Veteran Warrior

Charlie Rangel Survives Scare to Win NY Democratic Primary

The veteran congressman survived a House ethics censure and shunning by Obama to beat a host of challengers in the Democratic primary. By Patricia Murphy.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Rep. Charlie Rangel pulled off yet another escape from political doom Tuesday night, when he won the Democratic primary in New York’s 13th Congressional District. Despite the newly drawn district’s 55 percent Latino makeup, the 82-year-old congressman from Harlem posted a 6-point victory over his closest rival, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who was vying to be the first Dominican-American elected to Congress.

The race was considered the toughest Rangel had ever faced in his 42-year congressional career, with a crowded field of challengers, an embarrassing 2010 censure on the House floor for ethics violations, and a viral infection in his spine that left Rangel bedridden for three crucial months earlier this year all weighing down his prospects for a 22nd term.

But a still feisty Rangel walked unassisted into P.S. 175 in Harlem on Tuesday—without the cane or walker he has relied on for months to get around—to vote for himself and declare that he was the only logical choice for voters.

“We’re going to win this one because it’s the right thing to do,” he told reporters outside the polling station. “I just say that there’s no indication that any of those running can do (the job),”

Rangel’s opponents would certainly have disagreed with that statement, but none of them, not even Espaillat, managed to put together the money or the momentum that a challenger would have needed to knock off an entrenched incumbent like Rangel, particularly when none of them had any real policy differences with the congressman. Instead, all three simply told The Daily Beast earlier this month that it was “time for a change.”

Dan Gerstein, a New York political consultant, chalked Rangel’s victory up to a combination of factors, including Rangel’s 40-plus years in power, the other candidates’ shortcomings, and the unusually early June primary in a state that typically votes in September.

“He’s still the same Charlie Rangel. None of the candidates running against him made a compelling argument about why they would be better than Rangel,” Gerstein said. “And you can’t underestimate the impact of this being a primary in June. No one was talking about this primary in New York.”

A federal court moved the primary date forward to ensure that military votes would be counted. But the unusual timing meant that upstart candidates could not rely on winning with organic support at the polls. Instead, they would need a well-oiled, well-funded, get-out-the-vote operation to pinpoint and deliver every vote, just the sort of machine that Rangel could count on in Harlem, where his power base still lies.

Tuesday night’s victory came after a last-minute flurry of good news for Rangel, who had gone without much to smile about in the months leading up to the election. President Obama and former president Bill Clinton both declined to endorse him in the spring, and The New York Times and New York Daily News each endorsed one of Rangel’s opponents, Clyde Williams, in recent days.

But Rangel managed to rack up a stack of big-name supporters in the contest’s final weeks, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and New York City Council President Christine Quinn.

He also picked up a crucial endorsement from Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a national leader in the Latino community who called Rangel “a friend and an ally” last week in New York, and gave Rangel credit for helping to pass the DREAM Act in the House with the votes of every member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “There was one person on the phone rallying his colleagues to do that and that was Charlie Rangel,” Gutierrez said.

When Rangel voted Tuesday morning, he promised reporters that he would sleep soundly that night no matter the results. “If I lose tonight I will sleep like a baby and cry myself to sleep,” he said.

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But at what turned out to be his victory party at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem late Tuesday night, Rangel smiled broadly as he thanked his supporters, promising to produce for his new district, which now includes portions of the Bronx, and tossing in a slightly bungled version of Si se puede for good measure.