By Russell Berman - 06/26/12 09:00 AM EDT
Voters in New York City on Tuesday will decide whether Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) can end his four-decade career in the House on his own terms.
Rangel, the 82-year-old dean of the New York congressional delegation, is facing the toughest reelection fight of his tenure.
The widespread assumption is that Rangel is bidding for one final term — and maybe only a partial one at that. He won’t say either way.
“I am not running a this-is-my-last-term-give-the-old-man-a-break kind of campaign,” Rangel told The Hill.
The Democratic establishment in New York has mostly rallied around Rangel, who secured the late endorsement of popular Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last week.
Still, his colleagues in the state’s congressional delegation are nervous about Tuesday’s outcome.
“Nobody really knows,” a veteran New York Democrat, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, said in an interview. “I think Charlie will win, but I don’t really know.”
Another member of the delegation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, predicted that Rangel would win, “but with more of a plurality than a majority.”
With the retirements of Reps. Gary Ackerman (D) and Edolphus Towns (D), a Rangel loss would usher in a new era for a delegation that has long been one of the most powerful in Congress. Rep. Nydia Velázquez (N.Y.), a Democrat first elected in 1993, is also trying to beat back a competitive primary challenge, and another 20-year veteran, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), is facing a difficult reelection battle in the fall.
“There’s a tremendous change going on,” Nadler said.
A decorated Korean War veteran, Rangel first won election to his Harlem district in 1970. He was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and became a leading champion of the poor as he worked his way up the seniority ranks.
After Democrats took control of the House in 2007, Rangel became the first African-American chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and that same year, he published his memoir And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.
Yet in the intervening five years, the good days for Rangel have seemingly been few and far between. A series of ethics investigations forced him to relinquish his committee gavel and ultimately led to a rare vote of censure by the House. Rangel survived an aggressive primary challenge in 2010, but at the outset of 2012, a spinal surgery and ensuing infection laid him up, leading to a prolonged absence both from the House floor and the campaign trail.
Electorally, however, Rangel’s most serious setback has been the decennial redistricting, which added a swath of new territory in the Bronx to his political base in Manhattan. The change made his district majority-Hispanic and opened the door for Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American state senator who has run against Rangel with the not-so-subtle campaign slogan “It’s time for a change.”
Two other candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination, and Rangel’s backers are hoping that the possibility of the challengers splitting the anti-incumbent vote will help Rangel hold on. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Rangel is running on his seniority, urging his constituents old and new not to replace a 40-year veteran with a rookie legislator. But as even his supporters acknowledge, any discussion of Rangel’s power in Congress takes place largely in the past tense.
“I do think that Charlie Rangel still has a lot more clout than the average member of Congress,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “Does he have as much as he had when he was the chairman of Ways and Means? Obviously not, but I still think it’s substantial enough that people he represents will be well-served and he’ll be able to do an effective job.”
Rangel has gone to great lengths in recent weeks to dispel concerns about his age and health. He’s ditched both the walker and the cane he used during his initial recovery from the back surgery and infection, and he’s made a point of trying to dance onstage at campaign events in the district.
After spending Monday campaigning with Rangel in the Bronx, Engel said he “looked like the old Charlie.”
“He was feisty. He was shaking hands, pumping the flesh,” Engel said. “So I wouldn’t ever bet against Charlie Rangel. But I do think it’s going to be a close race.”
Rangel’s race is one of several competitive Democratic primaries in New York on Tuesday.
In the Brooklyn race to replace the retiring Towns, City Councilman Charles Barron is trying for an upset win over the establishment favorite, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. A former Black Panther, Barron is known for his inflammatory statements decrying Israel and praising African strongmen like Robert Mugabe and the former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. He won the surprise endorsement of Towns, but Democrats like Nadler and former Mayor Ed Koch have warned against his election to Congress.
Democrats say Jeffries remains the favorite, but that Barron could win in what is expected to be a low-turnout election.
“I’m concerned,” Nadler said. “It’d be embarrassing.”
Hugo Gurdon contributed to this story.