Charlie Rangel faces tough primary

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) arrives on Capitol Hill

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) arrives on Capitol Hill for a closed briefing about U.S. military action in Libya. (March 30, 2011) (Credit: Getty Images)

Lose? Be replaced? Charlie Rangel sounded perplexed about why or how it might possibly happen.

"It's hard for me to think there's anyone who could think they can do a better job than me," the veteran Harlem congressman, a fixture in Washington since 1971, told reporters gathered at City Hall earlier this month to hear Comptroller John Liu endorse Rangel.

His self-confidence may be unshaken, but political experts say Rangel, now 82, should be worried. In the aftermath of a stinging 2010 House censure for financial improprieties and serious back problems this year, Rangel is facing a fierce June 26 primary challenge from Adriano Espaillat, a younger, Dominican-born state senator, in a dramatically reconfigured congressional district that is now majority Latino.

"This is not plasma physics," says Doug Muzzio, who teaches politics at Baruch College. "Charlie is in the race of his political life at the end of his political life. Age and infirmity, ethics and the demographics of the new district -- if this isn't the last hurrah, it's certainly the second-to-last hurrah."

Rangel won the seat, then centered in Harlem, in 1970 by upsetting Adam Clayton Powell, another political legend. Powell, a 26-year incumbent and civil rights pioneer, had been censured by the House for ethics violations and decamped to the Caribbean island of Bimini. That left an opening for Rangel, an upstart lawyer and Korean War hero who called for a fresh generation of leadership.

As the representative of what he likes to call "the capital of Black America," Rangel became a reliable liberal lion, known for his common touch and trademark gravelly voice. He was the first African-American chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is generally credited with persuading Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for the U.S. Senate in New York and is the third longest-serving congressman.

After four decades, however, Rangel now finds himself in similar straits as the man he beat did. In 2010, he was stripped of his chairmanship over ethics violations that included failure to pay taxes and failure to report personal income to the House. He was hospitalized for back problems that sidelined him for three months this spring and left him relying on a walker when he returned, later replaced by a cane.

But the biggest threat emerged in March with a redistricting plan that stripped Rangel's district of non-Hispanic white neighborhoods on Manhattan's Upper West Side that he represented for decades, and added a heavily Hispanic chunk of the western Bronx. More than a quarter of Rangel's constituents are new, and Latinos have jumped from 46 to 55 percent while non-Hispanic whites make up only 12 percent and blacks are 26 percent.

The demographics and the lure of getting in line to eventually succeed Rangel have drawn Espaillat, 57, from Inwood in northern Manhattan, into the June 26 primary race, along with three African-American candidates -- Harlem activist Joyce Johnson, former Clinton aide Clyde Williams and former Rangel intern Craig Schley -- who could splinter the black vote.

"The challenge for Rangel is that he has lost a significant base of support on the Upper West Side . . . and he has to vie for a completely new section of the district," said Carlos Vargas-Ramos of Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies. "This part of the Bronx has definitely seen an increase in its Dominican population that is definitely very excited about electing a Dominican."

Espaillat, a longtime assemblyman in his first State Senate term, is a progressive Democrat, like Rangel. They endorsed each other in 2010. A high-energy campaigner who would be the first Dominican in Congress (he calls it a "Jackie Robinson moment"), Espaillat has won some key endorsers, including ex-Bronx borough presidents Adolfo Carrion and Fernando Ferrer and the Transport Workers Union.

Last week, as the campaign took a negative turn, he attacked Rangel on NY1 television as a "poster boy" for ethics lapses that Republicans seized on to win the House in 2010.

But more frequently, Espaillat has reminded voters that Rangel was elected back when Joe Namath was a New York Jet and the United States was putting men on the moon. Elections are about "the future" and "turning the page," he tells them.

"What happens very often," he said in a debate, "is that one feels, when they've been on the job too long, that there's just absolutely nobody on the planet that can do as good a job as you can. I think that's fundamentally flawed."

Despite the hurdles, no one is writing Rangel off. The Latino vote includes many Puerto Ricans who have backed Rangel for years, experts say. The incumbent's turnout could be more reliable in an unusually early June primary. "The issue is familiarity," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. "Does it breed content, or contempt?"

Rangel seems acutely aware of the challenges. He is gaunter than in his heyday, but he crouches into a boxer's pose when asked about his health and sometimes appears without his cane. He resolutely refuses to revisit ethics issues -- "behind me," he says -- and deflects questions about ethnic loyalties as divisive.

But he is hardly ignoring them. He has bilingual signs, and throws a Spanish phrase or two into his campaign speeches. He has a Dominican-American campaign manager. He keeps regular company with supporter Assemb. Guillermo Linares, a former city councilman who was the city's first Dominican elected official.

In late May, in response to a reporter's questions, Rangel even engaged in a rare public discussion of his father, who abandoned the family, acknowledging that his father was Puerto Rican, and that he is half black, half Latino. Two weeks later, he issued a news release referring to his Puerto Rican descent.

In campaign appearances, however, he emphasizes accomplishments, not ethnicity. Opening a new headquarters in the largely Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood on a recent Saturday, he told the crowd that he was the one who could deliver -- "the guy who's been there and done that" -- at a time when Democratic values are under siege.

"The other guy says, 'I want the same job, I haven't done a damn thing, I don't know where Washington is, but you ought to give me a chance because I'm young,' " Rangel added mockingly. "I just hope people take an honest look at what we have to do. These are serious times."

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