At a fund-raiser, Rangel and friends create their own narrative

Charlie Rangel. (Betsy Morais)
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Betsy Morais

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The crowd was milling around Chocolat, the new Leon Ellis restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard at the corner of 120th Street, when Charlie Rangel walked through the door. He shook a few hands, grinning from ear to ear, and then went straight for the microphone.

“I don’t normally just come in and take the mic,” he told the crowd.

One of the evening’s hosts, Reverend Reginald Williams, shouted back, “You at home!”

The Monday-night fund-raiser was billed as a show of support for Rangel, who is 80, among a new generation of Harlem Democrats, which made the whole exercise feel like an act of defiance.

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After a 40-year career representing Northern Manhattan in Congress, Rangel faces 13 charges of ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee, including failing to disclose personal assets and pay taxes on a vacation home in the Dominican Republic, accumulating rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem, and improperly soliciting donations for a building at City College to be named in his honor. He faces a hearing before the committee in September, the same month as he faces a multi-candidate primary.

Rangel, who hasn't admitted to any deliberate wrongdoing or responded to calls from a number of Democrats for his resignation, told the crowd that over the weekend, his chief primary challenger, Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, had talked it over with him in person.

“Powell came to me like a kid and said, ‘Charlie, why don’t you give it up?’”

Rangel said he responded by asking the 48-year-old Democrat, “Do you want the job?” and that Powell replied, 'yes.'"

Rangel said he then suggested to his opponent, “Tell them first what you’ve done. Then I’ll tell them what I’ve done. And we’ll see what happens.”

He got a big cheer for that.

In interviews, one attendee after another talked about the virtues of their congressman and what he has done for them over the course of his career. A phrase that came up several times was “innocent until proven guilty.”

“I feel like sometimes people give someone a bad rap and just go along with it without giving them a fair chance,” said Jermaine Cherry, a student at John Jay College and a volunteer for the campaign. Just as he was about to elaborate on that thought, Rangel walked up behind him. “Hold on,” Cherry said. “Let me get a picture with the congressman.”

“This is a friendly room,” said Rangel’s campaign manager, Kevin Wardally. The room, he added, provided a “more accurate depiction of the sentiment in Harlem” than what media coverage suggests.

Brian Benjamin, a member of the group (calling itself "Next Generation") that organized the event, said Rangel will “easily” win this fall.

A poll last month by Public Policy Polling—which came out before the House outlined Rangel’s ethics charges—put Rangel's job approval at 49 percent and showed that 39 percent of the district’s likely Democratic primary voters would support him. Powell came in with 21 percent of those likely votes.

“We recognize the fact that he [Rangel] has a long outstanding and distinguished record,” said Williams, who serves as pastor of the Charity Baptist Church of Christ and president of the Harlem-based Addicts Rehabilitation Center.

“I think people will recognize that and reward that,” he added.

Rangel's supporters were quick to dismiss, or at least explain, some of the developments that would seem to be bad signs for him. Referring to a recent interview in which Barack Obama called the allegations of Rangel “very troubling” and effectively urged him to retire, Benjamin said, “I think the president’s in a tough position."

Rangel's deputy chief of staff Geoffrey Eaton said that the campaign needs to “work hard, work harder than they ever did before to get him reelected."

“We’ve got to remind voters in this district just how important it is to elect this man,” said Wardally, adding that “the media has done a very good job changing the subject.”

Other attendees echoed Wardally’s criticism of the media's recent Rangel coverage.

Jamillah Richards—an aide to City Council Member Inez Dickens, who represents Harlem—said that, while some are influenced by Rangel’s recent portrayal in the news, “they see the good he’s done in the community and are not going on what people are saying.”

“At the end of the day, he’s going to be able to hold his head up high—and he will still be our congressman,” said Williams.

As waiters carried around platters of baby back ribs—a favorite of the congressman, according to the chef, Anthony Williams—Rangel wound down his speech.

“I’ve talked long enough,” Rangel said.

“I think the young executives want to say something!” Williams called out.

“Anything to stop me,” Rangel replied.

The crowd laughed, supportively. One of the twenty-somethings who helped organized the event made his way to the microphone, and the audience started clapping for Rangel, all but drowning out his last words: “But I’m on a roll.”