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.
Rangel has blamed his staff for his troubles. This, Faulkner says, is another unsurprising example of Rangel bullying others to avoid political hot water. “Not accepting responsibility for his actions is shameful,” he says. “When I was younger, I hated bullies. The more and more I see Charlie Rangel, the more I see him as a bully who needs to be stopped.” (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for her part, has nodded along with Rangel’s explanation.)
Leaning forward, the reverend presses his finger down on the chipped wooden table. “Let me be clear, though. My campaign is not just about Mr. Rangel and his recent indiscretions. It is about stopping the direction in which the government, led by his party, is going. The growing size of the federal government is unbelievable. That’s a bigger scandal than the ethics issue — the size of the debt, the unbridled spending. It would be easy for me to pile on the ethics charges and not define how I see things. Thing is, this community is hurting. Mr. Rangel is the source of a lot of that pain. It’s clearly time for a change. It is also time for new ideas. And that’s what I want to talk about.”
Faulkner notes that he is not the only one in the district fed up with Rangel. Democrat Vincent Scott Morgan, a banker and former Rangel aide, is running against the congressman in September’s primary. Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV is also considering a primary challenge.
Faulkner sees little use in hitching his campaign to the GOP brand. For starters, the national Republican party has all but ignored him, though he did go down to Washington to meet the House GOP leadership this winter. Instead of running on an anti-Obama plank, as Republicans nationwide plan to, he wants to base his campaign on his conservative values and related community-based solutions.
Together, he says, those two elements can succeed in Harlem, whether it be on issues such as charter schools in education or wellness promotion with health care. Tax relief, he says, must be part of the equation. And come November, Faulkner truly believes that preaching individual and familial responsibility, in Washington and around 125th Street, will be a winning message.
“When we talk about family, we’re talking about choices,” he says. “The idea of a nuclear family in this community is not easy to find, so we work within a broad definition of that word, to encourage people to make the right choices and overcome obstacles — be they economic, social, political, or personal.”
“I am a Republican by choice, not by convenience,” Faulkner says. “I’m a Republican by conviction. I’m pro-life, pro-marriage, and anti-tax. But I struggle with the Republican caucus. They have the right values, but their process is very much part of the problem. They didn’t know how to work with a Barack Obama. As president, he has to listen to a powerful caucus, but there are ways to do that without having a sour face and hands crossed. We need to put forward new ideas without being pegged as the party of no. My critique of the GOP is pretty much the same as all tea partiers’: There are many problems, of course, but what are Republicans going to do about it? And can we do it with civility and common sense?”
THE MAKING OF A CONSERVATIVE
Faulkner was raised in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia section, the son of a beautician and police officer. “I grew up seeing the detrimental effects of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society on the urban poor,” Faulkner says. “You had poor people dependent on government and a whole layer of government bureaucrats who came along to supposedly serve the poor — it was extremely inefficient. We need to be doing the opposite — encouraging entrepreneurship in urban areas, encouraging growth. With what’s happening in Washington, I felt like the country was beginning to slip back toward the old ways that never worked.”
After lighting up the gridiron at Bishop McNamara High School in Maryland, he earned a football scholarship to Virginia Tech. As a Hokie, he starred again, and, after earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and sociology, set his sights on the National Football League.
“I came to New York to try out for the NFL,” Faulkner says. “I spent the year living here and loved it. I lived in the South Bronx with a family — sleeping in a basement bedroom and working with the family. I did everything from babysit the kids to cook dinner, wash towels, and clean the bathrooms. It was fun. I was a normal person. I was accountable for how I lived my life, and I had a great time. It really grounded me in terms of what matters with community.”
Faulkner played only one season with the Jets before suffering a career-ending injury. “God stepped in,” he explains. “I went back to D.C., met my wife, and decided to go to graduate school back at Virginia Tech, where I served as an academic adviser for athletes. I worked on helping the elite athletes understand how important being a student-athlete is. Then, after I got my master’s degree, I traveled to Liberty University [Jerry Falwell’s university in Lynchburg, Va.] for a new job, in 1985.”
