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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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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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