Full Circle in Harlem: Rangel and Powell


Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel continues to receive tough press coverage for a multitudinous list of potential improprieties and abuses of office. Today, The Hill picks up on a weeks old story about the possible ethics violations involved in a privately-paid trip to the Caribbean taken by Rangel and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus (I wrote about it two weeks ago here). My colleague Bill Allison, meanwhile, has summarized most of the allegations made against Rangel and asks whether reporters will stick with the coverage for much longer.

What strikes me most about the Rangel allegations is how much they mirror the stream of scandal stories that plagued and brought down his predecessor Adam Clayton Powell. It’s often overlooked that Rangel came to hold his congressional seat by defeating the scandal plagued Powell in a Democratic primary election in 1970. Powell’s many dalliances with scandal included a 1960 income tax violation trial, a constant failure to show up for votes, and using House funds to pay family members and ex-wives and for Caribbean vacations with his many mistresses. Ultimately, Powell was forced into a showdown, led heavily by the white supremacist wing of the Democratic Party* (who were likely guilty of many of the same ethical improprieties**), where he was expelled from the House, only to win his seat back in a special election and then through the support of the Supreme Court (Powell v. McCormack).

Now, I’m not saying that Rangel’s alleged improper actions are necessarily comparable to Powell’s; although the allegations about blocking tax legislation for a donor does rise to the level of Powell’s alleged abuses. It is just astounding that Charles Rangel finds himself in a similar position of being hit with article after article revealing potential improprieties just like the man he toppled 38 years ago.


* Southern conservatives despised Powell, the first African-American elected to Congress from New York, as he was a leading proponent of civil rights and the end of segregation in public education. He was the author of amendments that became Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning federal funds from going to racially segregated institutions.

** While not one of Congress’ white supremacists, Rep. Wayne Hays led the investigative subcommittee that alleged numerous ethical abuses against Powell. Hays would later face a similar fate when it was revealed that he used House funds to hire as a secretary his mistress, Christina Ray (the Jessica Cutler of her day). The only problem: she couldn’t type. Her direct quote: “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.”