New York – The reverend picks the spot: 113 West 116th Street, three o’clock sharp. You know the neighborhood — directly north of Central Park — as part of Harlem. He calls it the Upper West Side. Amy Ruth’s, a soul-food joint, is the place. A little early, I make my way there from Malcolm X Boulevard, strolling past the towering, rusted steel cross at Canaan Baptist Church. Hair salons and laundry shops dot the block. In almost all of their busy windows, taped or tacked, are pictures of President Obama.
At Amy Ruth’s, the sweet smell of butter and sizzling potatoes permeates. Past the register, and portraits of Louis Armstrong, I head upstairs to an empty dining room where the reverend, Michel Faulkner, the pastor of nearby New Horizon Church, is sitting alone, papers spread. In a corner, his political adviser, Eric Groberg, a Democrat who worked on the Obama campaign, chats quietly on a cell phone. Faulkner, 52, is a former New York Jet and All-American defensive lineman at Virginia Tech. He has broad shoulders, a tree-trunk frame, closely cropped hair, and one heckuva handshake. He stands, grins, and pulls up a chair. We order Cokes.
Inspired by Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, Faulkner, a Republican, is pursuing the impossible: He’s running for Congress against Rep. Charlie Rangel in New York’s 15th congressional district. Statistically, a conservative and self-described Reaganite who quotes Lincoln from memory has little chance against Rangel, who is almost as much a Harlem institution as the Apollo Theater.
Rangel, a 20-term Democrat, has held the seat since 1971. Obama captured 93 percent of the vote here in 2008. Congressional Quarterly puts it this way: “Not in their wildest dreams do GOP strategists expect to have a chance of seriously competing in the 15th, an overwhelming Democratic stronghold where Hispanics and blacks make up the vast majority of the population.”
PLAN OF ATTACK Faulkner sees things differently. Rangel’s departure, Faulkner says, is long overdue, especially in light of a congressional ethics panel’s recent finding that Rangel violated House rules by taking corporate-funded trips to the Caribbean. And that’s not Rangel’s only cloud. He also faces accusations of using congressional stationery to raise money, using numerous rent-controlled apartments in violation of city regulations, hiding a half-million dollars in income, and failing to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republic. Congressional Republicans, with some Democrats, maneuvered this week to oust Rangel as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee on ethics grounds; Rangel temporarily resigned.