“Dr. Falwell and I hit it off right off the bat,” Faulkner says. “For all his controversy, he was very much a pastor. He was a dear friend and mentored me for the years I was there. I started out as assistant dean of students and then was promoted to vice president for urban ministry. It was there that I got a lot of exposure to other pastors around the country and was involved with the Moral Majority and the Conservative Political Action Conference — my first real political experiences.”
In the early 1990s, Faulkner left Liberty to become assistant pastor at Lamb’s Church in Times Square. “I ran the soup kitchen and served the poor and the homeless,” he says. “It was great. It was exposure to real people.” His work was noticed, and within a couple of years, he was hired at Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan, where he ran community outreach and ministered to HIV/AIDS patients, prisoners, the homeless, and youth. While at Calvary, Faulkner served as co-chairman for the New York City Board of Education’s HIV/AIDS Task Force, which dealt with rewriting the city curriculum on the issue.
“You talk about controversy, Heather Has Two Mommies and all of that,” Faulkner says. “ACT UP [a left-wing AIDS advocacy group] would come to these meetings once a month, throwing stuff up at us. It was a very volatile time. I got a chance to really see how the process worked. There were only four conservatives and 17 people on the other end of the spectrum. Yet despite the gap, we were able to bring clarity to the process — listening, talking, arguing, all while embracing the challenge to bring a real AIDS curriculum to New York City.”
In 1993, Faulkner became the senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Manhattan. Soon after, he was introduced to a U.S. attorney named Rudy Giuliani. “We got to be friends,” Faulkner says. “I also met Peter Powers [a Giuliani ally and former deputy mayor], who really mentored me. I was actually offered a position in his campaign, but couldn’t take it, because of my new duties at Central Baptist. Still, I was involved.” Giuliani would go on to appoint Faulkner to the city task force on police-community relations.
Seventeen years later, Faulkner says he and Giuliani are in “separate orbits.” And he’s quick to admit that in Harlem, having Giuliani as a booster isn’t exactly a plus. “His involvement won’t help my campaign,” he says. “He could help me nationally, but not locally. He was a great mayor, but he is not very popular in the black community. It is what it is.”
In recent years, Faulkner has been a leader in the city’s charter-school fight, battling New York’s Blaine Amendment (which forbids state funding to religious educational institutions) in order to try and start a New Horizons charter school. “I’ve been around,” he says. “I was an unofficial adviser to George Pataki, and to Michael Bloomberg during his first run for mayor. I’ve seen the working of power, so to speak. Even Mr. Rangel, we actually honored his chief of staff at one of our church functions, a Martin Luther King event. We did it for the right reasons, and we’d do it again, but things need to change now.”
Politics, Faulkner says, has always been something he has followed, dabbled in — but not seriously considered entering. Yet after raising three children with Virginia, his wife of nearly three decades, and with his youngest daughter now a teenager, this year “felt like the right year.”
“Someone has to fight to regain the hearts of those who have stopped voting in Harlem, where there is such an alarming disconnect between the people and the democratic process,” he says. “‘If not now, when?’ I said. ‘If not me, then who?’”
Four years ago, Faulkner founded New Horizon, a faith community he likes to call a “missional church” — a Christ-centered congregation focused on “bringing light to the darkness, and being an agent of transformation to bring the Gospel to Harlem.” Being a preacher is good training for the campaign trail: “People vote with their feet,” Faulkner says. “No one forces them to show up on Sunday. If they don’t come, I know I’m doing something wrong. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from the church, and a lot about people.”
And he will keep up his pastoral duties during the campaign. “As pastor, my job is to protect the sheep from the wolves, and it’s a job I very much enjoy,” he says.
Our Cokes now empty, Faulkner’s voice rises when he swings the conversation back to Rangel. The lesson of Scott Brown comes up again. “This is America,” he says. “When people say I can’t win, remember, it’s about ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people.’ This is a democracy that works on one person, one vote. I know that people have been abused here in Harlem. It’s the Stockholm syndrome — people feel like their abuser is their friend. Yes, there is a lot of dysfunction and confusion in this community, but the people here are entitled to a choice. This race is about giving them that, and letting them know they can move to a different direction.”
Could this Reaganite, community-organizing pastor actually topple Rangel? The odd are long, to be sure, but as the reverend says: You’ve got to have a little faith.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.