At election-night parties, the politician who will find out if he has a job the next day is usually nowhere to be seen, not until much after the last vote is counted, when he comes out onstage to celebrate or commiserate.
But the night that Charlie Rangel won his 20th term in Congress, early and often he waltzed out on to the stage, grabbed the microphone, declared victory before saying it wasn’t over yet, thanked friends and supporters and introduced each new political guest as he arrived.
By night’s end, Mr. Rangel had inched slightly above the 50 percent mark in a six-candidate field, scoring just enough of a validation from the Harlem community he has served for the past three decades to tell the executioners in Washington to hold their fire.
The next day, Mr. Rangel went back to work in D.C., but he returned to the district on Monday night, appearing before a few dozen graybeards for a meeting of Manhattan Peace Action in a basement community center on the Upper West Side.
Sporting a pinstriped suit and an electric blue tie and pocket square, he was there to talk about his plan to reinstitute the military draft, a provocative proposal designed to highlight what he sees as a de-facto conscription of young men and women who see no opportunity in neighborhoods like his own.
But Mr. Rangel, who led 40 men to safety after getting shot in the Korean War and earned a Purple Star for his efforts, soon pivoted to politics.
“Now in combat, just like in races, God has given us a sense of adrenaline, that which gets you all hopped up either attacking or defending,” he said. “But somehow it works. You can get people worked up that they got to shoot people or get shot.”
When Mr. Rangel started to look like he was weak, after nearly two years of relentless bad news about sloppy financial disclosure forms, improper fund-raising and failure to pay taxes, Harlemites started to come out of the woodwork to take him on. Vince Morgan, a community banker and former Rangel aide, began arguing that it was time for the neighborhood to look beyond the Rangel era. Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, whose revered father served the district before being ousted by Mr. Rangel, called Mr. Rangel an embarrassment. Perennial candidate Jonathan Tasini accused Mr. Rangel of everything from being responsible for the gentrification of Harlem to prolonging the war in Afghanistan.
Few in the political class, however, abandoned him. Former mayor David Dinkins famously flipped off a gaggle of protestors at a Rangel fund-raiser. Bill Clinton and Mayor Michael Bloomberg robo-called constituents for him. Every local elected official attended his high-dollar 80th birthday party at the Plaza, or sent checks in their stead.
And Mr. Rangel, whose 40-year tenure in Congress has seemed like one endless campaign swing through Harlem, visiting every block party and housing-project barbecue he could, cranked the glad-handing up another notch over the past few weeks, hitting early-morning subway stops, shaking hands at senior centers and rallying for the unemployed on Wall Street.
“Let me thank you for the last election,” he said to Manhattan Peace Action. “It meant more to me than politics. It meant the faith that you have in me representing you, and I promise I will never do anything to embarrass you.”
After Mr. Rangel was finished, the meeting cleared out as the peaceniks rushed to greet him in the hallway.
“A tremendous load has been lifted off of my shoulders,” he said once he had waded through them. “If you feel more bounce in my step, that’s because it was a very heavy emotional toll. Not so much the accusations but what are my friends and constituents really thinking. It’s a painful thing when people say you let them down.”
Mr. Rangel is not in the clear yet. His House Ethics trial has yet to begin. It is unlikely that he will get the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee back, assuming that Democrats retain the majority in Congress. Republicans are likely to run ads all over the country for the next several weeks pointing to Mr. Rangel as a reason why they should not.
But his just over 50 percent victory shows that he is still the kingmaker in Harlem. And even as a batch of Harlem elected officials line up to replace Mr. Rangel, his victory says that they perhaps should put away the drape-measures for the time being. He has, after all, given no indication that 2010 will be his last race.
“Now I know that at the very minimum, people are saying, ‘I believe what you said, I give you a chance,'” Mr. Rangel said before stepping into his Town Car and heading home. “And so if I seem more fired up, it’s because I am.” –David Freedlander