Charlie Rangel Begat Ed Towns: Something Is Broken In Brooklyn, Too

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”   —Abraham Lincoln    And the drama of Congressman Charlie Rangel continues to unfold with 13 charges of misconduct, even as I type this essay: Mr. Rangel faces a range of accusations stemming from his accepting four […]

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  

—Abraham Lincoln


 And the drama

of Congressman Charlie Rangel continues to unfold with 13 charges of

misconduct, even as I type this essay: Mr. Rangel faces a range of

accusations stemming from his accepting four rent-stabilized apartments,

to misusing his office to preserve a tax loophole worth half a billion

dollars for an oil executive who pledged a donation for an educational

center being built in Mr. Rangel’s honor. In short, Mr. Rangel, one of

the most powerful Democrats in the United States House of

Representatives, has given his Republican foes much fodder to attack

Dems as the November mid-term elections quickly approach.


While this

saga continues, two questions dangle in the air: First, where did it all

go so terribly wrong? And, second, did Mr. Rangel begat the lack of

ethics also present in the career of his colleague, friend, and staunch

ally Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns of Brooklyn, New York?


To answer

these questions I think we must go back to the 1960s and the Civil

Rights Movement’s waning days. Dr. King was still alive, but his

popularity had plummeted, which explains why, to this day, many people

do not know his writings or sermons from those latter years. Congressman

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of Harlem (Mr. Rangel’s predecessor) was

clinging to his seat amidst ethics battles of his own. The streets of

Black America were habitually afire, as urban unrest became the language

of the unheard ghetto masses. And in majority Black communities like

Harlem and Brooklyn, Black leaders, emboldened by Civil Rights

victories, chants of “Black Power,” and a once-in-a-century opportunity

for power, rushed through the kicked-in doors, into politics, into

business, into film and television, into book publishing and magazines

(or started their own), and into colleges and universities heretofore

shuttered. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The

best because many really believed “change” was on the horizon. The worst

because some Black movers and shakers were so happy to get inside that

they came with no vision or a plan whatsoever for their followers.


Clearly very

few even bothered to read Dr. King’s landmark essay “Black Power

Redefined,” which sought to push Black leaders toward a programmatic

agenda that included the poor and economically disenfranchised.


And if there

were any communities in Black America to test Dr. King’s vision, they

were Harlem and Brooklyn. Brooklyn has Black America’s largest

concentration of people of African descent. But Harlem, in particular,

was the symbolic capital of Black America, and it was there that the now

famous Gang of Four—Percy Sutton, Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins, and

Basil Paterson—planned and plotted a course for their community, and

themselves. Rangel replaced Powell in Congress and became the dean of

New York politics. Sutton would first be a successful politician

himself, then eventually start Inner City Broadcasting, a major person

of color owned media enterprise; Basil Paterson would be, among other

things, New York State Senator, Deputy Mayor of New York City, and New

York Secretary of State; and David Dinkins, of course, became the first

Black mayor of New York City.


Truth be told

Mr. Rangel and his colleagues had an incredible vision and really did

nothing differently than their White predecessors had been doing for

decades in America: they saw an opportunity for a taste of power and

they took it. (And at least the Gang of Four brought an economic

empowerment zone to Harlem, something Congressman Towns pretended to

want to do in the mid1990s for Brooklyn, then mysteriously backed away

from, instead endorsing then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s re-election bid,

with Brooklyn never hearing about that zone again.)


Indeed, as I

was coming of age as a student and youth activist in the 1980s, and as a

then-reporter with various Black newspapers in the New York City area, I

remember well hearing their names mentioned often. And, to a lesser

extent, the names of their Black political peers in Brooklyn like Al

Vann, Major Owens, and Sonny Carson. It was awe-inspiring, because I did

not know that Black folks were leaders in this way. The pinnacle of

this Black political ascension in New York City, without question, was

the election of David Dinkins in 1989. For New York was the last of the

major American cities to produce a Black mayor.


But something

stopped during Dinkins’ years in City Hall. Black New York was unable to

shake off the catastrophic effects of the 1980s crack cocaine scourge,

or Reagan-era social policies. Meanwhile, Black leadership in New York,

rather than nurture and prepare the next generation of Black voices to

succeed them, did exactly what their White forerunners had done: they

dug their heels deeper into the sands of power and have instead become

leaders of what I call “a ghetto monarchy.” In other words, the

community-first values of the Civil Rights era have been replaced by the

post-Civil Rights era values of me-first, career first, and control and

domination of my building, my block, my housing projects, my district,

my part of the community (if not all of it), my church, my community

center, or my organization, by any means necessary. For as long as

possible. And often for as much money, privilege, and access to power as

one can get with a “career” as a Black leader or figurehead.


And that, my

friends, is what leads us, again, to the sad spectacles of the two

senior most Congresspersons in New York State: Charlie Rangel of Harlem,

and my representative in Brooklyn, Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns.


For it is so

clear that the leadership path of Congressman Rangel begat the

leadership path of Congressman Towns. Both may have been well

intentioned at the beginning of their careers. Both may very well

believe in the goodness, as I do, of public service for the people. But

something has gone terribly wrong, the longer they have stayed in office

(40 years now, for Mr. Rangel, and 27 long years for Mr. Towns);

something that, I believe, has zapped them of their ability to serve

effectively. That has zapped them of sound moral, political and ethical

judgment. That has led both to be disconnected from the very people they

claim to serve, both younger and older people alike.


