Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the venerable and legendary congressman from Harlem, recently announced his intention to run for re-election. Rangel’s career stretches back to the days of his legendary predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who he defeated in a controversial election at the dawn of the 1970s. Two years ago the 83 year-old Rep. Rangel won re-election by squeaking out a victory by just 1,086 votes over his opponent, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, and faces the legislator and another opponent, Rev. Michael Walrond, this time around.
While Rep. Rangel is certainly entitled to seek re-election and can legitimately make the claim that he has earned that right, what also cannot be disputed is that he, like so many elected officials, don’t know when it’s time to exist the stage. Not knowing when to call it quits seems to plague many politicians but for us it seems to rise to another level for Black elected officials. The tendency to hang on robs new, and not all the time youthful, leadership from ascending and speaks to the absence of succession planning among our elected leadership. If the true concern is preserving one’s “legacy” then invest in the development of future leadership that can be reflective of your work and extend your reach into the future. Very rarely is this the case and most of our political leadership is dragged off stage as wounded warriors. This is not an issue unique to politics, it infests many civic, not-for-profit and faith-based institutions.
A lot has changed, some would say for the worst and others for the better, in the uptown village of Manhattan called Harlem. When Charles Rangel dethroned Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in 1970 the congressional district existed in what was still a Black Mecca. Today, Harlem has a different demographic profile, with a growing Latino presence and whites flocking back to its gentrified, upscale neighborhoods. Harlem is now represented by a white member in the New York City Council. The emerging profile of Harlem suggests that the Black-first politics of old is giving way or will eventually be submerged by a new population reality. A sign of the times is that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wasted no time in making known her allegiance to Adriano Espaillat, and thus far Mayor Bill de Blasio, who managed Rangel’s campaign in 1984, has avoided making any commitments.
Casting a long shadow over Rangel’s reelection bid this year is his censure in 2010 by the House of Representatives over his failure to pay taxes on rental property and other recordkeeping matters. While there was no finding of criminality, the episode cost the congressman and the African-American community the loss of the most seasoned Black staff member on Capitol Hill, Rangel’s chief of staff George Dalley. Further complicating his run for re-election is that many believed that during his last campaign Rangel pledged that it would be his last. And while everyone is certainly entitled to a change of mind, the appearance of going back on his word is costing the Hill veteran some support.
There is also the dilemma of seniority and the fact that Rep. Rangel is at the top of the heap in the House of Representatives. Still, his senior status no longer carries the weight it once did since he lost his chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in the wake of his censure. In that post, Rangel controlled tax writing policy and could influence the flow of resources to not only benefit his constituents in the 15th congressional district but African-Americans nationwide. Timing is everything in politics, and like the U.S. Supreme Court, when an opening occurs has long-term consequences. Now, seems to be the time to transition to new leadership to begin the process of climbing the seniority ladder.
While we highlight the circumstances surrounding Rep. Rangel, his announced bid for re-election does not stand alone as a situation when the curtain should be coming down on an era. And this is not a critique that is age-driven, but one that simply raises the value of fresh perspectives that should come from new faces on the leadership horizon. Our progress seems to be in a holding pattern and we attribute our stagnation partly to our failure to be transformative and forward thinking, and our tendency to hold onto posts long beyond a reasonable period of service. No one person can be the only person capable of serving in a position. We are long past the era when a handful of individuals could claim that they are unique in their qualifications to serve.
Ultimately the decision on Rep. Rangel’s continued service will be made by voters. In all of our institutions we need to cast a critical eye upon leadership that is resistant to change and invested in their self-preservation. What matters most is how the community at-large is served and the degree to which critical needs are met.