Rep. Charlie Rangel’s reelection prospects may have taken a big hit last week when the House Ethics Committee announced it’s two-year investigation had found “substantial reason to believe” that Rangel had violated House ethics rules.
Rangel (D.-N.Y.) is facing perhaps the most difficult re-election campaign of his 40-year career representing Harlem in the House. Several Democrats have lined up to face Rangel in September’s Democratic primary, buoyed by charges that Rangel violated House rules in taking two Caribbean trips that were funded by corporations with lobbying interests before Congress. The scandal has already cost Rangel the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee last March.
Unlike in past reelection campaigns, however, the Democratic primary will not decide the election. A Republican has stepped up to challenge Rangel, and he believes he has a good shot at winning. Michel Faulkner is no stranger to adversity. As a football player at Virginia Tech, he suffered an injury that rendered any hope of a career in professional football all but over. But Faulkner came to New York to try out with the Jets and made the team, playing one season before suffering another—this time career ending—injury. Faulker takes the same determination into his campaign.
“I was the slowest, the shortest, the weakest player in camp,” Faulkner recounts. “But six weeks later I was on the team. I view this campaign the same way. I know what it’s like to come from behind.”
Faulkner has more than just determination, however. He has a strategy for winning as a Republican in a district with a Cook Partisan Voter Index of D+41, that gave Barack Obama 93% of the vote in 2008, and has had only two representatives since World War II, Democrats Rangel and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Faulkner says that while the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, less than 30% of the eligible population is registered to vote. Of that group, Faulkner says less than half actually turns out to the polls. “That should tell everybody something,” Faulkner said, describing what he sees an opportunity to engage with disaffected members of the community.
“We need to ignite the electorate. Just as President Obama won by bringing in a large number of new voters, we need to do that in this district,” he said.
“I’ve never sought political office before, but I was driven to do so now because I’m outraged at…what’s going on with our nation,” Faulkner said. “It’s as if people’s votes don’t count. They’ve grown disconnected from their government because they don’t trust their elected officials. We have a culture of career politicians instead of public servants.”
After his football days, Faulker was drawn to the ministry. Ordained in New York City in 1991, he held various pastoral positions in churches throughout the city until 2006, when he started his own church, Horizon Church of New York in Harlem. Along the way, he has held positions in public service, including places on the Task Force on Police Community Relations under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the city Board of Education’s HIV/AIDS Task Force. He currently serves as a board member on the New York City Department of Youth and Community Assistance.
His ministerial work and community involvement could give Faulkner a quality that most Republican candidates in Harlem lack: credibility. Combined with Rangel’s ethics troubles, he could prove a more formidable foe than past challengers. Faulker insists that his campaign is not about Rangel; although, he couldn’t resist listing Rangel’s varied ethical problems in a recent New York Post op-ed.
“Unfortunately Mr. Rangel has come to epitomize what is wrong with Washington today,” Faulkner wrote. “His gross underpayment of federal income taxes while chairing the House Ways and Means Committee shows the hypocrisy of our Congress. Furthermore, his occupation of four rent-stabilized apartments (while so many in our community are in desperate need of affordable housing), demonstrates his disconnect from our needs and struggles. It could not be clearer that the people of this city deserve a new direction and need new leadership.”
The Ethics Committee action last week could serve to drive that message home to Harlem voters looking for a fresh start.
Rangel was first elected to Congress in 1970, beating the legendary Powell in the Democratic primary. Powell had been beset by ethics scandals, just as Rangel is now. Forty years later, Faulkner looks for history to repeat itself. With new voters, a bit of luck, and a healthy dose of determination, Faulkner stands a good chance to benefit from Rangel’s ethical lapses.