Sitting in his offices at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Central Harlem, Charles Rangel remembers his return to the country that he says today “isn’t the same one that became the richest in the world.”
“When I came back from Korea, I had no clue where I wanted to go except that I wanted to get out of poverty,” he said. “I knew one thing, I had the GI Bill. When they told me I couldn’t get a degree because I had to finish high school, I raised so much hell until the guy said, ‘What is it you want to achieve that you’re giving us such a hard time?’”
Fifty years after his return from war, Rangel is less aggressive, but still determined to get things done. At 81, he’s spent half his life in the House of Representatives as the face of Harlem, since he ousted Powell, his office building’s namesake, in 1971. But the decennial process of redistricting—a political game of drawing new lines to reflect each district’s new demographic makeup—means his Congressional District 15, which is composed of Upper Manhattan, including Harlem and Morningside Heights, is again facing changes.
The move could extend the borders of Rangel’s constituency, pushing the congressman’s re-election campaign visits as far north as Mount Vernon, in Westchester County.
“In order to do that, some people said that the 15th District would look like a dragon, but all that’s speculation,” Rangel said at a press roundtable on Monday. “The head would be in Mount Vernon, the belly in Washington Heights, and so on.”
Rangel said that redistricting battles in the House were worse than in any previous year.
“I started a joke in the House that I’m going to have a rumor every week as to what the congressional lines are going to be and see my friends just panic: ‘Where did you hear that?’ ‘I just made it up, but it’s just as good as anything you made up,’” he said with laissez-faire casualness.
Herman “Denny” Farrell, Harlem’s State Assembly member and a longtime friend of Rangel, said at a town hall on Saturday that Rangel has been wary of taking his district out of Manhattan but recognizes it may be necessary to keep control of the seat.
According to 2010 census data, the district’s population, as well as the African-American population, has decreased: Voting-age citizens are now 27 percent white, 33 percent black, and 35 percent Hispanic. Legislators, according to Farrell, want to redraw the district not only to increase the population, but also to add more African-Americans.
“The only thing that I said is I have to accept whatever the mandate is with the exception of the congressman from Harlem having to be stationed in the Bronx, which some people have talked about,” Rangel said. “I’ll be damned if I want the district to go to Mount Vernon.”
Although Rangel said that “it’s very difficult” to respond to questions about the upcoming election because many of the state’s district borders remain undecided, he alluded to his familiarity with the area as a benefit of his campaign.
“It’s almost cut out for the incumbent because he or she would be able to take a look at the new part of the district as the incumbent,” he said. “I don’t see how anybody could raise money when they don’t know whether they’re going to be in Mount Vernon or the Bronx or on the West Side or Chelsea.”
Rangel spoke fondly of his native Harlem and beamed when he mentioned the improvements that Manhattanville will see under Columbia’s campus expansion.
The decades-long project will set a precedent for the improvement of a large portion of West Harlem, he said, and perhaps inspire more architectural projects there.
“Compared to its potential,” he said, referring to the western edge of the 15th district, “it’s been disgraceful that we haven’t taken advantage of that yet,” he said.
Over the last three months, Rangel has gotten more involved with the Manhattanville project as the allocation of the community benefits agreement money became a political issue. Rangel joined Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in calling for an investigation of the West Harlem Development Corporation, which has been the subject of scrutiny from locals for its delay in distributing $76 million of Columbia’s money to programs in West Harlem.
In November, he told Spectator that he “didn’t see how they could not” look into the group. On Monday, he said he had become involved when a member of the WHDC attempted to unilaterally give $80,000 to Grant Houses in Manhattanville for “structural improvements” without the permission of the organization’s director, Donald Notice.
“For the first time I got involved, and it was proven that no crime had been committed. The person that applied thought they didn’t need permission,” he said.
“I’m satisfied that the borough president looked at issues when confronted with them, and he was satisfied that no wrongdoing would be taking place,” Rangel said.