By Josh Lederman - 06/06/12 09:00 AM EDT
Ethnic politics, an anti-incumbent super-PAC and a lingering ethics cloud all stand in the way of reelection for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who after four decades representing Harlem is facing a primary battle that could end his career.
Amid ongoing health problems that led to an almost three-month absence from the House, the 81-year-old congressman’s district was redrawn this cycle — to his chagrin. Although used to representing a majority-black district in northern Manhattan, Rangel has witnessed the gradual departure of black voters from the area, and his redrawn district is majority-Hispanic.
Adriano Espaillat, a popular Dominican-American state senator who represents much of the district, is playing aggressively for Hispanic votes while racking up endorsements from fellow state lawmakers, Bronx leaders and, on Tuesday, a local transportation union.
Meanwhile, three African-American candidates are working to chip away at his Harlem base, including Clyde Williams, a former Obama and Clinton official who once served as political director for the Democratic National Committee.
“I’m running against two political machines: one in Manhattan, one in the Bronx,” Williams told The Hill. “I knew I would not get the support of the political machines, but I’m getting the support of people who actually live in the district.”
But Rangel has the advantage of the political machine he has constructed over a generation in New York, giving him the on-the-ground tools to drive up intensity among supporters ahead of the June 26 primary in a district known for extremely low voter turnout.
“Charlie Rangel, on paper, should win this thing. Could he lose? The answer is yes,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist.
Coming to Rangel’s aide last week — and underscoring the strength of his connections to political power brokers in the Empire State — were Mike Bloomberg, New York’s Independent mayor, and Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor. Both men endorsed Rangel and called him a tireless advocate for New York’s interests.
Meanwhile, in Washington, about a dozen of Rangel’s Democratic House colleagues have chipped in to shore up the man some of them have served alongside for decades. Some of those donations might have been prompted by a March letter Rangel reportedly sent to colleagues asking for cash to help defeat his primary opponents.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) chipped in $1,000 from his committee, as did retiring Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). Rangel has also received donations from Democratic members in California, Minnesota and Texas
However, President Obama and former President Clinton, both of whom endorsed Rangel last year when he faced a tough reelection bid, have not done so this cycle. A Clinton aide said the former president was staying neutral out of deference to Williams, who worked at his foundation.
The district is overwhelmingly Democratic — Obama won there in 2008 with 93 percent of the vote — and the winner of the primary will almost certainly prevail in the general election.
‘Some people say, ‘Send me to Washington so I can do.’ Well, I’ve been to Washington and I’ve done it,” Rangel said recently in a video message posted to his website. “There’s just a lot more to be done.”
Rangel pointed to a low-income housing credit he championed that he said transformed Harlem from “a wasted field of abandoned houses.”
“There’s nobody that can actually have the experience to do the job that has to be done now,” he said. “Whether you live in Harlem, Washington Heights or parts of the Bronx, I won’t let you down.”
Were the district competitive for Republicans, there would be plenty of fodder to be used against Rangel, who has struggled to shirk the stain of ethics violations that led to his censure on the floor of the House in 2010.
There is also persistent speculation that due to his age and poor health — Rangel has been suffering from the effects of a back injury — the 21-term congressman would not finish his next term. Under New York law, in the event that Rangel stepped down, the county Democratic chairman — in this case, longtime Rangel ally Keith Wright — would choose the Democratic nominee who would almost inevitably end up as Rangel’s replacement.
That concern, combined with the prospect that Wright could pick himself, is one of the reasons cited by the Campaign for Primary Accountability in its decision to get involved on behalf of Espaillat. The super-PAC, which has been targeting long-serving incumbents from both parties this cycle, plans to target Rangel with radio and online ads, direct mail and possibly cable television ads.
“The message is simple: Who will pick the next congressman? Will it be the people of the district — the voters — or will it be the party bosses?” said Curtis Ellis, the super-PAC’s spokesman.
But working in Rangel’s favor is the multitude of candidates challenging him in the primary. New York political operatives said that were Espaillat to have a clear shot at Rangel, his prospects would improve significantly. But having three candidates in the race against Rangel creates the distinct possibility that they could split the anti-Rangel vote and end up handing him a 22nd term.
“This is really a contest between Charlie Rangel and ‘been around too long,’ ” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic consultant. “Sometimes, ‘been around too long’ wins.”
Gunnar Sidak contributed to this report.