Charlie Rangel fights back injury plus tough primary opponent

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) is planning to return to Capitol Hill next week after missing 10 weeks’ worth of votes because of a back injury.

The injury has sidelined the 21-term lawmaker as he’s two months away from one of the toughest primaries he has faced since arriving in Congress. His district has been redrawn, making it Latino-heavy, and a Hispanic state senator is giving Rangel cause to worry.

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It’s also caused him to miss nearly 72 percent of House votes this year, including a recent vote on the GOP-proposed budget. And Rangel hasn’t been campaigning as actively as he has in the past, holding only two public events since February.

His office said Rangel has been actively speaking out on the issues and engaging voters as much as possible despite the injury. And he is aiming to return to Capitol Hill next week. 

“The congressman has been receiving treatments for his severe back pains. He expects the rehabilitation will be over very soon and is looking forward to coming to work next week,” said Hannah Kim, a spokeswoman for Rangel.

The missed votes are uncharacteristic for Rangel, who only missed 2.9 percent of all votes in the last three months of 2011 and 3.2 percent of all votes in the three months before that, according to the vote-tracking website Govtrack.us. In his 42 years in the House, Rangel has missed 2,248 of 23,185 of recorded or roll-call votes, according to the site.

His office pointed to a video Rangel shot last month denouncing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and two events he held earlier this month, saying that district staff have been participating in other events on Rangel’s behalf. 

“As Congressman Rangel’s activities have been outlined, he continues to serve his constituents well and fulfill his congressional responsibilities,” said Kim.

At his first public appearance in two months, Rangel used a walker to assist him as he spoke to a crowded room from a rolling swivel chair in front of a podium. A reporter asked the 81-year-old lawmaker whether his health troubles would keep him from campaigning as vigorously as he normally does. 

“No, no. I’ll be out there,” said Rangel. 

But Rangel’s absence from Capitol Hill and the campaign trail has taken a toll on his fundraising. The Harlem lawmaker is renowned for his ability to raise money, but in the first three months of 2012, he was outraised by Democratic opponent Clyde Williams.  

Williams is the former adviser to President Clinton and political director for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He brought in $118,109 compared to Rangel’s $67,273, since January.

But Rangel still has more cash on hand, with $226,306, compared to Williams, who has $208,058. 

New York state Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D) poses a serious challenge to Rangel on another front. Though the Dominican-American politician has not raised as much as Rangel, he might have an easier time garnering the Hispanic vote in the district’s primary on June 26. 

Espaillat, who announced his candidacy earlier this month, has only raked in $62,055, leaving him with $56,292 cash on hand. 

He has also missed his fair share of votes this year in the State Senate. Of the six key votes listed on the website votesmart.org, Espaillat did not vote in five of them. Espaillat's campaign office said four of those missed votes were a part of the Democratic walk-out last month in which the state Senate's Democratic Conference did not vote on a series of bills as a protest against Republicans.

But while Rangel described Espaillat as a “pretty strong” candidate and “a good man,” the veteran lawmaker doesn’t think he’ll have much difficulty getting the Hispanic vote.

“I have a record that I’m so very, very proud of, and no campaign is going to take that away,” said Rangel at the recent press conference in Harlem, referring to his role in easing Caribbean trade restrictions. 

Despite Rangel’s confidence, top Democratic leaders have not weighed in yet. In fact, close friend Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who recently announced his retirement, is the only member to give money to Rangel up until January 2012, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to a question about whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was planning to support Rangel. 

Asked whether he was seeking President Obama’s backing, Rangel said at the recent press conference, “No, no. I welcome it, but no, I’m not seeking it.”

Rangel’s back injury detracts from his ability to physically campaign as hard as he’d like and gives his opponents fodder for attacks, according to Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College.

“I would argue that it’s going to be an impediment. Whether it is a factor that leads to his defeat is another issue,” said Muzzio. 

“An opponent will point to Charlie Rangel and say the district needs a representative who is rigorous and will work tirelessly and say that he’s an old guy and he won’t be able to do the job that I’m able to do.”

Rangel’s return might have been delayed because of the image he would have projected had he come back to Capitol Hill looking physically unwell. The loud and boisterous lawmaker is well-known for his colorful outfits and dance moves, and, as the first black member to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, he has a point of pride about his reputation in the halls of Congress. 

“I don’t want to go back [to Washington] with no damn cane unless I have to,” said Rangel in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last month. 

Rangel saw his power diminished in recent years after being found guilty of 11 ethics violations, censured by the House and stripped of his chairmanship. But Rangel has not been silent on the issue. Believing himself to have been wronged, he quickly points to the ongoing investigation of the House Ethics Committee itself being conducted by an outside counsel.

“When the Ethics Committee now is under investigation for wrongdoing in my investigation and Maxine Waters’s investigation, it hurts me that the press that we depend on so much for honesty cannot even go and Google … to find out what the hell happened there,” he said earlier this month at a press conference.