these people have never known freedom like that. The late Milli Taylor song was I wish that I knew how I could be born to be free. And I wish that the presidents in the past did not have to see fit under the guise of national security to protect dictators and oppressors of equality and freedom. Not just in Egypt, but in all parts of the world, including communist China.

But, again, there was a sense of identification when the president said his time was up and he left. And now it's up to us to move forward and to shore up the dreams and the hopes and the aspirations of the people in Egypt. We owe it to them because we have been a part of the international leadership that kept them suppressed.

MARTIN: Congressman Charles Rangel is a Democrat. He represents the 15th District of New York. He's the third most senior member of the House and he was kind enough to join us from his office in Washington.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. RANGEL: Thank you. I enjoyed our exchange and the best to you.

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