Why you should care
Because he’s been one of America’s most influential Black congressmen.
He won a Purple Heart for his service during the Korean War. He helped advocate for Hillary Clinton’s Senate run. And, for the first time in 46 years, Democrat Charles Rangel will not see his name on the ballot for New York’s congressional primaries when voters head out to the polls today.
The 86-year-old “congressman from Harlem” is retiring after a storied career in politics — one that included being a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus but took a controversial turn in 2010, when he was censured by the House of Representatives for violating ethics rules. (He later stepped down as Congress’ chief tax writer.) He’s also authored laws that have targeted companies investing in apartheid-era South Africa and has become one of the most influential Black congressmen in history. In this edited conversation, Rangel spoke with OZY from his office in Harlem — the district where he was born and raised and which he has represented for nearly half a century — about why America needs a stronger Republican party.
OZY: What do you make of the Democratic Party after the contentious primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders?
Charles Rangel: There’s no question that our party is united. Clinton is far ahead in the polls as a result of this unification. But, more importantly, Donald Trump has destroyed the Republican Party. Destroyed it.
We need a Republican Party. We cannot be a one-party country, because it doesn’t work in a democracy. It’s my hope that I might be able to help in building the Republican Party. Not to beat us — but to compete against us. The rebuilding of the Republicans should be based on how Roosevelt rebuilt the Democratic Party, by talking about jobs. That brings with it self-esteem and a sense of hope and pride for the future.
OZY: Sanders picked up many votes in the primaries. Some of his supporters claim that his brand of democratic socialism is the future.
C.R.: I don’t know a darn thing about socialism. I don’t know anything about Sanders’ socialism. I don’t know about any political struggle for civil rights and equal pay that Sanders has been involved in. I guess he hasn’t been involved because he wasn’t a Democrat. He was — what he describes himself as — a socialistic Democrat. Whatever that is.
But the fact that Bernie has not been a voice in the Senate or the House doesn’t mean the issues are not good issues. My regrets when it comes to legislation are the same things that Bernie is talking about: Our country can do more. What he never talks about is that you need a House, Senate and president to clean up Wall Street, politics and make healthcare better.
OZY: Do you think political polarization means there’s a myopia about the possibilities of politics?
C.R.: It’s up to we, the politicians, to try and weave in those adjustments to get votes. But, you bet your life. I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. One major problem was white racists and indifferent whites. Another problem was blacks who believed that this nonviolent thing was tantamount to surrender and that we were not demanding enough. So, hey, that’s America, man! It’s exciting. That’s why you have a Trump on one side and Bernie on the other in the primaries. Now people have got it out of their system, and their choices are Trump and Hillary. And that’s good.
OZY: What is your proudest achievement?
C.R.: Bringing about political solidarity in the most exciting congressional district in the country. No other district has so many people who come from so many different countries and speak so many different languages. And we’ve had no political conflicts based on that. We met together, we ate together, we worked together. And for the most part, we voted together.
OZY: And your biggest regret?
C.R.: We shouldn’t have kids or adults pay to get educated. Their education — like mine — is not just for the individual, or his family. It’s for his country to have the most advanced workforce possible. Math, science, technology. That’s what the president should include in his Trans-Pacific Partnership bill. If he did, there’d be more people supporting it.
OZY: You’ve played a big role in the economic development of Harlem. Given how this growth has been uneven, would you have changed anything?
C.R.: If Harlem had better schools, jobs and infrastructure, we could compete with marketplace prices anywhere. But the situation we find nationwide is that parents struggle hard to get the money to send their kids to college, or can’t get kids out of their houses or decent jobs. So we’ve built a community where market rates are hurting us.
That’s our problem. It’s not whites coming here or non-Harlemites coming here. We’ve done a great job in taking a slum area and making it first-class. You can talk about gentrification, but affordable housing — that’s our issue.