Charlie Rangel stood on stage surrounded by New York's Black political elite. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wore a perfect smile and a strand of white pearls. State senator Bill Perkins literally embraced Rangel as he spoke. Harlem's City Council member Inez Dickens was so desperate to be included in the photo op that she clutched the podium with her neatly manicured pink nails like a drowning woman holding onto a life preserver.
They had all come to celebrate the man whose job they'd love to take.
"Shhhhh!" Rangel hushed the crowd. Then fellow New York Congressman Gregory Meeks borrowed the microphone to make an announcement: "The chairman has won! The chairman has won! The chairman has won!"
Tuesday night's spectacle at Taino Towers in East Harlem was reminiscent of Will Smith's famous scene in Ali, where he pounds a drum and announces his own arrival: "The champ is here! The champ is here!" That may have worked for Ali, but 84-year-old Charlie Rangel is no fresh young prize fighter.
Rangel was just 39 years old when he launched his first successful campaign for Congress in 1970. He took office in January 1971 when Richard Nixon was serving his first term as president. Gas was 37 cents a gallon and the average American paid $150 a month for rent at the time. Back then, Americans had never heard of a cellphone, a personal computer, or an answering machine, much less the Internet. There was no BET, CNN or even C-SPAN when Rangel was sworn in. They hadn't been invented yet.
To win his first election as a young reformer, Rangel took down a scandal-tainted giant in Harlem politics, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But as historian Barbara Tuchman reminds us, "Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed." After 40 years in office, Rangel would become a scandal-tainted giant himself.
That was the irony of Rep. Meeks introducing Rangel as "the chairman" on Tuesday. Rangel lost his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee when he was censured by his colleagues in 2010. And yet here he was on stage, fastened into his suit with cuff links and tie collar bar, being introduced by a title he would never again own.
Chairman of what!? He once served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. But that was in the 1970s. And although he represents the most famous African-American community in the country, Blacks have lost their majority of the population in Harlem. They've been pushed out by rising rents and gentrification while Harlem's Black political establishment has failed to preserve adequate affordable housing and community-owned businesses for many of the long-term residents of the area.
Yes, he's been around for a long time, but what has Charlie Rangel done for Black people that any other Harlem representative wouldn't have done? When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Rangel not only refused to endorse his historic campaign, he called the young Black senator "stupid." This from a man who represented the district where television news crews would set up satellite trucks later that year to watch crowds of Black Americans rejoice on 125th Street on election night.
The problem is much bigger than Charlie Rangel. It's no accident that two of the three longest serving members of Congress are both African-Americans. The other, 85-year-old John Conyers of Detroit, was elected in 1964, well before Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated.
Yes, both Conyers and Rangel have surely helped Black people over the years, but that doesn't give them the right to perpetual domination of our political future. That's why we as African-Americans must learn to be more loyal to our own interests than to our long-serving representatives.
In the seven decades since World War II, only two people have represented Harlem in Congress: Charlie Rangel and Adam Clayton Powell. Anyone under 70 years old has never known anyone else. That's not good for democracy, and it's not good for Harlem. Even Rev. Al Sharpton sees a problem with Rangel's upcoming 23rd term. "If he gets two more years, does that matter? To me, it’s just delaying the transition," Sharpton told a reporter.
Instead of grooming young successors to replace them, far too many of our politicians are busy clutching onto power like Inez Dickens firmly grasping the lectern Tuesday night. "Black politicians don't give up until they literally die in office or get indicted," one prominent Black Democrat told me this week. Of course, some white politicians do the same thing, but mimicking political mediocrity is hardly a rallying cry for a people with so many pressing needs.
"The stage is shaking," Rangel said at the end of his long, meandering speech Tuesday night. Yes, the stage is shaking as fresh new faces are beginning to demand change. "I'm going, OK," Rangel said finally. Unfortunately, he wasn't leaving for good.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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