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Dan Collins

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Time for Charlie Rangel to Turn Off the Lights

Posted: 03/ 2/2012 10:53 am

Charlie Rangel. Charlie Rangel.

New York's most famous disgraced member of Congress is planning on running for another term in office, and it's making all the other New York Democrats crazy.

Rangel is looking at being re-elected at 82. Legislators often continue to perform valuable public service in their 80s, but I don't think there are any examples involving 82-year-old lawmakers who were forced out of the chairmanship of a key committee and censured by the House of Representatives for 11 ethics violations that ranged from getting charitable donations from companies who had dealings with his committee to failing to pay income tax on the money he received for renting out his Dominican villa.

This is a reapportionment year. Congressional boundaries have to be redrawn, and doing so in a way that gives Rangel a district he can win has everyone flummoxed. Regrettably, redistricting is the job of the New York state legislature.

The congressman's supporters are determined to give Rangel another ride on the merry-go-round. "You must understand, for the last 40 years, whatever district Charlie Rangel wants, we give it to him, we in the Assembly," Assemblyman Denny Farrell told a town hall meeting in January.

Rangel's power has always been centered in Harlem, but over the last decade, Harlem has changed. Just watch one of those real estate shows on cable TV and you'll find a string of stories about eager apartment-hunters who happily discover that they can get upscale digs for bargain prices if they're willing to look above 125th Street.

Meanwhile, the Dominican neighborhoods in northern Manhattan have been expanding. More whites, many more Latinos, fewer African-Americans.

The Democrats have been trying to painfully cobble together a district Rangel could win, with sections of Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester County that have large African-American populations. The Bronx is angry. The Latinos are angry. Other Democrats whose districts will get some of the chunks of population that don't work for Rangel are angry because those chunks don't work for them, either.

Nobody can figure out what to do about this. The state legislature could, of course, have done what reformers were demanding and turned over all the boundary-drawing issues to a nonpartisan panel of judges who could create fair, contiguous districts and let the voters decide the rest. This was as likely to happen as a war with Canada.

The second most logical answer is for Rangel to retire. He's done. His accomplishments, as well as his errors, are history. "I know in my heart I am not going to be judged by this Congress. I'll be judged by my life in its entirety," the old Lion of Lenox Avenue said when he was about to censured.

Rangel began his congressional career with a reform campaign against Adam Clayton Powell, a long-time incumbent who was also undone by an ethics scandal. But Powell's uninspiring finale is barely remembered anymore. And nothing Rangel is going to do in two more years in Congress is going to change his legacy one way or another.

But the real problem isn't making Rangel happy. It isn't even clear that this business of one last term is really his idea. People like Farrell want to make sure that Rangel's seat is handed down to someone else from their crowd, namely Assemblyman Keith Wright, a protegee of the Harlem old guard who is also the Democratic county chairman. Fred Dicker reported in the New York Post this week that Wright had rejected a deal to solve the standoff by giving Rangel his winnable district in return for an agreement that the Bronx, Manhattan, and Westchester county chairs would get to choose Rangel's eventual successor.

You may notice the presumption that it won't be the voters doing the choosing.

All three of these chairs are African-American. The bottom problem isn't race or ethnicity. It's Harlem. The Harlem Democratic machine was a great political story in its time, created by a generation of African Americans who had been born into segregation. Many of them served with distinction in World War II or Korea. (Rangel was wounded in Korea and received a Bronze Star for bravery.)

These men came home and built an organization the like of which New York had never seen before, one in which African Americans not only supplied the votes but made the decisions.

It's quite a story, but it's a story about something that no longer really exists. The heart of African-American Democratic politics has moved out of Manhattan, to Brooklyn and the Bronx. Like Rangel, the idea of a Harlem-based congressional district is something that's ready for retirement.

It's time to move on.