Charles Rangel Biography

Activist, U.S. Representative (1930–)
Congressman Charles Rangel has served New York's Harlem district since 1971. He was censured by his peers for ethics violations in 2010.


Born into a troubled family on June 11, 1930, Charles Rangel showed his heroic side during the Korean war, winning several medals for bravery. Back at home, he became a lawyer and civil rights activist before winning a seat in the House of Representatives

Early Life

Politician Charles Bernard Rangel was born on June 11, 1930, in New York City. Rangel's mother, Blanche Mary Wharton, was only 16 years old when she met Ralph Rangel, a Puerto Rican immigrant who was working as a handyman for Wharton's family. The couple eloped and, three years later, Charles' eldest brother, Ralph, was born. Charles was born seven years later, but by then his eldest brother had been taken in by relatives and was rarely around. Rangel's sister, Frances, who was born three years later, would also come to be raised by relatives.

Rangel's early family life was tumultuous; his father rarely held a job, and physically abused Charles' mother. "My father was absolutely no good," Rangel says. "In my earliest memory of father was hitting my mother on the steps of some apartment-type building." Rangel's father left the family when Charles was 6 years old.

Charles' relationship with his mother was far different, however—he describes most of his early life as "always around her apron strings." Unlike his siblings, Rangel often followed his mother around during her transient lifestyle. He traveled with her to jobs as a seamstress and maid, and moved with her as she found new romantic interests.

Rangel was eventually sent to live with his aunt and uncle in the Bronx. He credits his relatives with giving him good study habits and structure. "I had enough going for me, in terms of confidence and good work habits, that studying really was no big deal," Rangel says.

Military Service

The return to his mother's home, however, pushed the young man out of the house at an early age. "I was torn between life tied to my mother and being on my own," Rangel explains. "I knew I had to get out." Although his performance in grade school and at DeWitt Clinton High School was excellent, he was often truant during this time, and was occasionally driven home by the police for his antics. He dropped out of school in 1947 to sell shoes, and drifted aimlessly until he enlisted in the U.S. Army a year later.

Rangel was stationed in Korea during the Korean War, and it was in the military that his talents truly shone. As a soldier, he was a member of the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion in the 2nd Infantry Division. Though only a private first class, he was often recognized for his strong sense of leadership.

This ability was put to the test in November of 1950, during the Battle of Kunu-ri. Despite shrapnel wounds, Rangel led 40 of his comrades for three days behind enemy lines rather than surrender. He was later recognized for his bravery with the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation, the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, and three battle stars. "Since Kunu-ri," Rangel says, "I have never, never had a bad day."

After an honorable discharge from the Army, Rangel returned home a changed man. He decided to finish high school, completing two years of studies in only one year. He earned his G.E.D. in 1953, and went on to attend the New York University School of Commerce. There he used his military benefits to finance a four-year degree, which he earned in three years, while also making the dean's list.

Entry into Politics

Rangel received his bachelor's degree in 1957. That same year, he earned a full ride to St. John's University School of Law. In addition to his course load at St. John's, Rangel worked a series of odd jobs to earn extra money. He also stayed highly involved at school, co-founding the St. John's Criminal Law Institute and interning for New York county District Attorney Frank Hogan. He obtained a Juris Doctor from St. John's in 1960.

In the year following graduation, Rangel briefly entered private practice at Weaver, Evans & Wingate. By 1961, Rangel had made a name for himself as the lawyer who stood up for black civil rights activists. That year, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy appointed Rangel as the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He served in the position until 1962, when he decided that he was more interested in a life in politics instead of in the courtroom.

With the support of famous African-American political leader, J. Ray Jones, Rangel ran for Democractic party district leader in 1963. But while he lost that seat to State Assemblyman, Lloyd Dickens, Rangel gained the support of the man who would become his political mentor: New York State Assemblyman Percy Sutton. Sutton, an accomplished lawyer and civil rights leader, took Rangel under his wing. In 1966, after Sutton was named Manhattan Borough President, Rangel was elected to New York State Assembly as the Central Harlem representative. In 1968, he was re-elected for another term.


In 1970, Rangel ran for the U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the Democratic primary. Rangel won the November 1970 general election with 88 percent of the vote. The newly elected representative immediately set to work, helping to found the 13-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971.

The CBC's goal, to fight for the equality of persons of African descent, has since expanded to include the closing of achievement and opportunity gaps in education, assuring quality health care for every American, focusing on employment and economic security, ensuring justice for all, retirement security for all Americans, and increasing equity in foreign policy. The group has also grown; its members now total more than 40 representatives.

In addition to his work on the CBC, Rangel had his eye on a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. However, Rangel's first assignment was a brief seat on the Science Committee, followed by service on the House Judiciary Committee, where Rangel began his fight against illicit narcotics traffic and drug addiction and participated in the impeachment hearings against President Richard Nixon.

Rangel finally achieved his goal to become a member of the House Ways and Means Committee in December of 1974. "Everything we're talking about today that really matters tends to be the jurisdiction of my committee," he says of his work there.

In 1986, Rangel set his sights on the position of Democratic Majority Whip. He lost the election, but undeterred by the loss the representative instead set his sights on helping the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In 1987, Rangel led the effort to deny tax credits for taxes paid to South Africa, and increased the taxes on profits made there by 24 percent. The financial pressure forced many companies to end their business dealings with apartheid-supporters. Called the Rangel Amendment, the piece of legislation encouraged several Fortune 500 companies to leave South Africa.


Rangel has also been known to take the fight for civil rights to the streets. He attended the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in his early days as a politican. His participation in an anti-apartheid rally in the 80s, his protest of Amadou Diallo's shooting in 1999, and the 2004 sit-in at the Sudanese Embassy, all ended in his arrest. However, his protests all resulted in bringing national attention to the cause of civil rights.

The outspoken representative has also made headlines for his controversial-and sometimes very public-comments. His comparison of President Bush to Ku Klux Klan leader Bull Connor during an interview with radio personality Rush Limbaugh made waves in September of 2005. His profanity-laced comments about Vice President Dick Cheney in 2006 also earned him negative press. In October of 2007, he made derogative comments about on the multiple marriages of Rudolph Giuliani and Mormonism during a CNN interview. He later apologized for his remarks. That same year, Rangel turned his strong opinions and racy stories into a memoir, And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress. The book enjoyed critical success.

Ethics Allegations

Rangel faced numerous ethics allegations in 2008. It was reported that the representative has four apartments in the Lenox Terrace complex in Harlem at below-market rates. The fourth apartment was used as a campaign office, which violated city and state regulations. Rangel later moved his campaign headquarters out of the building, claiming he didn't know he had broken a law. Rangel also received campaign contributions from one of the building's owners.

Further investigation revealed that Rangel failed to report income from the rental of a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, to which he owes more than $10,000 in back taxes. The House Ethics Committee is also looking tax breaks given to a company that donated $1,000,000 to the City College of New York's school, which is named after Rangel. Although there have been several calls for Rangel to leave his chairmanship on the Ways and Means Committee, he currently refuses to step down.

Rangel now serving his 19th term in the House of Representatives, and is the fourth-longest serving Democrat in the House. He is also the Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means. He serves on many other boards as well, including Chairman of the Board of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Chairman of the Congressional Narcotics Abuse and Control Caucus; Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Taxation, Executive Board of the Congressional Arts Caucus; and Dean of the New York State Congressional Delegation.

Personal Life

Rangel currently lives in Harlem, New York, with his wife Alma, who is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses. They have two children, Steven and Alicia.

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