For more than a half century, the locus of African-American political power was a congressional district in New York City.
Represented first by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a civil rights icon weakened by ethical issues and finally bested by Rep. Charlie Rangel, the Harlem-centered district has only known two congressmen since the 1940s. The 86-year-old Rangel, who’s hung on despite his own brush with scandal, is retiring at the end of this year, and nine candidates are battling to replace him in a Democratic primary tomorrow.
On one hand, the race is insignificant: one Democrat will replace another and become a freshman in a marginalized minority party. But viewed through the prism of racial and ethnic pride—and taking into account the departure of a controversial Washington legend—the primary is unusually significant.
Rangel, the charismatic dean of New York’s congressional delegation and a Korean War hero, no longer represents a chiefly black district. After a 2012 redistricting, the 13th Congressional District became majority Latino and extended into the Bronx. This was both a function of New York’s changing demographics and its diminishing federal clout; as the state’s population has shrunk over the decades, it has lost congressional seats, and Rangel has watched as his Harlem fiefdom took on new heavily Hispanic neighborhoods that didn’t view him so reverently.
First elected in 1970, and the definition of a political survivor, Rangel reigned over the district at a very different time for New York and the country. The city was engulfed in a fiscal crisis during Rangel’s early years and Harlem, besieged by crime and later a crack epidemic, was seen as a neighborhood in tragic decline from its golden Renaissance years. As New York’s fortunes started to improve in the 1980s and 1990s, Rangel was credited with rejuvenating Harlem: as a member of a once unassailable House Democratic majority, he was able to rain federal dollars on the neighborhood, and eventually became the first black chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
That came to an end following an embarrassing House censure over ethics violations. Rangel lost his clout—but not his swagger.
All of the candidates vying to replace Rangel are running in his shadow. All are far older now than Rangel was when he first took office in 1971 at the age of 40. And all must grapple with his impressive, though checkered, legacy. Harlem is now one of New York’s most desirable neighborhoods, a fact likely unimaginable to Rangel himself when he first entered Congress. New housing, businesses, and people are filling the Manhattan portion of the district. College graduates are coming in droves.
This has meant an influx of affluent people, many of them white, and skyrocketing rents throughout the district. Longtime residents have been forced out. Gentrification colors just about every issue in the race.
“Development is great but we always have to ask ourselves: for whom?” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “We’re seeing the whitening of not just the district but Harlem specifically. It might be something that affects Charlie Rangel’s legacy. The district is quote unquote better, but who is it better for?”
The two leading candidates to replace Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright and State Senator Adriano Espaillat, have spoken out strongly against the displacement of the district’s working class and poor, though neither have proved adept at stemming the gentrification tide. And both have accused the other of trying to suppress turnout, with Wright saying Espillat wants to keep African Americans from voting, and Espillat saying Wright is trying to do the same among Dominican Americans.
Democratic elections in New York are often competitions for ethnic power masked by ideological difference—and that’s certainly true in the 13th CD. Espaillat almost unseated Rangel in his 2012 and 2014 bids to become the first Dominican-American ever elected to Congress. Representing the heavily Dominican neighborhoods of Inwood and Washington Heights, Espaillat has since tried to craft a multi-racial coalition to realize his dream of going to Washington, but has mostly failed.
While the growing white vote in the district may be attracted to any number of candidates in the race (the lone white candidate, Mike Gallagher, is a political neophyte unlikely to impact things), African-American voters will not choose Espaillat, just as Latinos will have no reason to gravitate toward Wright, Rangel’s chosen successor. Even the idea of a monolithic Latino vote in the district is an illusion: Puerto Ricans in East Harlem voted for Rangel over Espaillat in both races, clear evidence that ethnic rivalries aren’t diminishing. This time, former East Harlem Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the congressman, is likely to have a stranglehold on the Puerto Rican vote, motivating Espaillat and Wright to turn even more to the people they know best.
“With so many candidates in the race, it really becomes a base kind of dynamic where the person that can bring out the demographic they need to get over the victory line is the person who’s going to win,” said Eli Valentin, a Democratic consultant. “The coalition-building that would be needed in a two-person race really is not, unfortunately, needed in this kind of dynamic.”
Though Rangel and the Harlem political establishment enthusiastically endorsed Wright, who at 61 is the same age as Espaillat, the congressman never really groomed a successor, the type of young, dynamic candidate who might have posed a threat to him once upon a time. Clyde Williams, running with the New York Times seal of approval, may have been that person, but the former Bill Clinton policy adviser who previously challenged Rangel in 2012 is running as a political outsider. Former Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook has been an engaging presence on the trail and is the only woman in the race, and may vie with Williams for some of the anti-establishment vote.
If—a big if—Rangel is able to convert his support among old black loyalists into votes for Wright, it will be the assemblyman’s race to lose. It doesn’t hurt that another Dominican candidate, Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, may siphon support from Espaillat.
In recent days, the race has unsurprisingly turned nasty. A leaked memo from a pro-Espaillat political action committee noted that reduced African-American turnout would benefit the Dominican-American candidate, which Wright and his allies have trumped up as a plot to suppress the black vote. Rev. Al Sharpton, never a close ally of the Rangel contingent, nevertheless rushed to Wright’s defense, attacking “political gentrification” and, referring to Williams, “negroes you ain’t seen before.”
“They want to control who speaks for us. It’s all a matter of control,” Sharpton said on Saturday.
Whatever the outcome of the primary tomorrow, the next congressman from the district will be confronting a landscape radically changed from Rangel’s glory years.
“The fact that many of us keeping calling it the Harlem district is a framing in a way that still recognizes the old Charlie Rangel,” Greer said. “And not the 21st century District 13.”