U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel thought he would be wrapping up his 46-year career in Congress on a note of triumph, leaving office at the same time as a history-making fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama, with the country in the hands of longtime friend Hillary Clinton.
Instead, the gravelly-voiced New Yorker said he is exiting to “a nightmare,” the ascendancy of Donald Trump.
“I keep waking up thinking that it’s a dream, bad dream,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in the days before his retirement.
But Rangel is also perversely hopeful that a Trump presidency will be so jarring, it will unite Democrats and Republicans in Congress at last, at least on some issues.
“It could be that Donald Trump is so erratic and so unpredictable that he could break this partisanship because of his many unacceptable positions that he’s taken,” Rangel said.
If it happens, Rangel will be watching from home – something he hasn’t done in decades.
Rangel was initially elected in 1970, defeating a legend in New York City politics, Adam Clayton Powell, to become Harlem’s face in Washington.
He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 2007, he became chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, the first black person to hold that position.
Rangel’s influence in Congress took a severe hit in 2010, when he stepped down from his chairmanship over ethics concerns. His colleagues ultimately censured him for 11 ethics violations, including failing to pay taxes on a vacation villa and filing misleading financial disclosure forms. Rangel acknowledged making mistakes, but said the censure push was political.
“I had misjudged how important it was for Republicans to take me down,” he said.
Still, he won re-election that year, and twice more after that, although his last elections were nowhere near the blowouts of earlier campaigns. He didn’t run this year and his seat, representing New York’s 13th Congressional District, is being taken by state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who will be the first Dominican-American in the House of Representatives.
Rangel said he’s been fortunate, and never felt like his time in Congress was just a job. But he said with Republicans in charge of the Senate, the House and the White House, now isn’t the worst time to be calling it quits.
“I would not be happy in the Congress,” he said.
Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the longest-serving member of Congress, said Rangel was a popular member of that body, who “worked with everybody and he also had a very stimulating and warm personality.”
Conyers praised Rangel, saying he was progressive politically and consistent in his desire to create jobs for people.
Rangel said he plans on spending time with his wife, Alma, and their children and grandchildren, as well as giving public speeches. But he doesn’t plan on completely stepping back from involvement in the public sphere.
“There’s so much work for me that I never thought about doing out here,” he said. “I can still have some small influence even in Washington. I’m not out of it.”
As for how Congress might deal with Trump, he predicted the institution he’s long been a part of would react “just like a damn family.”
“We can fight like hell until an outsider comes in and tells us what the hell we should be doing. He is a complete outsider without any track record of understanding of what the Congress can do when we work together.”