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Charles Rangel Biography

Left Harlem for Military Service, Committed Himself to Public Service, Became Established in his Government Career


Politician, activist

Congressman Charles Rangel of New York is one of the most influential and respected men in Washington, D.C. Since his legislative career began in 1970, he has been recognized as a dedicated, hardworking individual with a personality that is uniquely suited to political productivity. He expresses his opinions forcefully and stands by them steadfastly, but he is also flexible enough to compromise in order to effect change. His genial personality has helped him to form alliances with people whose philosophies are vastly different from his, and his overall competence has won him the support of many Republicans as well as that of his fellow Democrats.

Left Harlem for Military Service

Rangel was born in Harlem on June 11, 1930, the second of his parents' three children, and was raised by his mother and her father. He grew up amid the drugs and street crime that would later become his main concerns as an elected official. Rangel attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx but dropped out during his junior year. After working a few low-paying jobs that offered little in the way of satisfaction or potential, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1948. Sent to Korea, he took part in heavy combat there. After rescuing some forty soldiers from behind enemy lines, he was decorated with both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for valor.

Army life opened new doors for Rangel. He felt no desire to become a career soldier, and he found discrimination in the service, as elsewhere. In fact, years later, during the Gulf War of 1991, he demanded that General Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, investigate claims by black National Guardsmen from Harlem that they had been treated disrespectfully and thrust into combat without proper training. But even though the Army was no haven of equal opportunity, Rangel's tour of duty was a pivotal life experience. For the first time he saw alternatives to the poverty that was the norm in Harlem, and he knew he would never go back to that way of life.

Discharged honorably as a staff sergeant in 1952, Rangel immediately began work on completion of his high school education. In one year's time he went through two years' worth of study and earned his diploma in 1953. By 1957 he had graduated from New York University's School of Commerce, becoming the first person in his family to get a college degree. His academic performance was stellar and won him a full scholarship to St. John's University, the largest Roman Catholic university in the United States.

In 1960 Rangel graduated from St. John's Law School and was admitted to the bar. His first year of practice wasn't particularly lucrative, but he did begin attracting a following among black civil rights activists, who appreciated his willingness to take on their cases. After a year in private practice, Rangel was appointed U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Over the next few years he served in a variety of posts that deepened his insight into legal matters on both state and local levels. He was legal counsel to New York City's Housing and Redevelopment Board, associate counsel to the speaker of the New York State Assembly, legal assistant to Judge James L. Watson of New York, and general counsel to the National Advisory Commission on Selective Service.

Committed Himself to Public Service

In 1966 he was elected to the New York State Assembly as the representative for the 72nd District in Central Harlem. Before long he was the acknowledged leader on issues affecting working class and lower income people, yet he had also cultivated an alliance with the state's Republican governor, Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was even able to get Republican support for Rangel during the representative's 1968 reelection campaign, which he won.

By 1970 Rangel was ready to make his bid for a seat in the national legislature. To do so, he had to challenge the longtime favorite of New York State's 16th Congressional District, Adam Clayton Powell. Powell, another Harlem native, was a high-profile, charismatic leader. Rangel expressed admiration for his opponent's past work but said that he felt compelled to run because the incumbent seemed to be growing lax in his duties. Rangel pointed to Powell's poor congressional attendance record as evidence that the people were not being well served.

Many former supporters of Powell agreed that he was becoming unpredictable and some even speculated that he had grown politically dangerous. Rangel's excellent performance on the state level gave rise to hopes that a fresh, competent congressman could bring about positive changes for Harlem and New York State. But Powell still had many loyal followers, and the primary race was extremely close. Out of 25,000 votes cast for the five men running, Rangel beat Powell by just 150. Compared to the primary, the general election later that year was a walkover—Rangel took 80 percent of the vote.

Rangel's first term as congressman was an active one. He was appointed to the Select Committee on Crime and was a key player in the passage of a 1971 amendment to existing drug laws that gave the president authority to reduce military and financial aid to any country failing to cooperate with U.S. efforts to stop international drug trafficking. His performance fulfilled his supporters' confidence in him, but his reelection in 1972 was by no means assured. The boundaries of the 16th District had been redrawn, and while it still included much of Rangel's core of support in Harlem, the redefined district also took in many white, middle-class streets on New York City's West Side. Rangel had to prove that his appeal was not limited to blacks.

At a Glance …

Born Charles Bernard Rangel on June 11, 1930, in New York, NY; son of Ralph and Blanche (a seamstress; maiden name, Wharton) Rangel; married Alma Carter, July 26, 1964; children: Steven, Alicia. Education : New York University, BS, 1957; St. John's University, JD, 1960. Politics : Democrat.

