Skip to main content

Charlie Rangel's spectacular rise and fall

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
Click to play
Rep. Rangel 'pleased' investigation over
  • Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel is under investigation for multiple alleged ethics violations
  • He has served in Congress for 40 years
  • Rangel had a rocky New York City childhood, but became a Korean War hero
  • He was one of the most powerful members of Congress in recent years

(CNN) -- Congressman Charlie Rangel had a bad week.

Calls for the veteran Harlem politician's resignation are increasing after the House Ethics Committee's announcement Thursday that he will be the subject of its first corruption trial in nearly a decade. The last time the committee took such a step, in 2002, it led to a congressman's expulsion.

Rangel says he welcomes the trial. He has said that "sunshine will pierce the cloud of serious allegations."

But for the 80-year-old Rangel, the prospect of a trial by his peers threatens to overshadow an extraordinary career that led him from the poverty of the pre-war Bronx to the battlefields of Korea and ultimately the pinnacle of political power.

It's also drawing more attention to what was already a marquee political fight: the September 14 Democratic primary between Rangel and the son of the late scandal-plagued congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who was ousted by Rangel 40 years ago.

The notion that Rangel's career could end in defeat or expulsion was once unthinkable.

The 20-term congressman had to claw his way to the top from the abyss of a rocky childhood. "My father was absolutely no good," he wrote in his autobiography. "In my earliest memory of him ... (he) was hitting my mother on the steps of some apartment-type building. I went and got a broom to hit my father. He started laughing at me."

Rangel's father eventually abandoned his family, and young Charlie moved in with an aunt and uncle.

In 1947, Rangel dropped out of high school -- a step that led to his enlistment in an all-black battalion in the Army's Second Infantry Division. Three years later, he found himself in the middle of the Korean War.

In November 1950, Rangel was wounded while helping to rescue 40 men behind Chinese lines in frigid temperatures near a place called Kunu-ri. For his efforts, Rangel received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor. The battle "was a waking nightmare becoming a reality," he later wrote. "I haven't had a bad day since."

Video: Rangel to face ethics hearing

When Rangel returned from the war, he was able to use the G.I. Bill to earn a college degree from New York University and a law degree from St. John's. After a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1966.

He became active in the civil rights movement, participating in the mid-1960s marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

Four years later, he turned his sights to Washington, entering Harlem's Democratic primary to take on Powell, one of the most prominent African-American politicians at the time. Powell had been weakened by charges of corruption, and Rangel edged him out.

Once inside the Beltway, Rangel rose rapidly through the Democratic ranks. He helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus and served on the House Judiciary Committee during its hearings on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. In 1974, he got a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, responsible for oversight of the nation's tax code.

Among other things, Rangel used his position in Congress to take a leading role in the fight against drug trafficking. He pushed for low-income housing tax credits, and authored a $5 billion Federal Empowerment Zone to support urban communities.

Rangel also became a leading voice against apartheid, authoring legislation in 1987 to strip certain tax deductions from U.S. companies invested in South Africa.

After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Rangel became the first African-American chairman of Ways and Means.

Now, however, at what should have been the peak of his power, Rangel is fighting for his political life.

Rangel was recently forced to temporarily step aside as Ways and Means chairman following the announcement of an investigation of several allegations, including failure to pay taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic.

He has also admitted a failure to report several hundred thousand dollars in assets on federal disclosure forms.

In addition, he is under scrutiny for the purported misuse of a rent-controlled apartment for political purposes, as well as for allegedly preserving tax benefits for an oil-drilling company in exchange for donations to a project he supported at the City College of New York.

The House Ethics Committee previously admonished Rangel for violating rules on receiving gifts. The committee found that Rangel violated House gift rules by accepting reimbursement payments for travel to conferences in the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

In a document issued Thursday, the ethics panel appointed an eight-member adjudicatory subcommittee to determine if allegations against Rangel "have been proved by clear and convincing evidence."

The subcommittee responsible for conducting the formal hearings on Rangel will have its first organizational meeting on July 29.