Is today's Democratic primary the last hurrah for Rep. Charles Rangel?
Charles Rangel has a storied past in Harlem and the US House of Representatives, where he has served 21 terms. But ethics violations, censure, and redistricting could take a toll in Tuesday's primary.
The 21-term congressman will find out Tuesday after voters go to the polls in northern Manhattan, Harlem, and a small part of the Bronx to select who will be on the Democratic ticket in November â€“ practically a guarantee of election in New York's 13th Congressional District.
In the past, this wouldnâ€™t even be an issue. Mr. Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran who helped funnel vast federal dollars toward the revitalization of his district, usually had no trouble fending off challengers. He was always well versed on the issues, and he had a gravelly voice that resonated with voters. Many 50-year-olds still remember when he handed out candy to them.
But times have changed.
The boundaries of Rangelâ€™s district have been changed â€“ giving it a much larger proportion of Hispanic voters. Rangel himself, once a vigorous campaigner, has slowed down. And Rangel no longer has the clout he used to have when he ran the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, which sets tax policy and writes bills affecting Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs.
Nevertheless, he remains a force.
Last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York gave Rangel his endorsement, on the basis of the many years he has represented the district.
â€śThe endorsement suggests he still has some clout,â€ť says Lee Miringoff, director of polling at the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. â€śCuomo provides some important credentialization.â€ť
Rangel also showed he still has the political skill to minimize setbacks when he commented to the television cameras last Friday about The New York Times endorsement of Clyde Williams, a former aid to President Bill Clinton: â€śJust tell me how the editorial board of The New York Times could say that Clyde Williams would make a better representative of my district, my city, my country,â€ť he intoned, emphasizing the word â€śmyâ€ť each time.
Nevertheless, Rangel will need all the help he can get. In December 2010, he was censured for 11 congressional ethics violations, including failing to pay taxes on a property he owned and improperly soliciting millions of dollars of corporate donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.
The New York legislature has also redistricted Rangelâ€™s turf, resulting in many more Hispanic voters than African-Americans. As a result, Rangelâ€™s main opponent is Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American.
Mr. Muzzio says that if Rangel is going to lose, â€śthis is the perfect storm.â€ť But, he adds, â€śhe is still well-respected, he is still admired by his constituents.â€ť
Rangel insists that heâ€™s not worried, perhaps because his campaign seems to have the strongest presence around much of Harlem â€“ putting up â€śre-elect Rangel,â€ť and the Spanish version, â€śre-eliga Rangel,â€ť posters and directing passers-by to polling stations.
Storefronts and streets, especially on the ground outside subway stations, are covered with campaign signs, mostly for Rangel in an effort to remind residents to get out and vote â€“ though many voters said Tuesday they were unaware of the primary, which is ordinarily held in September.
Still, many residents said they were comfortable with Rangel and his long tenure in Congress. They arenâ€™t worried about any past ethical issues.
â€śHeâ€™s done some things, but everyone has done some things. Heâ€™s human,â€ť says Crystal Spivey-Briggs, who called out â€śthatâ€™s my man!â€ť to a volunteer passing out Rangel fliers. â€śHeâ€™s a good talker, he gives to the community, and heâ€™s done more good than bad,â€ť she says.
Less enthusiastic, but still leaning toward Rangel, was Ron Islar, a community activist who works with young men in programs at Salem United Methodist Church.
â€śWith Charlie, you know what youâ€™re going to get,â€ť says Mr. Islar. â€śHeâ€™s been there a long time, and heâ€™s a politician like the rest of them. But heâ€™s got a good heart and he knows the ins and outs.â€ť
Still, at least a few of Rangelâ€™s opponents had their supporters out on the streets.
After he had put up a poster, Rashed Musla explained why he supported Mr. Williams, saying: â€śHeâ€™s a good guy, heâ€™s a fighter.â€ť
The poster shows Williams throwing a playful punch at another man with the words, â€śPunch the ballot.â€ť
Proponents and posters for Adriano Espaillat were sparse in parts of Harlem, but were much more visible closer to mostly Dominican Washington Heights.
â€śRangel has been there so long,â€ť says Elsa Hernandez. â€śItâ€™s time to give someone else a chance, someone who will help the poor. I like Adriano Espaillat â€“ even if he hasnâ€™t done anything for me yet.â€ťÂ
â€śAdriano Espaillat has demonstrated leadership, commitment, and dedication throughout his career â€“ all in the interest of the diaspora in New York,â€ť he said in a statement.
But Espaillat will have to overcome Rangelâ€™s long-term supporters first.
â€śRangel, thatâ€™s my man,â€ť says William Allende. â€śHeâ€™s the only one for me, he knows what heâ€™s doing, and he looks after the community. I remember when he used to come around here and give us candy when I was a kid.â€ťÂ
That is possibly the kind of support that will get Rangel the nod once more, says Muzzio. â€śHe has been there close to forever, and heâ€™s brought stuff home for the district."