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The Sisyphean Candidate

Michel Faulkner hopes to take down Charlie Rangel.

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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From my amateur vantage point there are three kinds of politi-cians. The first are the “process” types. They may have gone into politics for idealistic reasons or for the opportunities, but in the end, especially if they are long-serving, the process becomes the whole game, and they find themselves gobbled up by it. The result has been bigger and bigger government.

The Sisyphean Candidate

Most politicians are process types. 

The second type encompasses the rascals. Third World countries have personality cults, but America is small time in this regard. Since I’m from the South, as soon as I heard Bill Clinton, I said to myself, “Southern sheriff.” This type includes northern politicians, too. The ethically challenged Charlie Rangel of New York’s 15th Congressional District is a promi-nent exemplar.

The third are the leaders. They possess a natural light-up-the-room quality. Ronald Reagan belongs here, as does Sarah Palin. Newt Gingrich should fit in here, but, being very brainy, he got caught up in the process. For a brief, shining moment, Barack Obama was in this select, rare group.

I floated this typology by Michel Faulkner as we sat in the upstairs café of Best Yet Market on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Manhattan, a neighborhood rapidly becoming the Tribeca of Harlem. Faulkner is challenging Charlie Rangel, who is running for his 21st term representing Harlem, Morningside Heights, northern Manhattan, and part of the Upper West Side. Rangel, whom the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington numbers among its “Fifteen Most Corrupt Members of Congress,” has recently stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee while charges against him are investigated.

Michel Faulkner is African-American, which might give him an inside advantage, though 20 percent of the 15th District is white and 45 percent is identified as Hispanic. The district, however, votes overwhelmingly Democratic—Rangel won in 2008 with 89 percent of the vote—and Faulkner is running as a Republican. He is a conservative, moreover, running on a pro-economic growth platform. And he is certain he can win.

Did I mention that Michel Faulk-ner is a light-up-the-room guy?

Faulkner grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to college at Virginia Tech, where he played football and became an All-American. It was while recovering from a sports injury in 1977 that he underwent a spiritual conversion. After college (a degree in communications), he played pro ball for several years, including one season on the defensive line for the New York Jets, before deciding on the ministry. He counts among his spiritual mentors Jerry Falwell, under whom he served in Liberty University’s urban outreach. Since 1988 he has been associated with several Baptist churches in New York City and is now pastor of a small congregation whose goal is to train a new generation of leaders who will “transform their communities and the marketplace through excellence in ministry.”

New York State politics features some of the most venial and self-serving characters to have marred the face of the earth. Some years back the Queens borough president killed him-self after a scandal involving the Parking Violations Bureau. Suicide over parking meters! Isn’t Michel Faulkner afraid of taking on this slimy political machine? He smiled at my question. He has, it turns out, “prayed with” and ministered to all of them, including Rangel, including the current governor, David Paterson, himself term-limited by scandal. Most seem to be rascals, if not outright scoundrels.

But people are fond of rascals and scoundrels. People vote for them.

Rascals seem to make their own rules, and we admire them for their deviousness. They get away with things we might like to get away with.

And that is the power of rascals in American politics. They represent the people who have no power, whether their vote has been suppressed or whether they think their voice doesn’t count, so why bother voting, anyway? The system doesn’t change, and their satisfaction comes from observing the rascal screw the system that is screwing them.

Faulkner is deeply concerned that people don’t vote, because it means they have no faith in democracy. And he believes that America has created a system of government that allows its citizens to work hard, discover their God-given potential, and, through their work, leave a legacy to their children and country. In conversation he quotes the Founders often. John Adams, who worried about the future of democratic government, is on his mind a lot.

As I said, he believes he can beat Charlie Rangel. He says it comes down to turnout. The African-American voting record adds flesh to this truism. 

Conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats “own” the black vote, and they have assiduously wooed African Americans, to put it mildly. The typically low turnout of black voters, however, 10 to 20 percent lower than that of whites, does not indicate democratically engaged citizens. Just the opposite. “Imagine,” writes the partisan website Democratic Strategist regarding the turnout gap, “how Dems could benefit if the gap could be halved.” 

This was written in 2007, before Barack Obama was a speck on most people’s horizon. Charlie Rangel went from 104,000 votes in 2006 to 177,000 in 2008. That so many blacks voted for Obama in 2008 (also providing a Democratic congressional majority) indicates they have not given up on American democracy. Their vote counted.

Faulkner speaks of Barack Obama with something approaching sadness. Obama, he says, recognized early in 2008—which is when Faulkner pinpoints the beginnings of the discontent that would find its voice in the Tea Party movement—that Americans were worried about the country, that they wanted strong leadership, and he seized the moment. The visionary, however, had little experience and quickly became isolated in the presidency. Like a salesman, Faulkner says, Obama stopped believing in the product he had been selling in 2008. Instead, since January 20, 2009, the Obama administration has been all about the process, about growing government. In doing so, it is creating conditions that restrict individual opportunity and, worse, delegitimize dissent. Faulkner believes that “government and big business, as in Germany in the Nazi era, are on a collision course to fascism.”

Still, the election of Barack Obama resonates with Faulkner. He agreed with “98 percent” of the Philadelphia speech on race. I have the feeling that he would like to offer the president some pastoral care. 

The day he and I met in Harlem, the New York Daily News reported Charlie Rangel’s claim that opposition to the health care bill was “racist.” For Faulkner, race is about the powerful and the powerless, and Rangel, a man with four rent-controlled apartments in Harlem (where one-bedroom apartments now start at half a million dollars), cannot claim a place among the powerless. “Who is oppressing whom?” Faulkner asks. Race is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Faulkner is now gearing up for the hard work of reaching donors and presenting his pro-growth, anticorruption message to the people. Not that he is a stranger to New York’s many constituencies. He served, for instance, on Rudy Giuliani’s task force on police-community relations and was on the city’s charter review initiative. Among his political mentors he even includes Democratic New York City Council member Gale Brewer (“a friend and an honest liberal”). The day after we met he opened a rally at the Nigerian Mission to the U.N., held to protest the continuing massacres of Christians by Muslims in Nigeria.

Michel Faulkner is also training for the marathon, posting 350 words a day on a Scriptural passage on his church’s website, and writing a book entitled Who Stole the American Dream? It will be historical, beginning with the Founding Fathers. It is about how each generation has had to fight to secure the American dream. As soon as they realize their idea, the next generation tries to reverse the achievement. Clearly, the African-American experience stands behind the book Faulkner is writing, indeed behind his present political program. The struggle of blacks to achieve the American dream did not end with emancipation. Now, more than ever, the fight for liberty, against oppression by the powerful, continues.

Maybe it was because we were talking right after Passover, and because Faulkner is a man of the Bible, that I thought of a passage in the Haggadah: “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt, as it is said: ‘You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.’ ” 

Scott Brown won in Massachusetts. Can Michel Faulkner pull off an upset in New York by capturing the “Rangel seat”? Faulkner is convinced he can.

Elizabeth Powers is editing a collection of essays on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech in the 18th century.


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