News | West Harlem

Harlem pol braces for public trial, crowded primary race

True to the wild and whimsical world of Rep. Charles Rangel, the night of his birthday bash this summer started out with an unexpected gesture: a highly public display of the middle finger.

One-time New York Mayor David Dinkins, known for flying under the radar, made headlines the moment his car rolled up to the Plaza Hotel, where Rangel’s soiree and fundraiser was held, on a Wednesday night in August.

“You know you are attending a party for a crook,” an unruly protestor yelled as Dinkins made his way up the red carpet into the hotel.

Remaining calm, Dinkins did not even bother to respond to the heckler. He simply flipped the bird for onlookers to see and cameras to capture—and in the process, set the tone for the night. As guest after guest arrived for Rangel’s birthday, they defiantly showed all of Rangel’s critics just how foolish they had been for assuming that few would show up for the embattled congressman’s 80th birthday.

The scene was typical for the polarizing congressman, who has partied, paraded, and campaigned across the city this summer in hopes of re-election.

One week from today, one of the most talked-about New York political races this year will play out at the voting booths—but not before Rangel is scrutinized at a public hearing.

Beginning on Monday, Sept. 13, Rangel—before facing five challengers in a heated and crowded primary race—will face a public trial in light of 13 charges of violation that a House Ethics subcommittee brought against him in July. The recommendations that the Ethics committee makes to the full House following the public trial could range from a mere reprimand to expulsion from Congress altogether, though many speculate that the potential punishment will amount to no more than a slap on the wrist.

The very next day, voters will decide whether the longtime Harlem politician deserves to stay on for another term.

With this political baggage—the charges against him include falsely disclosing his personal assets, failing to pay federal income taxes on a vacation property, and renting rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem at rates far below market value—Rangel has remained in the spotlight this summer.

His campaign, though, remains confident in his staying power.

“Based on what Rangel has delivered to the people, the people in the district are going to reward him, and I believe anyone who runs against him is going to lose,” Kevin Wardally, senior vice president for political and government affairs for Bill Lynch Associates, which is in charge of Rangel’s campaign, told Spectator in July.

And the sold-out birthday bash seemed to suggest that Rangel’s political allies are still by his side—publicly, at least.

“They all want to be here to celebrate with Charlie,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told Spectator during the August fundraiser.

The days leading up to the gala were filled with speculation about which high-profile politicos would show up, which would snub Rangel, and which would make an appearance but bolt before they were caught on camera.

The party was shaping up to be a sad and humiliating one for Rangel, as longtime friends and colleagues were supposedly going to put their electoral careers over their friendship with him. It was assumed that the invitees cared more about saving face than being publicly associated with a scandal-ridden Rangel.

But a Twitter post from Rangel just hours before the event was a bellwether for the hours to come. “Despite what the media wants you to believe, #Birthday Gala is sold out!” Rangel tweeted.
“It took up to 20 minutes just to get on the line,” Steven Richman, general counsel for the New York City Board of Elections, said. “Charlie got lucky, and he deserved it.”

Among the 800-plus party patrons in attendance, nearly every political heavyweight Rangel had invited showed up. There were a few exceptions, such as Reps. John Hall and Carolyn Maloney—two politicians whose excuses in the days leading up to the party seemed to signal that there would be an anemic turnout.

“As one of Charlie’s angels, what I would say to those people who didn’t come is, they should either show up or shut up,” Willie Mae Anderson, who met Rangel through the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club, a city-based Democratic organization, told Spectator.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg had a few words for those who bailed.

“I know a few people couldn’t be here tonight, because, as they tell it, either they had to get a haircut unexpectedly, or they were sure they’d have a headache,” Bloomberg said to the crowd while standing on stage, where a number of speeches were made. “But Charlie, as you know, they were here with you as long as they could be.”

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer also delivered speeches, quickly dispelling rumors that the big-name politicians would be no-shows.

Sharpton told the crowd, “We showed up for Charlie Rangel tonight, because Charlie Rangel always showed up for us!”

If there was a lesson to take away from the night, Sharpton seemed to sum it up exactly: No favor done by Rangel is forgotten. From Special Olympics participant Ron Weintraub, who said Rangel had raised money for the program; to former Harlem Superintendent Bert Brown, who said Rangel’s support for the district was unprecedented; to singer Johnny Rainbow, who will never forget when Rangel showed up at one of his performances, nearly every guest at the party said that not showing up was never even a thought.

“You don’t abandon your family, you don’t abandon your friends,” New York City Council member Robert Jackson said in an interview in August at the Dominican Day Parade, where Rangel marched.
Bob Lawrence, a Republican who nonetheless came to the birthday bash to support Rangel, remarked that he was amazed by the diversity of the crowd.

“When I go to Republican conventions, I have never seen what I saw here tonight,” Lawrence told Spectator. “There’s so much diversity, so many minorities, so much unity here.”

At a time when his ethics battle has sparked discord within the ranks of his party, Rangel seemed to relish this sense of unity, smiling and dancing as music legend Dionne Warwick sang to him—perhaps leaving behind his political woes, if only for a few hours.

“I’m a hardened pol, I’ve been doing this 40 years, and tonight was just really special,” said State Committeewoman Trudy Mason. “Dionne Warwick said it best when she sang, ‘That’s what friends are for.’”

kim.kirschenbaum@columbiaspectator.com

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