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Embattled Charlie Rangel faces yet another Adam Clayton Powell as Harlem history comes full circle

April 8, 2010 |  9:19 am

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Democrat Charles Rangel by AP

It's no surprise that Charles B. Rangel, the gravelly-voiced Democrat from Harlem, has attracted a primary challenger.

After all, when the House Ethics Committee admonishes you for accepting gifts from corporations for your junkets to your retreat in the Dominican Republic, you can expect to pay out of pocket. And when your colleagues -- nervous about their own prospects in 2010 -- try to distance themselves by dumping you as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, you can pretty well expect that an ambitious opponent will seize the moment.

But how rich the irony! The man who is expected to throw his hat into the ring on Monday is Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the man Rangel beat four decades ago, effectively ending the elder Powell's political career. The similarities are eerie.

Elected in 1944, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became the first black congressman from New York, one of only two African Americans serving in Congress. His challenges were personal -- he overturned whites-only House facilities and forced colleagues to stop using the "N-word" on the House floor. He left lasting legislative victories too; he launched a campaign against the poll tax used by Southern states to exclude blacks from the voting booth, and was instrumental in efforts to make lynching a federal crime.

For decades, Powell was the political king of Harlem, unchallenged and revered, like Rangel a charismatic figure on the local scene. Then, as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Powell was accused of misusing committee funds, taking trips abroad at public expense (including travel to his retreat...

...on the Bahamian isle of Bimini). Nervous colleagues stripped him of his chairmanship. Sound familiar? Stripped of his House seat, Powell compared himself to Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jew wrongly accused of being a spy for Germany.

For his part, the 47-year-old Powell IV insists there is no historic retribution involved in his run. "It has nothing to do with revenge or anything like that," he said. "The fact is, it is time to turn the page."

Maybe, but don't bet against Rangel, a Korean War veteran and the fourth-longest serving member of Congress. At 79, after nearly 40 years of bringing home the bacon to a constituency often ignored by the rest of the country and funneling millions of campaign dollars to fellow Democrats, he has a lot of chits to call in.

For one thing, he is a major-league Friend of Bill (Clinton), instrumental in persuading the former president to locate his post-White House offices in Manhattan. Also, he's a big-time Friend of Hillary (Clinton), equally compelling in convincing the former first lady that she should run for -- and could win -- a Senate seat from New York. And he backed Hillary Clinton for president, even in the face of a challenge from the first African American with a shot at winning -- only endorsing Barack Obama's campaign after the heated primary had ended. The Clintons are loyal people. Their help both behind the scenes and in front of the cameras could be pivotal.

For another, this particular namesake of the fabled Powell family comes with some baggage of his own. The New York assemblyman was actually born Adam Clayton Powell Diago, the son of the congressman and his third wife, Yvette Diago, who won custody and raised the boy in her home country of Puerto Rico when the couple separated. He changed his name when he moved to the United States to attend Howard University, a few years before he moved to New York and ran for city council. Just to confuse matters, he already had a nephew by the name of Adam Clayton Powell IV.

Anyway, this Powell has a 2008 drunk driving conviction and a pretty low attendance record in Albany. Or any achievements either. Plus Rangel has already beaten him once before.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Rangel. Credit: Associated Press

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