Rangel Talks Re-Election, Obama and Harlem's Changing Demographics

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The always irrepressible Charlie Rangel is holding a fundraiser and birthday bash tonight, headlined by Aretha Franklin. It's A Free Country caught up with the Congressman for a few words in a coffee shop at Rockefeller Center, where he had just finished an appearance on MSNBC.

Does a fundraiser mean that Rangel is running for another term? The Congressman was unequivocal.

“You bet your life!”

At 81, the third-longest currently serving Representative in the House shows no indication of quitting. He said that the president was a large influence in his decision to stay in the game.

“Obama has a lot to do with the decision that I made," Rangel said. "No president has envisioned the direction which he has, even though we haven’t been successful in terms of having universal insurance, and having an educational system that is competitive, and certainly not in creating the jobs that we have to create. But there is nobody that’s come close in understanding where this great country has to go.”

Though Rangel noted that the president's hair has turned gray in office, he professed to still have hope that Obama can turn the economy around. Asked how he thinks the president handled the recent debt deal, Rangel shook his head.

“Oh, boy. That is a question like you’re asking somebody that was mugged and the bandit said you 'can keep your wedding ring,' and the victim says 'thank you.'"

Rangel stressed that the gridlock in Washington hurt more than the individual parties and party leaders.

“The problem is that people don’t look at Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats.They don’t look at Pelosis, they don’t look at Boehners, they don’t look at Obamas. They look at our country. And the question is, did a group of people influence our president to such an extent that he would not be able to say I will pay back the money? That’s an international question. Will you pay me back my money? And that’s the tragedy, how do you handle that?”

The downgrade he characterized as more of an insult than a real issue.

“When someone says [something] like Standard's and Poor [did] - and we all know they don’t know what they’re talking about, but you always want someone to say something positive. And when they say something negative, even though they’re in the minority in saying something like that, it doesn’t help. It really doesn’t help."

While Rangel didn't offer specific remedies for the current economic slump, he did express urgency to find solutions.

“I really think the president ought to call us in, not me, but the leadership of both parties of both houses, and say 'look, the whole world is looking at us.' They’re attacking me they’re attacking the Tea party, they’re attacking liberals with entitlements, they’re attacking Republicans who have the majority, and we all going down the tube, not just at the polls but in people’s confidence.”

Rangel is a big fan of the Family Day celebrations at some of the larger highrise buildings in the city, and the opportunity they present for him to go out and meet people (“I don’t call it campaigning”).

Rangel's district, the 15th Congressional District, is the smallest district, geographically, in the country. Rangel joked “Other congressional districts have plains and mountains and rivers, and all I got are high rises.”

It is a district that has seen enormous demographic changes in recent decades, especially in Rangel's home neighborhood of Harlem. An influx of whites has countered a declining black population, with the latest Census figures showing a 400 percent increase in white people living in Central Harlem.

Rangel acknowledged the various groups in his district.

“It goes far beyond Harlem... but wow, Washington Heights has a history all by itself, so many people have come to this country, that’s where the Statue of Liberty really should be. All the Italians, Jews, so many people. And now the Dominicans. The west side, I think pundits have said, is the most liberal part of the country. The east side is a barrio where our citizens from Puerto Rico came in the thirties, and in number they’re not as big as they used to be, but they’re there.”

Part of what has influenced the demographic shift may have been the resurgence in development Harlem experienced, in part bolstered by Empowerment Zone Projects spearheaded by Rangel and Jack Kemp under President Clinton. Rangel said the empowerment zones were a clear success.

“The whole idea was that if you find communities with the highest poverty rating, then what you do is tell the mayor and the state, that we’re prepared to give you a lot of money but you have to first show us what you going to do on your own. How much are you going to contribute. The concept being that even if you’re not selected already you’ve got mayors and governors talking to each other [about your district]. It has been a winner."

He conceded that success can come with a cost, as former residents may end up priced out of their homes as rents in the area increase. Rangel pointed to the housing market decline as a possible remedy.

"So now we are so successful that the community that’s been there for 20, 30, 40, 50 years say, you better make certain that you don’t push me out. I can enjoy a little bit of success if you make sure that I have affordable housing. So that’s the major problem, except that we have an over abundance of housing which they call luxury housing that’s not filled because of the economy and I really believe.. that as along as we can’t give them the millionaire luxury rent, that they’ll have to come down to meet what we can give so that they can have people in those buildings. So it’s all going to balance out.”