By Christopher A. Pape
Whether you agree or disagree with Charlie Rangel, you must respect him. Respect the fact that he’s been a Congressman for 44 years and has done much to help his district. Although no longer the Chairman of the Ways and Means committee, Mr. Rangel is still a force to be reckoned with.
I sat down with the Representative to talk about New York, his proudest moments, moments he regrets and what it means to him to have an African-American as the President.
I found out that Charlie is eloquent (I can understand why he’s won so many times), extremely knowledgeable and is the same age as my father! I really appreciate the time he afforded us and hope you like the piece as much as I liked interviewing him!
Resident (R): What does it mean to be a New Yorker?
Charlie Rangel (CR): I don’t know anything else; I feel sorry for people who were born here, like me, because it doesn’t get any better. There is no town that we can go to that is as exciting - whether it’s Paris or Berlin or Tokyo. Wherever you go, different cultures have a lot to offer but no other place has all of them together and to know that you can at anytime fall into a culture is a beautiful thing. I was able to see the Mexicans and the Dominicans emigrate here and to be able to be a part of that assimilation is very exciting. My family comes from Virginia; my father abandoned my mother as a kid. I was raised right here in Manhattan. I had not known any Dominicans until they had come into Manhattan and that group, more than any other; I was able to help organize, to help them get into public schools and into office.
R: How have you seen your district change since you have taken office?
CR: The district has changed from the very first day I came into office. The congressional district was always expanding. However, there are many more Dominicans in the district than there used to be and so there have been changes, but not as much as in other districts and not enough to change the outcome of the last election. Normally my reelection is not too much of a problem because I have worked so closely with the existing political structure.
R: What’s a normal day like for you?
CR: Everyday is a different day and now is really the most difficult to describe because after the election I would not be in Washington at all because we would be preparing for the transition into the new Congress. Normally, we would be home for the holiday season and if there were an emergency we would be called to Washington. Of course, when I’m home there is a great many people who want to meet with me so that I can help with whatever organization it may be. There is no one-day that is the same. In the summer time, it’s the parades in the wintertime it’s attending social functions for the nonprofits. It is exciting because no day is dull; you never get tired of it.
R: Which pieces of legislation are you most proud of?
CR: When my bill was signed into law, which cut off the tax benefits of American companies doing business in South Africa, it marked the beginning of the end of apartheid because they couldn’t afford to pay for both American and South African taxes; I was very proud that I was involved. My bill for Africa was the first formal trade relationship we ever had with the continent. Anything that I could do to break apartheid in South Africa was appreciated in my district. In the area of the President’s Affordable Care Act, it was my committee that got the first bill out and got it passed in the House of Representatives. It is going to be a historic piece of legislation because while most people look at it as providing health care for people who don’t have it and they think about the 30 million people who can sign up for it with government assistance, it can also be looked at as a way to save American money for preventing people from getting ill.
R: Do you have any political regrets?
CR: I was in combat and I wrote a book about it and the basis of the book was having come so close to death and truly believing that I was dying that I made a promise to myself and God that if it was possible for me to have survived that experience that I would never have any complaints. And believe it or not, every time I get close to complaining, I feel someone say to me: “Are you that same man from November 30,, 1950 that was so convinced that you would not have a complaint?” Everyday since then has been dedicated to public service. No matter how hard the work is there is a reward in helping people.
R: There are so many people you have worked with, is there someone who really stands out?
CR: I was fortunate to have a brother who was my mentor, my father, my brother, my advisor; he was my everything and we fought like hell on top of it. He was absolutely terrific and when he passed away a dear friend of mine who was not very successful in politics named Percy Sutton said he knew he could never be my brother, but he would like to try and in all of those years we have never had a disagreement on anything and we work so closely together. Percy is the one who stands out. We started out on the opposite side of the political fight and another friend, Raymond Jones, is responsible for bringing us together and we’ve never looked back.
R: As an African-American, you must be very proud that not only did Obama win but he also won a second term. Do you feel like you contributed to his ability to run?
CR: Well I endorsed Hilary Clinton at first. I had no idea of the abilities of then Senator Obama, but when he won the primary there was a since of pride in all African-Americans we were on the verge of electing one of our own as President of the United States. I suspect that most of us really thought that would be the end of racism in the country. But I was really taken aback when people said that their whole political mission was to defeat him and when I was working on the health bill to see how people from the South still had remnants of the racism was shocking. And quite frankly, if you take a look at that map today those red states are still the states that gave civil rights the hardest time.