NEW YORK — Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) began his day Monday with more energy than an 80-year-old congressman under an ethics cloud should have.
Outside a Harlem subway stop about 7:30 a.m., the back door of a gray Cadillac swung open, revealing a buoyant Rangel. Co-opting a campaign rallying cry from President Obama, he bellowed, “Fired up?”
Rangel was clearly upbeat a day ahead of the first real primary challenge he has faced in nearly 20 years, even amid the ethics scandal surrounding him back in Washington.
Shortly after Rangel emerged from his car, an aide handed him a BlackBerry and pointed to news that the ranking Republican on the House ethics committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), has some ethics issues of his own surrounding disclosure of stock transactions.
“He’s on the ethics committee?” Rangel asked, throwing back his head in laughter. “I think I’ll bring charges.”
Rangel faces a handful of challengers Tuesday, most of whom are focusing on the 13 charges the ethics committee brought against the 20-term lawmaker earlier this summer.
Despite the charges, Rangel is expected to easily prevail over the other candidates, who are led by State Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV. Powell is the son of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the legendary congressman whom Rangel defeated in 1970 to win the seat.
“The response I’m getting on the streets is absolutely unbelievable,” Powell IV told The Hill. “That by no means guarantees victory, but I can assure you that this will be very competitive.”
Powell, along with three other Rangel challengers, has called on the congressman to step aside for the good of the district.
But, in a measure of just how entrenched and popular Rangel is, his underfunded rivals almost always qualify their criticism with words of appreciation for his contribution to the city and community.
The past two months in Congress clearly took a toll on Rangel, who gave an impassioned speech on the House floor just before the chamber adjourned for its summer recess. Rangel was defiant, but after weeks of reporters tracking his every step through the Capitol, he appeared deflated.
Not so Monday, with a fiery Rangel taking aim at the ethics committee with little prompting.
“There are so many members they can destroy by just doing nothing,” Rangel said. “If I was a first-termer, it’s all over.”
The longtime congressman again criticized the committee’s handling of the probe and said he has heard “absolutely nothing” from the panel. A trial isn’t expected until after the November election.
He also took a shot at his colleagues who have called for his ouster, saying, “For people to say, ‘Rangel’s not entitled to a hearing,’ I cannot digest that. I cannot understand it,” Rangel said. “When I get back, they will know that my constituents would not even allow me to think about it.”
Rangel spent the days ahead of the primary on a campaign blitz through New York’s 15th Congressional District that easily outshone anything his rivals were able to muster. His choice of venues appeared strategic as he planted himself right in Powell’s backyard.
On Sunday, Rangel spoke at Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Powell Jr. was formerly pastor. He followed that with a caravan through the heart of his district, beginning at his office in East Harlem. For close to an hour, Rangel sat on the back of a flatbed truck, waving to constituents.
Any potential electoral trouble for Rangel starts and ends with the turnout dynamic, which is expected to favor him heavily. He boasts strong support throughout Harlem, but his district also includes the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, a bastion of more affluent voters his rivals have targeted ahead of the primary.
But any inroads his rivals stood to make with that group of voters were likely offset by the support Rangel has received from the political establishment. Former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) recorded robo-calls for Rangel ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
“Tough times require tough leadership, and that is what Charlie Rangel has provided for us,” Bloomberg said in the automated message.
Rangel spent most of the day Monday doing something he hasn’t had to do in years — asking for votes in a Democratic primary. During an appearance at a senior center in Powell’s State Assembly district, just a block and a half from Powell’s campaign office, the congressman appealed for support, “Not in November. I need it tomorrow, on Tuesday.”