Charlie Rangel’s Old-New Challenger

This morning’s news that Adam Clayton Powell IV is eyeing a 2010 primary campaign against Representative Charlie Rangel reeks of a classic narrative: the son avenging his father’s demise. Superficially, at least, that’s what it looks like.

In 1970, Powell’s father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was perhaps the most prominent black politician in the United States—but his reputation was fading, a victim of a three-year legal and political struggle that saw him stripped of his committee chairmanship and expelled from the House (only to be reinstated by the Supreme Court).

The elder Powell, charged with using his Education and Labor Committee’s funds to pay for his own exotic travels, had become to many a caricature of the arrogant, out-of-touch politician—missing countless votes and committee sessions, spending weeks at a time in Florida and Bimini and all but abandoning his district.

It was Rangel, an ambitious Harlem politician, who capitalized on the decline of Powell’s image, beating him by 150 votes in the ’70 Democratic primary, a defeat that ended Powell’s political career and began what is now a four-decade run on Capitol Hill for Rangel.

So it seems fitting that, all these years later, Rangel finds himself flirting with his predecessor’s fate—brought low by the same arrogance and complacency that wrecked Powell.

A year’s worth of revelations about sweetheart rental deals, unreported income and lobbyist-funded junkets has put pressure on Nancy Pelosi and her fellow House Democrats to strip Rangel, now 79, of his Ways and Means chairmanship. The ethics committee is investigating, and their probe keeps expanding: The final report actually could be damning enough to cost Rangel his gavel.

And it seems even more fitting that Powell’s son, now a 47-year-old assemblyman, is positioning himself to capitalize. If this were a Hollywood script, it would be as simple as that, and Powell would be on his way to Congress soon enough. But that’s probably not how this drama will play out.

For one thing, Powell is trying to avenge his own defeats and political failures as much as (if not more than) his father’s.

Fifteen years ago, as a 32-year-old city councilman, Powell first challenged Rangel. It was the first time since ’70 that the congressman was forced into a real campaign for his seat—and he didn’t like it one bit. On the campaign trail, he was mockingly contemptuous of his young foe. “I can’t think of a bad thing to say about him—or good,” Rangel said.

The race attracted national attention because of the memories of ’70, but Powell’s timing was off. Rangel had been in office for a long time, but most voters didn’t mind. In the September 1994 primary, Rangel won by a 58-33 percent margin.

Powell tried to parlay the visibility from that race into a 1997 bid for Manhattan borough president, but lost out to C. Virginia Fields (who used the post to position herself for a run for mayor in 2005, which she lost). And in 2004, spurred on by Al Sharpton (who resented Rangel’s endorsement of Wesley Clark over him in the presidential race), he toyed with running against Rangel again, only to back off.

Powell staged a mini-comeback by winning an Assembly seat in 2000, but his Albany career has been marred by brutal headlines and scandal. His attendance record has been abysmal and he has no legislative accomplishments to speak of. Two women accused him of rape in 2004, though charges were never brought, and in 2008 he was arrested for drunk driving by New York City police—who found a passed-out woman in his back seat. And last month, Powell was taken to task by the Daily News for using his campaign account to pay for personal expenses, including world travel.

This is not a man who is well positioned to take advantage of another politician’s tarnish. 

And even if Powell lacked all of this baggage, taking out Rangel would still probably be beyond him. The revelations of the past year have damaged Rangel’s standing on Capitol Hill, where swing-district Democrats fear media reports about how their party is “protecting” the crooked guy from New York, but the fallout isn’t anywhere near critical mass in Harlem yet.

 Maybe that will change if the ethics committee report is particularly unsparing—filled with new details and harsh judgments. But the most likely scenario then is that Rangel would simply leave Congress, since Democrats would take away his Ways and Means gavel (and, thus, his source of power relevance in the House).

A few months before the 2006 elections, Rangel suggested that he’d retire if the Democrats failed to win back the majority. “If we don’t do it,” he said, “it would be a body-blow to my party and to me personally, and I would find it very difficult to be effective.” Without his Ways and Means gavel, he might well feel the same.

In that case, Powell would merely be one of many Democrats angling to succeed Rangel, and probably not close to the favorite. Already, Vincent Morgan, the director of Rangel’s ho-hum 2002 reelection campaign, has jumped into the ’10 race. With Rangel out, he’d be joined by other challengers who are better known.

Or there’s the chance that Rangel could mimic the late Tom Manton, who timed his House resignation in 1998 in a way that prevented a primary and allowed the county committee (filled with his allies) to pick his successor, Joe Crowley. In this scenario, Powell would be out of luck, too. 

But if Powell does run and Rangel holds on to his chairmanship, the most likely outcome next year is simply a repeat of ’94—another lopsided win for the incumbent.

Charlie Rangel’s Old-New Challenger