An Emotional Race Against a Local Hero

Posted June 14, 2005 at 6:43pm

In 1970, Harlem, the capital of Black America and my home town, had been represented in Congress by the celebrated Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D) for 25 years. In that time, he had faced nominal, if any, opposition in primaries and general elections.

But this time was different. The complaints about his long absences from Washington, D.C., were growing louder, and an aggressive challenge was certain. Still, any move to replace the beloved “Adam” meant taking on a legend.

Born and raised in Harlem, I had dropped out of high school and served in combat in the Korean War, where I was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. I finished high school after the war, and went on to graduate from college and law school. I was appointed assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, then opened a law practice and entered politics.

Liked on the streets because of my background in the community, I was elected Democratic district leader and, in 1966, was voted into the New York Assembly, where I had my hands full for two terms.

Congress was never my ambition. In fact, I spent time defending Powell’s right to serve in Congress and our right to elect and re-elect him if we chose to. Like most people in the community, I was offended at the idea that outsiders would attempt to dictate who represented us. Whatever his faults, Powell was our problem, to keep or to remove.

In those days, it never entered my mind that someday my close, longtime friend and political ally, Percy Sutton, the state Assemblyman and later Manhattan borough president, would be my strong right arm in a race for Congress. But in February 1970, with his support, I announced my candidacy to challenge the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the Democratic primary.

Also in my corner were state Sen. Basil Paterson, David Dinkins, the future mayor, and J. Raymond Jones, the brilliant political strategist. Jackie Robinson, the baseball great, and Kenneth Clark, the renowned educational psychologist, were among hundreds of prominent backers.

Powell’s career in Congress was always controversial, but his troubles reached their height in February 1967, when he was unconstitutionally excluded from serving because of ethics violations. Though his constituents re-elected him two months later, he was so embittered at being stripped of his committee chairmanship and seniority that he refused to return to his office in Washington.

He also left Harlem to set up residence on Bimini, a small island in the Caribbean, and rejected pleas from his constituents, and even New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R), to return home.

As politically vulnerable as Powell was when I visited him on Bimini, he told me directly that he had no intention of coming back and that all challengers were welcome to take their chances. It was on my trip home from the island that I decided to run for the Congressional seat that only Powell had held since 1946.

At the end of the day, my margin of victory was only 150 votes over Powell. But with three other candidates in the race sharing several thousand votes, it was clear that the community’s sentiment had turned overwhelmingly against him.

His long-term absences from Congress, the community’s run-down condition, high crime rate and widespread drug use had all served to undermine a man who had achieved near-cult hero status.

Powell had been revered as a national leader who made his constituents proud while defying the powers that be. He had compiled a stellar record of legislative achievements, including the famous Powell Amendment, an anti-segregation rider that he attached to housing and social legislation. He guided to passage the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. As chairman of the powerful Education and Labor Committee, he spearheaded passage of the first minimum wage law and President Lyndon Johnson’s massive anti-poverty programs.

Now, after 35 years in Congress, I am proud that Harlem and upper Manhattan have been transformed. New shops and restaurants line the 125th Street business district and the boulevards. Renovated apartments, condominiums and private homes are replacing burned-out and abandoned buildings. Crime is down, and there is a pervasive sense of hope and pride uplifting the population.

I played a role in ending the Powell era in which I grew up. But I never say that I defeated him. I filled a vacancy that he had created and seized the opportunity to make a difference.

Rep. Charlie Rangel is a Democrat from New York.