After Rangel...what?

Charlie Rangel. ()
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Avi Zenilman

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There are three men and one woman running against Charlie Rangel, the legendary Harlem Congressman and dean of the New York delegation, in the September 15 Democratic primary. The four of them combined have so far raised less than half the $800,000 Rangel raked in this year and none of them has any support from the political establishment.

Still, this ought to be a great opportunity for these aspirants to the historic Harlem Congressional seat. Rangel has been reeling for a while now from a succession of ethics controversies, and last week, he was formally charged by the House ethics committee with, among other violations, illegally using rent-stabilized apartments for campaign work and failing to disclose rental income from a yacht club in the Dominican Republic. (He was unrepentant.) This means that Rangel, who was already stripped of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, could be expelled, or at least humiliated.

The problem is that the strongest of Rangel’s current challengers is Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, who has compiled an undistinguished record in Albany, making headlines rarely, and almost always for the wrong reasons.

"We would hope—the community and the constituents of his district are hoping he would retire with honor," Powell said in a phone interview on Sunday, which he gave as he entered the studio of Fox News Channel studio to sit down with "Geraldo At Large" guest-host Jeanine Pirro. "The charges don't help the situation."

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In June, the North Carolina firm Public Policy Polling surveyed 600 Harlem residents and found that Rangel's approval ratings were slipping below 50 percent. But the same poll found that he would still get almost 40 percent of the vote in a five-way primary race, while Powell would get 21 percent, followed by former Obama official Joyce Johnson (7 percent), labor activist Jonathan Tasini (6 percent), and former Rangel aide Vincent Scott Morgan (2 percent).

In the phone interview, Powell hit the word "progressive" like a gong, touting his record in the Assembly, and calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage. It wasn’t clear how he differed from Rangel much on the substance of the issues he’d have to deal with as a Congressman.

Rangel, a Korean War veteran, has long articulated his opposition to the American war in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, by calling for a reinstitution of the draft, which would expose all classes of society to the consequences of war.

Powell, asked about Rangel's proposal, said: "We don't need to draft more soldiers, we need to bring our soldiers home.”

America, he continued, "should only go to war to defend against attacks."

He was talking about Afghanistan, but then he was talking about Iraq, where the motivation for the war—"revenge, oil contracts, Halliburton, whatever"—he said went well beyond self-defense.

He said Barack Obama was making the same mistake in Afghanistan that George W. Bush had made by invading Iraq in 2003.

"We're in Afghanistan because we're trying to fight a war there, but history tells us when there is a war there, we're not going to be able to fight a war there by ourselves," he said.

He concluded by pointing out that America had not been attacked since 9/11, and saying, "These preemptive wars are questionable to begin with.”

When asked whether the war in Afghanistan was a response to the 9/11 attacks and not a preemptive war, he emphasized American failures so far.

"We're looking for Osama Bin Laden—the man is 65, needs dialysis, and we can't find him?" he asked. "Unless we find him—I fail to see the reason why we're there."

On tax policy, Powell does not have the fine-grained expertise that Rangel accumulated as Chairman of the Congressional Committee on Ways and Means, but philosophically they both seem to be supporters of tax reform. One of Rangel's main hobbyhorses was repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax, which originally was intended to keep rich people from dodging their obligations but had to be fixed each year to prevent it from penalizing middle-class families.

When asked specifically about the AMT, Powell spoke in generalities. "I believe in progressive taxation," he said, before detailing his support for revenue-raising measures in the state legislature.

When asked again about the AMT, he broadly described his vision for the federal tax code. "I would like to see a tax across the board where everybody pays their fair share, where people over 250 [thousand], over 500 pay a little more," he said.

Powell, whose father, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., lost the Harlem seat to Rangel in 1970, has long had his eyes on the family prize. In 1994, as a young councilman, he ran against Rangel in a primary and lost by 25 points. He eventually moved to Puerto Rico, before returning in 2000 to take up his seat in the Assembly, where his work was overshadowed by occasional legal controversies, including an arrest on charges of drunk driving.

This is his best chance to make a showing. He has chosen not to run again for his seat in the Assembly, which he has held for 10 years, and says he will be "unemployed" if he loses.

"I didn't make this decision lightly," he said.

If Rangel holds on past September, a number of alternative scenarios open up, all of them bad for Powell: a resignation means that there could be a special election, where he'd have to compete with local powerhouses like State Senator Bill Perkins and Rangel’s favorite, Assemblyman Keith Wright.

And if Rangel won and then held on until 2012, as a lame duck, there’s no chance the field of contenders to succeed him would be as weak as this one. That’s mostly because Perkins or Wright or some other established candidate would run, but also because the Harlem-insurgent space will have been taken up by someone, maybe Basil Smikle, depending upon how his current bid for Senate goes, or even Vincent Morgan, who is almost explicitly running this time as practice for the next election: "Win or lose, I'll be running again in 2012," he said.

Morgan is a 41-year-old community banker ("not one of those Wall Street types”) whose most recent finance report at first declared negative cash-on-hand, accidentally, he says. (“We didn't account for some contributions that we had gotten online.")

In a phone interview, he dismissed the poll that placed him dead last and explained that for each issue—education, unemployment, the structure of loan programs in the Small Business Administration—he would deliver a "plan of action," a "strategic plan," or a "concrete plan."

Mainly, though, he focused on seizing the generational torch.

"Mr. Rangel is at the twilight of his career, and he would be best served by taking his 40 years of institutional knowledge and investing that in someone like me who has the ability to carry on with the things that he said he'd prioritize," he said. "It's called paying it forward."

On the evening of July 22, after the charges against Rangel were announced, Morgan took to Twitter, where he transmitted the following to his 86 followers: "PHONE ringing off the hook! Stay focused and stay humble is my mantra. I will continue to work hard to earn every vote.”