The Campaign Spot

Charlie Rangel Faces a Dogfight With a Jet

The good news for Michel Faulkner: If you’re a former New York Jet, you’re probably used to being an underdog.

Faulkner is the Republican seeking to defeat 20-term incumbent Charlie Rangel, the Harlem, N.Y. congressman of the gravelly voice and multiple issues before the House Ethics Committee.

“He’s making our life easier, but we still need to take our message out to the people,” Faulkner said on a conference call with a few conservative bloggers this afternoon.

“I’ve never sought political office before, and I was driven to do so now because I’m outraged at the direction of Washington and what’s going on with our nation,” Faulkner said. “It’s as if people’s votes don’t count. They’ve grown disconnected from the democratic process because they don’t trust their elected officials, and we have a culture of career politicians instead of public servants. It would be real easy to jump on this ‘dump Charlie’ bandwagon, but we need to drain the entire swamp. We need to change the culture of Washington, because it feels like a schoolyard bully is picking on littlest kid on the playground.”

On health care, Faulkner declares, “This bill is a disaster . . . It’s going to be close. I’m praying this bill does not pass, because this bill will saddle Americans with a burden that we cannot stand under.”

Rangel’s never gotten less than 87 percent of the vote since he was elected in 1970, so the bar for Faulkner is low. But he brings a more intriguing biography to the race than the usual sacrificial lamb: a minister in Harlem for 20 years, laboring at the unglamorous but noble and needed tasks of feeding the poor and ministering to the homeless, along with a one-year stint as a defensive lineman with the New York Jets.

While this was the second-best district for President Obama in the entire nation, Faulkner notes that less than 30 percent of its residents are registered to vote, and of those who are registered, only 48 percent voted in the presidential election. “That should tell everybody something,” Faulkner said. “We need to ignite the electorate. Just as President Obama won by igniting the electorate and bringing in a large number of new voters, we need to do that in this district.” There is a popular perception that this district is mostly African-American, but that demographic in fact only makes up 27.9 percent; Hispanics make up 45.6 percent.

Faulkner has been taking his message straight to the streets of the district, asking passers-by what they think of Congress and how government should respond to problems.

“We interview people right on the street, asking, ‘What do you think?’ We get a crowd of people, and this guy asks if he can say something. He says, ‘I’m homeless. I don’t want a handout, I’m looking for a job. But every time I go to the office for public assistance, they want to give me a check, they don’t want to help me find a job.’ I thought, ‘You are amazing.’ This guy was hitting every beat that I had been espousing . . .  I can’t get a better endorsement than someone who is in that position in life and who is not looking for a government handout.”

While Faulkner acknowledges Rangel’s perpetual ethics problems – noting that the public is tiring of “fat cat antics” in Washington — he insists his campaign won’t focus on them. “It’s easy to take potshots, but that’s not going to get it done. The people in the district need to know that there’s substance there and a positive message – steak as well as the sizzle.”

Faulkner’s brief football career offers at least one case of him beating long odds. In 1981, Faulkner wangled an invite to the Jets’ training camp as an undrafted defensive lineman out of Virginia Tech. The Jets already had a quartet of excellent pass rushers, the New York Sack Exchange consisting of Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons, and Abdul Salaam. Faulkner recalls they had drafted three other defensive linemen and two other free agents who had been through other teams’ training camps before. “I was the slowest in the 40 [yard dash], the shortest, the weakest in the bench press. And yet six weeks later, I made the team.” Despite the temptation to attribute his achievement to the Jets’ traditional idiosyncratic coaching decisions, Faulkner was part of a team that went 10-5-1, earning the team’s first playoff appearance in twelve years.

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