NEW YORK — With the help of a walker and staffers, Rep. Charles Rangel gingerly made his way recently to the foot of a statue of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass near his Harlem power base and proclaimed himself fit and ready to fend off the Democratic challengers who are looking to end his four-decade run in Congress.
“Being a warhorse, a warhorse knows when to fold and when to fight, and knows how to win,” Rangel said. “It would be dishonorable to the people out here . . . for me to say let’s get on with the war and then go AWOL.”
At 81, Rangel is seeking his 22nd term in the U.S. House of Representatives. But he’s suffering from a bad back, which kept him out of Washington for nearly three months this year, and a potentially bad break from a congressional reapportionment that makes his district more Hispanic than African-American. For Rangel, a national African-American icon, that’s not good news.
Now the man who did the unthinkable in 1970 by defeating legendary Harlem firebrand Adam Clayton Powell faces perhaps the toughest run of his career since he squared off against Powell.
Rangel’s health, the new district boundaries, demographic changes within Harlem and Rangel’s 2010 censure by the House for multiple ethics violations have attracted some challengers for New York’s June 26 Democratic primary. They pose a serious threat to the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman and fourth most senior member of Congress, political experts say.
Life hasn’t been easy for some notable congressional incumbents this year. It’s only May, but redistricting and anti-incumbent sentiment nationwide have already claimed six members of Congress – including anti-war liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and center-right Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. – and have made many other lawmakers extremely uncomfortable as they seek new terms.
“The mood of the country has changed, and you can feel the change in Harlem,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a research associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York’s Hunter College. “The question is can Rangel’s challengers tap into that anti-incumbent feeling? Rangel has the power of incumbency: immense name recognition and he’s popular. On the other hand, the district he’s in has been disbanded; because of the ethical problems, he lost the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee; and some people say it’s time to make room for some new representation.”
Several longtime New York political observers think that Rangel will survive and easily overcome the obstacles with his trademark smile, affable personality and back-slapping style.
“He will win, and I will be his advance man,” former New York Mayor Ed Koch predicted. “This is the Harlem seat. Everybody recognizes that, and I don’t think people want to change that. And Charlie crosses all lines: white, black, Hispanic, young and old. Everyone likes Charlie.”
But there are enough trouble signs that even Rangel has conceded that “We have a whole lot of work to do to repair the damage that has been done by reapportionment.”
Rangel has raised $765,496 in campaign contributions, but he managed to bring in only $67,173 in the first three months of this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Clyde Williams, a politically connected African-American who’s making his first run for public office at age 50 and is regarded as an underdog against Rangel, raised $118,109 during the same period and has more than $284,600 total in contributions. Longtime New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who’s seeking to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress and is viewed as Rangel’s main threat, raised $62,055 in total contributions from January to March.
Rangel, who missed more than 100 votes because of his back injury, returned to Capitol Hill last Monday to the cheers of several House colleagues. But many Democrats appear to be keeping their distance from him in this election year. Only 14 House members have contributed to his campaign, after he donated about $3.8 million to more than 500 Democrats over a 14-year period.
In the throes of Rangel’s ethics woes in 2010, President Barack Obama described him as “somebody who’s at the end of his career” and who should “end his career with dignity.”
Asked recently about whether Obama is endorsing his re-election campaign, Rangel responded, “Goddamn, that’s a good question.”
Obama has endorsed no one in the race, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue.
There’s no question that the political landscape has shifted under Rangel’s feet, literally and figuratively. A three-judge federal panel approved a redistricting plan in March that subtracted a chunk of Upper Manhattan from Rangel’s district and added a piece of the Bronx to it. Even the district’s designation has shifted, from the 15th to the 13th congressional district.
The reconfiguration has made the district’s voting-age population 46 percent Hispanic, up from 36 percent, according to an analysis by the City University of New York’s Mapping Service at its Center for Urban Research. The number of African-American voters remained at 33 percent, while whites dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent, according to the analysis.
The new boundaries, encompassing a potential treasure trove of Hispanic votes, are what drew Espaillat, a former chair of the New York Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, into the race.
