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Welcome Back, Charlie
“Who’d have thought they’d lead ya?
Here where we need ya?
Yeah, we tease him a lot ‘cause we’ve got him on the spot.
Welcome back. Welcome back. Welcome back.”
- Theme song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” by John Sebastian
Members of the House of Representatives faced an anguishing decision just a year-and-a-half ago. Lawmakers fretted over what discipline they should mete out to 21-term Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
The House Ethics Committee determined that the once powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means panel failed to pay income taxes and used Congressional resources for private enterprises.
And most lawmakers found their charge to be exceptionally onerous.
The challenging part wasn’t assessing whether Rangel had done wrong. What vexed lawmakers was sentencing Rangel, one of the most popular and convivial members of the House. A Purple Heart recipient left for dead on a Korean battlefield. An innovative, legislative engineer. A coalition builder. And here lawmakers had to sanction him.
It was a “this hurts me more than it hurts you” moment.
Strangely, a fete lawmakers threw for Rangel Monday night in the Rayburn House Office Building best demonstrates how difficult the House’s assignment was to punish Rangel in late 2010.
Not everyone agrees with Charlie Rangel. But an awful lot of people in Congress, Democrats and Republicans, like him.
Charlie Rangel has has cast more than 23,000 votes in his 41-year Congressional career. But until Monday night, Rangel hadn’t voted at all since February 9. That’s a span of 146 roll call votes out of 195 this year – three-quarters of all votes.
Rangel hurt his back lifting some boxes in early February. His spine weakened, a viral infection then seeped into crevices between discs. It rendered Rangel helpless, unable to walk – and for a time, confined to a bed at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
“It was a pain that people have to scream about,” said Rangel when describing his affliction “I can’t think of a Republican that I’d wish this on.”
House members missed Rangel. And so lawmakers tossed a “Welcome Back, Charlie!” soiree to mark the Congressman’s return to the House after a harrowing malady.
A crew of lawmakers and aides nibbled on cheddar cheese cubes and hunks of salmon pierced by skewers. And while Rangel frustrated many of his colleagues with his ethics foibles, they were all there to “welcome back” Rangel to the place “to that same old place that you laughed about.”
Still struggling to walk, Rangel rode into the reception, piloting a red, Panther LX-4 motorized cart.
“Do you have a license for that thing?” asked Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI) as Rangel made a grand entrance through the center doors.
“I’m trying to get rid of it!” Rangel responded and then rose to work the room.
Several members of New York’s Congressional delegation and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) spoke. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also made an appearance. Pelosi commiserated with Rangel, having suffered back issues before. Pelosi said it was once so bad, she had to cancel a trip to Vietnam with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).
CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) MC’d the party.
“Ladies and gentlemen, THE Charlie Rangel” intoned Cleaver.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said that Rangel was more than just a friend. He was someone New York pols turned to when they needed “sound advice” or wanted to discuss Empire State politics.
“When Charlie Rangel is in DC, DC is a better place,” remarked Meeks.
But there are some questions as to whether Rangel will still be “in DC” next year.
In late June, Rangel faces perhaps the toughest primary challenge of his career. State Sen. Adriano Espaillat is trying to unseat Rangel and become the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress. An overhaul of New York’s Congressional map has added significant numbers of Latino voters to Rangel’s district. Also on the ballot is Clyde Williams, a former adviser to President Clinton. Williams outraised Rangel in the first quarter of 2012.
“As of now, none of my opponents have said anything unpleasant about me. Let me get myself into trouble. I can’t imagine what they would say,” remarked Rangel.
Rangel’s primary challengers may be refraining from direct blasts. But the Congressman is well aware of the hurdles he faces to emerge victorious later this summer. I asked how his time on the sideline might hinder Rangel’s re-election prospects.
“Let me make it easy for you,” declared Rangel, who then rattled off a four-minute riff where he personally posed hypothetical questions reporters might ask him and then provided the answers. During the jam, Rangel addressed his absenteeism, questions about whether he was too old to serve and the decision by former Bronx Borough President Freddie Ferrer to endorse Espaillat. However, Rangel was sure to note that current Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. would formally support him this week.
“Rather than be concerned with the endorsement of the former president of the Bronx, I’m more concerned with the endorsement of the present president of the Bronx,” Rangel said.
Such has often been the case for Rangel during his Congressional career.
He chafed at how his aching back condemned him to rely on others.
“I’ve become so damn dependent,” Rangel said, his wife Alma standing at his side “Let me publicly say Alma, I love you.”
That spurred a collective and simultaneous “aww” from the entire room. But then Alma Rangel chimed in without missing a beat.
“Let me just say I’m glad he’s back as well,” she cracked sarcastically, drawing a peel of laughter from the crowd.
So Charlie Rangel is back on Capitol Hill for now. His colleagues welcomed him back Monday night. But the people who really count are the voters. And if Rangel can persuade them to pull the lever for him, it will be welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.