NEW YORK — New York's Democratic political establishment came out in force for embattled U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel on Wednesday, packing a sold-out fundraiser to praise Rangel's service to the city and state over a 40-year career recently tainted by ethics charges.
"I've been to a lot of funerals, and this damn sure isn't a funeral," Rangel said to loud cheers.
Hundreds of supporters crowded into the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel for the fundraiser, which was tied to Rangel's 80th birthday. Rangel seemed ebullient as he moved through the crowd, joined by his wife and daughter. Singer Dionne Warwick led the crowd in serenading him to her hit song "That's What Friends are For."
The show of public support for Rangel among the state's highest officials was the most striking element of the evening, given that many of them — including U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo — will face voters in November.
A House ethics panel has accused Rangel, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman, of using official stationary to raise money for a college center bearing his name; delaying tax payments on income on a rental unit in the Dominican Republic; failing to file his financial disclosure statements on time; and operating four rent-stabilized apartments in New York, including one he used as a campaign office. [See where Rangel's campaign donations come from.]
There was almost no mention of Rangel's ethics problems as speakers stepped to the microphones to praise him. Nearly all cited his long history of service to Harlem, which he has represented in Congress for four decades.
Cuomo, who served as housing secretary under President Bill Clinton and currently is New York's attorney general, told the crowd that Clinton had trusted Rangel to crusade for a progressive national urban agenda.
"Charlie delivered for this nation, he carried the banner for people who are long left behind and forgotten," Cuomo said. "His voice has always been a powerful voice."
Schumer spoke of working with Rangel for three decades: "He is somebody who has always cared, always had New York in his veins, and has always been there for his district, city and state. We are so grateful."
Not everyone who showed up at the Plaza was a Rangel fan.
Jonathan Tasini, who is challenging Rangel in the Sept. 14 primary, made an appearance to criticize the optics of Rangel holding such a lavish fundraiser when his district suffers such great economic challenges.
And a handful of protesters showed up carrying signs urging Rangel to step down, prompting former New York City Mayor David Dinkins to make an obscene gesture at them.
The fundraiser emerged as a test of political loyalty to Rangel, the dean of the state's congressional delegation. It came just a day after he delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor insisting he would not resign despite the pending allegations. [See the latest news on Rangel.]
The timing of Rangel's high-profile fundraiser spooked many Democrats nervous about the likelihood of steep losses in November. Indeed, only six of the state's 27-member House Democratic delegation attended the event, along with Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted the absences of some lawmakers, making a subtle crack about their lack of loyalty.
"I know a few people couldn't be here tonight," he said. "As they tell it, either they had to get a haircut or they were sure they'd have a headache. But you know, Charlie, they were with you as long as they could be."
At least five New York House Democrats are believed to be vulnerable this November, including two-term Rep. Michael Arcuri, who has called on Rangel to resign. The National Republican Congressional Committee has hammered Arcuri and other endangered Democrats, insisting they return campaign contributions they've received from Rangel.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, for his part, directed his criticism toward the media, which he said had waged a campaign against Rangel.
"We showed up for Charlie Rangel because Charlie Rangel always showed up for us," Sharpton said. "Don't turn your cameras off, don't put your notepads down. You have started and executed a political execution, so stay tuned for a political resurrection."