“He’s not current,” Espaillat said of Rangel. “Washington and President Obama will need a young buck that will push back on tea party Republicans so the president won’t have to compromise his pledge to America, which he had to do in his first term because he didn’t have a cadre of young, bold, fresh-idea-minded legislators.”
Espaillat, who’s 58, said he planned to beat Rangel’s time-tested political machine one pair of shoes at a time.
“I win knocking on doors, going through three pairs of shoes. I’m prepared to lose 15 pounds,” he said.
Williams said he was prepared to wear out some shoe leather, too, in hopes of beating Rangel. Williams may be a newcomer to elective politics but he’s hardly a political novice.
He’s a former Democratic National Committee political director and former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. His wife, Mona Sutphen, served as Obama’s White House deputy chief of staff. Williams relocated to Harlem when Clinton left office in 2001 and opened an office on 125th Street, a few blocks from the famous Apollo Theater.
Like Obama, Newark. N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and former Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, Williams is one of a new generation of African-American politicians that didn’t come up through the civil rights or political clubhouse ranks and that strives for a base beyond African-American voters.
“I think Charlie Rangel has done great things for this community,” Williams said. “I also believe that when you’ve been in office as long as he has, you need new energy, new ideas and a new approach to solving long-term problems, and that’s what I think I bring to the table.”
Rangel brushes off such out-with-the-old talk, saying that nothing beats the experience and seniority he has in Washington.
“This is no time to be making new friends,” he said. “This is the time to get in there and get the job done.”
Though viewed as viable candidates, none of Rangel’s top opponents is considered a lock, because of potential weaknesses. Espaillat can’t bank on uniform Hispanic support because of occasional political tensions between the Puerto Rican and Dominican-American communities.
Williams has to woo Hispanic voters in the Bronx portion of the district, while convincing older African-Americans who’ve known only Rangel and Powell as their representatives that he can deliver in Washington.
An elderly man poked his head into Williams’ campaign office earlier this month and asked, “Is this the guy running against Rangel?”
“F---- y’all!” he said before dashing off.
Meanwhile, Rangel is working to shore up support in the new district. He named a Dominican-American as his campaign manager and reminded voters of the projects and dollars he’s brought to his old district. He and Espaillat have been scrambling for endorsements from the city’s major African-American and Hispanic leaders.
Espaillat has scored major backing from Fernando Ferrer, a popular former Bronx borough president who unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2005 with Rangel’s support. Rangel expressed disappointment over Ferrer’s decision, but he vowed to trump Espaillat’s coup by announcing an endorsement from Ruben Diaz Jr., the current Bronx borough president.
Espaillat and Williams think they can chisel away at the incumbent by going after what they suspect is a sizable chunk of voters who suffer from Rangel “scandal fatigue.”
The House formally censured Rangel in 2010 after the Ethics Committee found him guilty of 11 ethics violations that included failure to pay taxes, failure to properly report personal income and improper solicitation of donations for a college center that bears his name.
However, several New Yorkers, including Koch, don’t think the ethics scandal has legs in the district. Former state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the man Rangel defeated in 1970, called Rangel corrupt, a crook and a national disgrace during their 2010 Democratic primary battle, to no avail. Now Powell is considering voting for his former opponent.
“He may be a crook,” Powell said, “but he’s my crook.”
Some district residents aren’t as forgiving.
Allen Roy, a Harlem resident, said he’d always voted for Rangel in the past, but now “I think it’s time for him to retire.”
“It’s time for a change because of the (ethics) investigation,” Roy said after Williams canvassed his block. “We need clean people in Congress.”
Patricia Holloway, an African-American street vendor on 125th Street, said the ethics issue had her leaning toward Espaillat.
“I’m not talking bad about Rangel. He did some good things, but his time has passed,” said Holloway, who’s 58. “We’ve got to get some new blood in there.”
But Esperanza Acosta, a 47-year-old Dominican-American resident of the Bronx, said that in today’s uncertain economic and social climate, now wasn’t the time to send someone new to Washington. She intends to vote for Rangel.
“I think he fights, helps everybody,” she said. “I think he’ll get a lot of votes in the Bronx. But Rangel needs to knock on a lot of doors there.”
Email: wdouglas(at)mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @williamdouglas