The Lion Retires, Part 1: Charles Rangel Reflects on a Five Decade Legacy in Washington

One of the most iconic and influential politicians in the city, Congressman Charlie Rangel, known as the Lion of Lenox Avenue, is retiring after almost half a century on Capitol Hill. Our Washington Bureau Reporter Alberto Pimienta spent time with Rangel during his final days in the nation’s capital and here’s part one of his series: “The Lion Retires.”

Like many history-making figures, Charles Rangel didn’t really start with a plan.  

"Congress was never in my mind," the longtime Congressman said, looking back.

Neither was politics.

After receiving a Purple Heart in the Korean War, Rangel came back home to New York City.

He quickly realized he was unemployable. 

In the midst of working odd jobs, a request from his grandfather led the Congressman to politics.

"When I walked in and found out that I had to go through the county leader to get an extension for my grandfather to work and that was politics, I said I wanted to correct it and I knew then," Rangel said.

After getting his GED, graduating from NYU and getting a law degree from Saint John’s, Rangel in 1966 won a seat in the New York State Assembly.

And in 1970, he ran for Congress defeating the legendary but controversial Adam Clayton Powell Junior in a Democratic primary.

Rangel and Powell weren’t always competitors. In the mid-60s, Powell started facing ethics charges in the House. As a state assemblyman, Rangel wanted to help.

"I tried to explain to him that he was vulnerable and because I was supporting him the people who were out to get rid of him were out to get rid of me too," Rangel said.

Powell was indifferent.

"He said: 'Do what you have to do.'"

In 1971, Rangel was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. A few years later, he made his way to the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most coveted spots in the House.

In 2006, he became the first African American to chair the committee.

Today, a portrait of Rangel hangs in the imposing room — forever marking his legacy in Congress and on this important committee.

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