And you see

this pattern with old school Black political leaders nationwide. For

ghettoes exist wherever you see Black city council or alderpersons.

Ghettoes exist wherever you see Black state senators and

assemblypersons. And ghettoes exist for most of the Congressional

districts, too, represented by Black House members. 40-plus long years

of Black political representation, in record numbers, in fact, but it

seems our communities are worse off than even before the Civil Rights



Now I am very

clear that systemic racism has done a number on these communities from

coast to coast, from how financial institutions have treated urban

areas, to the deterioration of our public schools when White flight

became real in the 1960s and 1970s, to loss of factories, and other job

incubators, to the often combative relationship between our communities

and local police. And let us not begin to talk about the effects of

gentrification on urban areas across America the past decade and a half.


But if a

leader really has any vision, she or he figures out some way to help the

people to help themselves. You simply do not retreat to what is safe,

secure, and predictable in terms of your actions, or lack thereof. Doing

that means you simply have given up. Or, worse, you just do not care.


For me, no

clearer evidence than the other day when I was campaigning for Congress

in Marcy Projects in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the

Marcy Projects made famous in the lyrics of hiphop superstar and

Brooklyn native son Jay-Z. 60-year-old Marcy Projects is so huge a

housing complex that it swallows whole Myrtle and Park and Flushing

Avenues between Nostrand and Marcy. It consists of 27 buildings, over

1700 apartments, and approximately 5000 residents. And except for areas

like Fort Greene (excluding its own projects), Clinton Hill, Boerum

Hill, and parts of Dumbo, Bed-Stuy, East Flatbush, and Canarsie, most of

Mr. Towns’ district is as impoverished, under-served, and as forgotten

as Marcy Projects.


There is the

sight of several elderly women sitting on benches in the middle of this

aging complex, frustrated with the state of their lives, their meager

incomes, the bags of garbage strewn about them, and the rats who have

created dirt holes so big around each building, that a small human head

could fit through most of those holes. When I ask these women where is

the nearest senior citizen center so they could have some measure of

relief, they say, in unison, “Right here, outside, where we are sitting

now, these benches. This is the safest place we got.”


There is the

sight of children, pre-teens and teens, running, jumping, over p#####

stained asphalt, scraping their knees on the ground filled with broken

bottles and broken promises. There also is no community center open in

Marcy any longer. Why that is the case, no Marcy resident can tell me.

What they do tell me is that Marcy Playground is being renovated. And

indeed it is. But the residents feel it is not for them, that it is for

“the new White people coming into the area, and the new Black people who

have some money.”


There is the

sight of all those Black and Latino males standing on this or that

corner, in front of this or that building, the hands of their lives

shoved deep into their pockets, their hunger for something better fed by

a Newport cigarette, a taste of malt liquor or Hennessey, a pull on a

marijuana stick. And then the ritual happens: a police car shows up,

males and females of all ages are asked for identification, are thrown

up against a wall, against the squad car, or to the ground, asked where

they live, where they are going, why are they standing there, what is in

their shoes, in their underwear. Or they are accused of trespassing for

going from one building to another, even if they are simply visiting a

relative or friend.


This is not

just life in Marcy Projects, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. This is what ghetto

monarchs like Congressman Towns and Congressman Rangel preside over in

Black communities nationwide. Perhaps, once more, they really cared at

one point—maybe they really did. But circa 2010, Charlie Rangel’s

problems are Ed Towns’ problems because the apple does not fall very far

from the tree. Yes, cite Mr. Rangel’s litany of indiscretions, but let

us not forget Mr. Towns’ own timeline of indiscretions while overseeing

his district (see the timeline below for Mr. Towns), for nearly three

decades, with, among other things, some of the bloodiest violence in

America, the highest HIV/AIDS rates in America, the most under-achieving

schools (with a few notable exceptions), and vast disparities between

the haves and the have-nots. Right here in Brooklyn, New York.


Is it little

wonder that as I travel this Congressional district, meeting with Jewish

folks in Boerum HIill, Chinese folks in Williamsburg, West Indian folks

in East Flatbush and Canarsie, or African American and Puerto Rican

folks in East New York, I hear the same things time and again: “We never

see Mr. Towns except maybe when he needs our vote” or “I have never

seen Mr. Towns in my life” or “I have called Mr. Towns’ office many

times and never gotten the help I need” or “I just do not trust any of

these politicians at all. They all lie.”


This is why

voter turnout is perpetually low. This is why incumbents get to stay in

office decade after decade. The formula is very simple for electeds like

Congressman Ed Towns: Identify the loyal voters and only cater to them

(helping them get election poll jobs, or regular jobs, helping their

children get into schools, paying for trips out of town to some casino

or amusement park or cookout). Stay out of sight of all the other

registered Democratic voters, banking on them simply pulling the lever

for “Democrats” every election cycle without any fuss or questions.

Never debate an insurgent opponent for fear of your being exposed for

who you really are, and for what you have not done for the community.

Turn your political seat into a business, one where your family member

and circle of friends and colleagues benefit from the powerful reach of

your position.


So why would

you want to give that up? Why would you even bother to do more than is

absolutely necessary when you are able to enjoy the perks of a long

political career without much effort, without much sweat equity at all?

Why would you even think that taking on the values of political

corruption are unethical at all, if there has been no one to hold you

accountable for so very long?


And why would

you see that Brooklyn, and the Brooklyns of America, are broken, so very

terribly broken, even though it is clear as day to the people in your





Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives in Brooklyn, New York’s 10th Congressional district. You can contact him at