There were rumors that Congressman Charles Rangel was not going to participate in the debate with candidates seeking to unseat him, but like so much hearsay surrounding the embattled representative, this was false. Not only did he appear at Convent Baptist Church Monday evening, he sat to the very end, often enduring withering attacks from his opponents.
“We need a new perspective,” said Joyce Johnson, 62, who organized for Obama’s campaign, “there is a sense of urgency” in Harlem she asserted. “They say a woman’s place is in the house–the House of Representatives.”
When moderator Les Payne asked her if Rangel should be sent back to Congress, she said: “I’m sending Joyce Johnson.”
“A change is coming,” Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, 48, repeated during his time at the podium. “I don’t know when and I don’t know who, but a change is coming.” Perhaps the best known of the contenders against Rangel, Powell cited a biblical verse with an obvious inference to Rangel about a good tree that bears good fruit. “But we no longer have a healthy tree.”
Asked about Rangel’s legacy, Powell was conciliatory. “We will honor Rangel’s legacy,” he said, but added that the congressman who has been in office for 40 years, having defeated Powell’s father, “will not be around forever.”
One of the evening’s loudest eruptions of dissent occurred during Jonathan Tasini’s remarks. “I don’t take money from corporations like Rangel,” charged Tasini, 53, a co-founder of the National Writers Union, inciting a strong reaction from the crowd. However, he was roundly applauded when he said that Rangel had taken “a whole lot of money from the real estate industry.”
Vince Morgan, 41, who once worked with Rangel and is currently a local banker, praised his former boss but declared that the ethics violations brought against Rangel by the House “have become a distraction.” He insisted that the race was not about Rangel, “it’s about us…we have to become investors in our own community.”
Some of the most enthusiastic members of the audience voiced their support for Craig Schley, 46, a former intern for Rangel. To create jobs in a community overwhelmed with massive unemployment, Schley stressed taking control of the arts and entertainment industry. “We can make money off of our culture in the same way Los Angeles does it with Hollywood,” he said. For example, Jazz at Lincoln Center “should have been brought to Harlem.”
Taking his turn, Rangel wasted no time declaring his mission. “I will step aside when the voters in my district say I should,” he began, responding directly to those adversaries demanding he resign or retire. In succession, he lacerated the Republicans and their “policy of no,” restated his position on the “immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and addressed charges from the House ethics committee, noting, “They have no idea of what to do with me.”
The congressman also tossed a barb at President Barack Obama after being asked his reaction to the president’s notion that he find a way to leave office with dignity. He said Obama “hasn’t been around long enough to determine what my dignity is.” Rangel added, “For the next two years, I will be more likely to protect his dignity,” referring to Obama.
It was good that the organizers of the event, the Gang of Six, were wise enough to have the debate between Sen. Bill Perkins and Basil Smikle at the beginning because they may not have had much of an audience at the end. Even so, they advanced their positions on charter schools, which distinguishes them, with Perkins opposed and Smikle supportive.
Assemblyman Keith Wright, who appears to be running unopposed, offered a litany of bills he has authored, including the end of racial profiling and testing cops after they’ve fired their weapons. As the chair of the New York County Democratic Committee, he told Payne he had nothing to do with his committee’s endorsement of Smikle over Perkins.
Before the Song of Solomon Choir offered its version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” former Mayor David Dinkins thanked the audience for its patience and then regaled them with one of his favorite stories about the Johnstown Flood. Then the Gang of Six, a group of concerned citizens, was acknowledged by a member of the Gang of Four.