Charles Rangel

The feisty septuagenarian lawmaker is ready to rumble.

Illustration: Rob Kelly

When the crack of the gavel sounds for the opening session of the 110th Congress next month, Harlem's Charles Bernard Rangel will be in attendance, settling in for his 19th consecutive term as a Democratic representative from New York City. Over nearly four decades, the outspoken legislator has raised his gravelly voice on behalf of tax relief for the poor, the revitalization of urban neighborhoods, and landmark legislation to protect minorities and veterans across the nation.

When the crack of the gavel sounds for the opening session of the 110th Congress next month, Harlem's Charles Bernard Rangel will be in attendance, settling in for his 19th consecutive term as a Democratic representative from New York City. Over nearly four decades, the outspoken legislator has raised his gravelly voice on behalf of tax relief for the poor, the revitalization of urban neighborhoods, and landmark legislation to protect minorities and veterans across the nation.

He is also prone to the dramatic. Arrested for participating in protests against human-rights abuses in Sudan, apartheid in South Africa and the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, Rangel has alternatelyand publicly—labeled Bill Clinton a "redneck," George W. Bush "our Bull Connor" and Dick Cheney "a real son of a bitch." TONY had hoped to ask Rangel, 76, about his role in the new Congress, where he will chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and propose the reinstatement of a military draft. But three days before our scheduled interview, New York undercover police shot and killed Sean Bell, an unarmed Queens resident, just hours before his planned wedding and, predictably, Rangel became embroiled in the public outcry. We caught up with the legislative firebrand in his car, on his way to a radio interview.

So is this the Amadou Diallo fiasco all over again?

As it relates to what appears to be the unwarranted shooting of innocent people, yes. But the police department can't investigate what happened, because of a fear that it would jeopardize the Queens district attorney's investigation. We don't know what the facts are, but it is hard for me to see whether any factual situation can justify the shooting of people who obviously have not been guilty of any wrongdoing.

Experts are labeling the incident a "contagious shooting," in which gunfire escalates when the shooter feels he is under threat. Could this just be a sad reality of police work, when cops feel ambushed—

[Impatiently] Please! I'm not trained to tell you why anyone, subconsciously, would fire 31 shots, and why a total of 50 shots would be fired! I do know that in combat, if people are frightened, there's a tendency for them to lose their professionalism, and not just shoot anything that is moving, but things that are not moving. This "contagious firing" is a psychological problem that's indicative of unprofessional conduct. We have no idea what really happened. And the worst thing is, the police commissioner and the mayor cannot share [information] or investigate at this time. And the longer it takes, the more difficult it is for the community to understand. I'm frustrated and very anxious for the district attorney to conclude this investigation.

Understood. Yet this incident brings up the question of race in America today. Just days after the groundbreaking for the Martin Luther King memorial in D.C., actor Michael Richards spewed a racist tirade in a comedy club. What—

That's too much of a stretch for me.

Still, what does that tell us about race relations in our country?

I don't know what sickness leads to this sort of thing, but racism is a serious problem in America! And I'm not going to make the stretch to hook up a memorial with some sick, unfunny comedian.

Our past two secretaries of state have been black. For all of your issues with President Bush, do you at least credit him with helping to advance racial progress with these appointments?

I've never looked at it that way. When someone reaches a position of authority, you have to look beyond race and into policy. If you're executing the Bush domestic and foreign policy, and that execution isn't in your country's best interest, then the color of the person executing that policy is not a factor.

In most articles written about Barack Obama, he is called a "black politician." Is consistently referring to Obama by skin color inherently racist?

There are so many Obamas in this country, and unfortunately, when one of them manages to break through and get national attention, America is so surprised that a black has these attributes! So it's not racism. It's crashing through the wall of racism that allows the Obamas to get the attention that they're getting.