Very few American politicians have been in office long enough to say they have defeated both a father and a son. Congressman Charles Rangel can make that claim having edged the redoubtable Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970 and his son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, in 1994. A rematch in the September primary now looms between Rangel and Powell IV as candidates for the 15th Congressional District seat in Harlem that either a Rangel or a Powell has occupied since 1944.
Rangel, often heralded as the “Lion of Lenox Avenue,” announced his re-election bid with a rousing fundraiser in Harlem. More than 500 people attended, including Governor David Paterson, former N.Y.C. Mayor David Dinkins, attorney Basil Paterson, the NAACP’s Hazel Dukes, City Comptroller John Liu, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Inez Dickens, the City Council’s assistant deputy majority leader. “I’ve just begun to fight,” an ageless Rangel told the cheering crowd. “This is a celebration, not so much for me but for all of us because God has allowed us to be alive for such dramatic changes in our country.”
With such formidable backers, a contender might think twice about challenging a man who has been in office more than a generation and ascended to the upper echelon of government. But State Assemblyman Powell is not cowed by Rangel, his money or his political prowess. The “Lion” is wounded and vulnerable and can be taken, he argues.
“The fact that he is no longer chairman is significant. If he were still chairman, I might not be running,” Powell said when he announced his candidacy at a press conference in April.
Rangel has had to step down as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee amid tax and financial ethics charges, which makes him less powerful than he was in 1994 when Rangel virtually trounced him, Powell contends. “That was then,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I was very young, with only a little experience as a councilman back then. But a lot of things have changed since then. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of money.”
Not having a lot of money may continue to plague his bid. Powell reportedly trails Rangel considerably in the amount of money in their war chests, but he believes that he will be able to raise at least $300,000. That’s still less than half the funds in Rangel’s coffers, according to several reports.
Powell, 47, who was a councilman from 1992 to 1997 and has been in the state assembly since 2000, dismissed any notion that he was running to avenge his father’s defeat. “I got over that in 1994,” he says. He also appeared not to be concerned about “accusations and allegations” of drunk driving and sexual assault. “That’s all they are, accusations and allegations. I have never been convicted of any crime other than for protesting the bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico,” he says.
Harlem political pundits also charge that Powell has done very little in authoring and passing bills during his tenure in Albany, an assertion easily countered by the number of bills listed on Powell’s Web site that he sponsored and co-sponsored.
Given Rangel’s long tenure and probably the Party’s endorsement, it will be an uphill battle for Powell or another candidate. One factor that may bolster Powell’s run is the extent to which he can corral the Hispanic vote, which, with each election, becomes more critically prominent in determining election outcomes in Harlem. Hints that he might gather allies from the Hispanic community are readily seen in the endorsements he has received from the three Riveras in the Assembly — José, Naomi and Peter. Thus far among his endorsers, only Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. is not Hispanic.
Powell has been reluctant to play the Hispanic card, but it would appear to be an obvious advantage for him to exploit since he was born in Puerto Rico and his mother was Puerto Rican. He seems more content to stress the fact that Rangel the “Lion of Lenox” is wounded, but he ought to know the danger of challenging a wounded lion.