Career: Admitted to the Bar of New York State, 1960; private law practice in New York City, 1960-61; assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, 1961-62; served as legal counsel to various organizations and officials, 1963-66; New York State Assembly, state representative for the 72nd District of New York, 1966-70; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, congressman from the 16th District of New York, 1970–.

Memberships: Congressional Black Caucus, founding member, 1974; House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon; House Ways and Means Committee, 1975–; Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, 1976-(?); House Ways and Means Committee's Health Subcommittee, chairman, 1978-early 1980s; Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, member, 1979; Oversight Subcommittee, chairman; House deputy whip, 1983; Joint Committee on Taxation, 1980s–.

Awards: Jackie Robinson Foundation, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005.

Addresses: Office—2354 Rayburn House, Washington, DC 20515; 163 W. 125th Street £737, New York, NY 10027. Web—www.house.gov/rangel.

The situation was further complicated by a primary challenge from Livingston Wingate, who, as the former director of a Harlem antipoverty organization, had grass-roots appeal. Furthermore, he had the backing of certain black nationalist groups Rangel had openly denounced, as well as support from many former followers of Powell. In the end, however, Rangel won the primary by a three-to-one margin. Since then, he has faced no serious challengers and has enjoyed the support of both Democratic and Republican voters.

Became Established in his
Government Career

Throughout the 1970s, Rangel built up a solid reputation in the House of Representatives. In 1974 he was named chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was in the public eye during 1974 and 1975 as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings against former U.S. president Richard Nixon; in that capacity he earned respect for his obvious grasp of the issues and his thoughtful questioning of the witnesses. In 1975 he became the first black appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, which makes key decisions regarding tax and welfare legislation. In 1976 he was appointed to the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control; his fellow representatives from New York chose him as their majority regional whip in 1977; the next year he became chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee; and by the end of the decade he was a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a powerful group that guides the course of the Democratic party.

The late 1970s also saw Rangel become entangled in tensions between New York City's black communities and the mayor at that time, Ed Koch. In 1977 Rangel had backed Koch over Mario Cuomo (who later became the governor of New York) in the mayoral primary. Koch won the primary and the general election, but during his first term as mayor, many black leaders and voters became convinced that he was indifferent to their concerns. Rangel criticized the mayor for certain budget cuts affecting low-income neighborhoods, but he still supported Koch in 1981. Koch was reelected, but over the next two years he lost Rangel's backing. By 1983 Rangel's criticism of Koch had intensified, and rumor developed that Rangel might run for mayor in 1985. Other such rumors have circulated from time to time, but it now appears that Rangel is unlikely to leave Congress, where he has become so well established. He has stated that becoming House Speaker or chairing the Ways and Means Committee are his real political dreams.

Rangel's commitment to improving social conditions has remained strong throughout his years in office, and he continued to move into increasingly influential positions to help him further his goals. As the Reagan era dawned in the 1980s, Rangel gave up his chairmanship of the important Ways and Means Health Subcommittee to take over the Oversight Subcommittee. In that capacity, he was able to initiate probes into financial cuts to social programs such as welfare, Social Security, and Medicare. By 1983 he was one of the highest-ranking members of the Ways and Means Committee, and in that year House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill named him deputy whip of the House, bringing Rangel into the inner sanctum of Congress. Rangel continued his strong presence in the House into 2005 as a ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Throughout his career, Rangel has taken an unabashedly liberal stance on most issues, even after the word "liberal" fell out of favor. As early as 1969, he endorsed the first national protest against the war in Vietnam. His voting record is consistently against interventionist foreign policies and excessive military spending, and included vehement opposition to the war in Iraq in the 2000s. He has voted in favor of busing to integrate schools, government funding for abortions, the creation of a consumer protection agency, and the abolishment of a cap on government funding of food stamps. In 2004 Rangel pushed for continued antipoverty funding, warning of the dire straits of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, among other welfare programs during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Urged Congress to Face Drug Crisis

Having grown up in Harlem, Rangel has a much clearer grasp than many of his political colleagues of how social problems manifest themselves on the street level. As a member of the New York state legislature, he sought to improve poor social conditions in his district without punishing those who suffer from them. For example, he worked to legalize gambling on numbers, knowing that it was already an accepted fact of life on the street. He fought a measure that would have meant longer jail sentences for prostitution, arguing that this would not address the issues that caused women to turn to that life. He has repeatedly denounced anti-drug measures that punish the user instead of the suppliers. When many of his fellow congressmen jumped on the antidrug bandwagon and began calling for harsh sanctions against drug abusers, Rangel protested. "Some of the things that sound rough and mean and antidrug …are really antipeople," he told Time.

