The real race to replace Congressman Charles Rangel could still end up taking place next year, or the year after that, when Rangel decides not to cling any longer to a seat that he has held for four decades. Whether the former House Ways and Means Committee chair sorts out the ethics issues that have plagued him of late or not, however, his epic and often commendable congressional career is coming to a conclusion.
But whether it will reach that conclusion with Tuesday’s Democratic primary for his Harlem-based seat remains an open question.
Rangel is campaigning hard, and to my view effectively. No one should doubt his skills as a New York City street-corner politician of the old school. (The other day, he rallied with Muslim leaders on behalf of religious freedom in a city where the debate over building a mosque near teh former World Trade Center site has inflamed passions. Rangel was smart enough to know it was the right move morally—and politically.)
With a crowded field of challengers, and with endorsements of consequence going in too many different directions to focus the opposition, New York politicos are for the most part betting that Rangel will come through the September 14 primary with more votes than any of his five Democratic challengers.
That’s disturbing because—while Rangel will for obvious reasons be distracted in the months and perhaps years to come—the field of challengers includes several contenders who could contribute significantly to the next Congress. That’s particularly true of former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini.
Tasini is running one of the most intellectually and politically-adventurous campaigns in the country this year.
His prime focus is on Rangel, and an argument that the incumbent’s refusal to quit the race creates trouble for Democrats across the country in a year where their House majority is threatened. Tasini is even urging voters to sign a petition that reads: "Charlie Rangel: Your Legacy Should Not Be Speaker John Boehner."
But the real strength of Tasini’s campaign is the boldness with which he approaches issues that other candidates tend to avoid.
Tasini is well and wisely opposed to the occupation of Afghanistan, promising that, if elected he will:
1. Vote against any appropriations for Afghanistan other than funds allocated for the rapid, safe withdrawal of our military forces and aid that replaces military might with social wisdom, and spends money on human needs like food, medicine, and the building of infrastructure that responds to the crying needs of the Afghan people.
2. Support an exit strategy from Afghanistan based on talks that include all parties, diplomacy, unconditional humanitarian aid, and the end of military offensive operations by U.S. troops.
3. Demand an immediate cessation of the aerial bombardments of Afghan towns and villages.
As someone who once lived in Israel and knows the Middle East well, Tasini argues for “an even hand” regarding the regional peace process. He “unequivocally supports the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, consequently ending Israeli occupation of these areas because such a solution is the only way to ensure Israeli security,” and says: “The current situation in Gaza is intolerable and unconscionable.”
Tasini’s campaign website even features an online petition to "End the Gaza Blockade."
His campaign declares that: “The final peace settlement has to accommodate Israel’s security requirements but it also has to ensure a viable, thriving, independent Palestinian State which has territorial contiguity and is not broken into cantons. Jonathan also lived in Jerusalem and still remembers what a beautiful city it is. Its special nature, though, is the role it plays in the spiritual lives of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A negotiated settlement must include a plan that allows Israelis and Palestinians to share the city because Palestinians make up one-third of the city’s residents and have historic and long-standing political, economic, and religious ties to the city. A Palestinian capital in Arab areas of Jerusalem will not threaten the city’s role as the capital of Israel.
“Violence is not the answer for either side. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved via negotiated, non-violent means. Both peoples have suffered from the bloodshed. Yet, clear majorities of both peoples say they want a peaceful settlement of the conflict. A credible negotiating track, linked with a bi-lateral effort to ensure security and stop the violence, is the only path to a long-lasting settlement. ‘Credible’ means that everyone must have a seat at the table.”
On the domestic front, Tasini takes on all the issues with refreshing passion and detail.
He is, of course, for a “Medicare for All” single-payer healthcare reform, and for fair trade policies that benefit workers and communities in the United States and the countries it trades with. He’s for marriage equality and real reproductive rights for all women.
But Tasini pushes well beyond the standard list of progressive positions to sample from the best of the libertarian playbook. For instance, he’s a staunch critic of eminent-domain abuses that take property from low-income families. And he’s highlighting his support for decriminalization of personal marijuana use.
Most importantly, however, Tasini is bringing his long experience as a labor and workers-rights activist to the campaign. He promises to “lead the fight for democracy in the workplace, not just make rhetorical statements that talk about the good works unions do.”
Of course, he is for the Employee Free Choice Act. But he goes far beyond that, arguing for a host of workplace-democracy reforms. And he’s ardent in his advocacy for a new direction with regard to international trade.
Specifically, he promises: “An End to Rotten Pro-Corporate Trade Agreements. Republicans and Democrats have given us bad deals.”
But he also proposes: “New Rules: We have to have rules that govern trade. Every trade deal we make must start with Core Values –
— How will this agreement improve the lives of American workers, while not exploiting workers around the world?
— How will this agreement protect the environment?
— How will this agreement ensure democracy and keep abusive corporate power in check.?"
Tasini is taking New York City voters seriously. He is offering them a real alternative, not just to Charlie Rangel but to the narrow, unthinking approaches of both major parties. That may not make him a congressman right away. But it does make his one of the most credible – and, I would argue, valuable — candidacies of a year when our politics needs to be stretched in bolder and better directions.