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Take Five: Retiring Rep. Charlie Rangel

‘For the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinking about legislation and politics and getting re-elected’

New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel said getting a staph infection made him think differently about his priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel said getting a staph infection made him think differently about his priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

New York Democratic Rep. Charles B. Rangel, 86, is retiring this month after completing 23 terms in Congress. He talked to HOH about Harlem, his retirement plans and writing to his congressman.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment in Congress?

A: That question is asked so often it’s almost like, ‘Which is the best day you had in your marriage?’ But, I can tell you one thing: the Rangel International Fellowship Program, where students actually receive an advance education training to become foreign service officers, with particular attention to minorities, which are so scarce in the State Department. It means that all over the world, people will be able to see people in our State Department that look like the United States of America. So for an old-timer with grandkids, that spells legacy in a way that legislation cannot.

[Best of Office Space: Charlie Rangel’s Lenox Avenue Lair]

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment for Harlem?

A: When you talk about the empowerment zone, I just may have overdone it with my district. It’s become a problem but the district that I had when I came down here — rats and crime and people had two and three locks on their door. [Today] it’s quite a place of destination for people looking for a decent housing, sound schools and job opportunity.

[Rep.-elect Adriano Espaillat] should stay close to the people, making certain that the beautiful mosaic of cultures and colors and languages of people that are in our district remains the same. For 46 years, we have had no political primaries or general elections based on color, language, place of birth, or what church or synagogue you went to. Everybody is at the table, no one challenges anybody based on the differences. I hope that my successor manages to do that, because, even though I was not directly involved in the last election, being the first thing and the first person from a particular group of people, tends to polarize. And, there’s a lot of work [being] done now to bring the people back together.

 [Longtime Thorn in Retiring Rangel’s Side Wins New York’s 13th District]Q: What will you do in retirement?

A: It’s really strange when you’ve had, since I was a teenager, public service jobs. I started off in the military. … I’ve been a federal prosecutor, a state legislator and 46 years as a member of Congress. And as a result, I’ve grown cataracts that can only see the politics and my wife and kids and grandkids were dim images compared to what they look like today with my cataracts removed. Just saying and believing the word ‘retirement,’ it never entered my mind, and what an exciting opportunity I will have to do some of the thing that I just never thought of.

Former Texas Rep. <a class=
Former Texas Rep. Bill Archer, left, and Rangel during the House Ways and Means hearing on President Clinton’s fiscal 1998 budget proposal in March 1998. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

One of the things that have attracted me, however, is continuing to be able to give speeches that people would want to know my comments on local and world affairs. And so, we’re talking with one of the major speaking agencies that had an interest in me.

I tried to put together something that would allow my wife and I to visit different conventions and meetings that they would want me to speak. But the major thing is, all of the things that my wife never demanded, that the kids never demanded, and the opportunities that I have now for the grandkids are brand new to me at my age. Exciting, new things, so I will be going to concerts, amusement parks, fairs and things that, if it wasn’t political, you can count me out. But now, here’s a new life out there and I’m glad that I’m in a position to enjoy it now.

Q: What will you miss about Congress?

A: I’m afraid that I’m gonna be cursing the TV set, I’m afraid that Sunday debates are going to drive me crazy. I passed more legislation than any member of the House or the Senate that was signed into law. Wow. That means I’ve been in a position to do what? To do something about it. And now, I guess I have to write my congressman. I’m going to miss that.

Q: Why did you decide to retire now?

A: I received a staph infection in my spine that was not only life-threatening but one of the most painful political thing that has occurred to me and it shattered my self-esteem and my way of thinking. How helpless I was. And for the first time in my life, being in an intensive care unit, I was alone. And, I think for the first time in my life, I wasn’t thinking about legislation and politics and getting re-elected. I was thinking about my wife and my kids that I talked to wife and I was saying, ‘What reason haven’t we discussed these things?’ And she said, ‘I knew your passion and commitment before I married you and it didn’t make a lot of sense to bring those things up with our successful marriage?’  Well, I knew then that I had to consider trying to make up to my family what they were denied because of this passion and my overwhelming political success based on my overwhelming commitment to make certain I got elected.


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