Congressman Rangel is acknowledged as one of the best informed men in Washington on the subject of drug abuse. He considers the drug problem to be the most serious crisis in the United States. Years before most people came to see drugs as a national threat, Rangel was urging his fellow lawmakers to confront the issue. He contends that even though drug abuse is now a fashionable issue, most politicians are unwilling to dig into the problem. "We need outrage!" he told Ebony contributor Lynn Norment. "I don't know what is behind the lackadaisical attitude toward drugs, but I do know that the American people have made it abundantly clear: they are outraged by the indifference of the U.S. government to this problem. Not only is there a lack of commitment, but a feeling that we are not supposed to talk about it."

But Rangel is willing to talk about the problem at length, and he has very definite ideas about what needs to be done. He is vehemently against drug legalization, considering it "moral and political suicide," as he was quoted as saying in Ebony. Early in his career he fought a plan by the mayor of New York City to experiment with legalization by giving selected addicts maintenance doses of their drugs. "They just want to go into …Harlem and pick up 500 black and Puerto Rican guinea pigs," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times "The philosophy is 'keep them high, write them off.'"

Continued to Address
Voters' Concerns

"We have to develop a comprehensive strategy attacking on all fronts," he told Ebony. "We could stop drug dealers cold in their tracks, ending sales, if we had effective anti-drug education in every classroom, in every church, out in the shooting galleries, in every community group, and on every radio station, TV station, in every newspaper and magazine." And although he had sharp criticism of President George Bush's military intervention to capture Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, Rangel favors a strong anti-drug component in the makeup of U.S. foreign policy. "Not one ounce of opium or coca, which are used to make heroin and cocaine and crack, is grown here on U.S. soil. Ending foreign supplies must become as important to the administration as stopping communism. It's not communists killing our kids; it's drugs," he concluded.

Rangel remained concerned with domestic affairs into the new millennium. He proposed legislation to increase public school funding every year since 1997, and he made national headlines in 2003 railing against Republicans for blocking Democrats from discussions about the future of Medicare. But he did not shy away from broader international challenges, specifically the war in Iraq. As the United States committed more troops to the Iraq war efforts, many, including Rangel, became concerned about America's ability to recruit volunteers to serve in the military. In 2003, Rangel, along with South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, proposed a universal draft to spread the burden of war among America's classes and races. Rangel explained in Time that the draft would "democratize" the military and "return to the 'citizen soldier' ideal that has served our nation so well." Debate over the draft provoked much discussion and controversy as the U.S. commitments in Iraq continued into 2005. Rangel remained committed to the idea and renewed his call for a military draft in on May 26, 2005, citing "a 30 percent decline in enlistments, endangering the long-term viability of the U.S. military" as the crisis point in need of a remedy, according to a House press release.

Rangel's characteristic spunk was aptly captured by conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. in the National Review. Buckley described Rangel as "very bright and very witty and a public figure who rivals Barbara Walters for omnipresence." Although considered a potential vice-presidential candidate during the 2000s, Rangel made clear that he would rather remain focused on his work in the House. In his mid-seventies Rangel signaled no desire to retire, and showed no signs of even slowing down.



Black Enterprise, October 1983; January 1985; September 1989; July 1990; April 1991.

Ebony, March 1989; August 1989; December 1989.

Economic Opportunity Report, September 13, 2004.

Jet, December 16, 1991; November 24, 2003; August 2, 2004; August 30, 2004; May 9, 2005.

National Review, May 5, 2003.

New York Daily News, June 16, 1971.

New York Post, April 3, 1971.

New York Times, December 12, 1974; April 5, 1987; September 5, 1987; June 6, 1988; July 6, 1988; September 16, 1989; July 24, 1990; August 14, 1990; December 20, 1990; February 28, 1991; August 22, 1991.

Time, September 19, 1988; December 29, 2003.


Congressman Charles B. Rangel, www.house.gov/rangel (June 10, 2005).

"Press Release: Congressman Charles Rangel Renews Call for Military Draft," U.S. House of Representatives, www.house.gov/apps/list/press/ny15_rangel/CBRStatementDraft05262005.html (June 6, 2005).

Rangel for Congress, www.charlierangel.com (June 10, 2005).

—Joan Goldsworthy and

Sara Pendergast

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