In the last two years, Charlie Rangel has faced a damaging ethics committee investigation, a viral infection in his spine, and a humiliating censure on the House floor delivered by his longtime friend, Nancy Pelosi.
But a thin black line running from East Harlem up through The Bronx—the boundary of Rangel’s newly redrawn congressional district—is posing the biggest threat yet. After 42 years of representing a mostly African-American district anchored by Harlem, Rangel is now campaigning in an expanded district that is 55 percent Latino—and where one third of the voters are entirely new to the veteran lawmaker.
Winning over so many new constituents would be a challenge for any incumbent, but it has been made exponentially more difficult by the back injury that kept the 81-year-old Rangel bedridden for three months this year. What’s more, a slate of aggressive challengers in New York’s June 26 Democratic primary uniformly say Rangel has served his country, if not his district, well and that it is time for him to go.
The most dangerous of these challengers appears to be Adriano Espaillat, a state senator whose district lies almost entirely within the newly created NY-13 and whose childhood story as a Dominican immigrant resonates strongly in Spanish Harlem, The Bronx, and the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods he has represented in Albany for more than 15 years.
“People are asking for change. They feel that they want to turn the page after four decades,” Espaillat told The Daily Beast. “The new district is somewhat different, but most importantly the challenges facing the district are different. We need a bold new voice that has the pulse of the community who can bring that to Washington.”
Espaillat would be the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, and he acknowledges that bit of history could help him in the new district, where he has lived for 47 years. “Every community wants to have its Jackie Robinson moment,” he said. “But I also think it’s important we bring everybody under the same tent.”
While Espaillat’s role as a Latino leader could test Rangel among the district’s Hispanic voters, former Clinton administration official Clyde Williams could siphon away African-American votes in the year the congressman needs them most. The former DNC political director is himself African-American, and worked at the Harlem headquarters of the Clinton Global Initiative.
After years of running other people’s campaigns, Williams says he is making his first run for office because the problems facing the district, like chronic unemployment, poverty, and a lack of affordable housing, have not gotten better in the last four decades.
“I don’t say that as an indictment of Congressman Rangel, I see it as a fact. We need new leadership, we need new energy,” Williams said in an interview squeezed into a 14-hour day of canvassing, meet-and-greets, calls to donors, and a speech at a public-housing unit.
“It’s the people’s seat and at the end of the day, the people have the right to have real choices.”
Williams has never run for office, but another candidate, Joyce Johnson, a Seagram’s executive turned Democratic activist, ran against Rangel in 2010, when The New York Times editorial board endorsed her over Rangel.
“The face of change is results and we simply have not seen any of that,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “The people will decide, and what I hear on the street from people who have been there for [Rangel] and supported him for 40 years now say it’s time to go.”
Although Espaillat stands to gain from the majority Latino population in the district, Johnson says there’s another group that matters more.
“The majority of voters in this district are women, many single heads of household. It is the most overlooked fact. Guess who I am?” she said. “I am a woman and a voice that should be heard.”
Rangel’s staff did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
It’s hard to tell how much trouble Rangel is really in this time around, because no public polls have been conducted in the race yet. But in the battle for campaign donations and endorsements, the challengers are giving Rangel a run for his money.
While Rangel has picked up the support of the SEIU and United Federation of Teachers, Espaillat has won over Latino leaders like former Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer and designer Oscar de la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic. Rangel answered those picks Wednesday with two much-needed endorsements from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayor Ed Koch.
But more worrisome for Rangel are the bold-faced names who are staying out of the race entirely, including longtime ally Bill Clinton, whose staff said he won’t endorse anyone because of his relationship with Williams. President Obama has also stayed on the sidelines. When asked recently in a press briefing whether Obama will support Rangel in his primary, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said only, “I’ll have to—I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
The money race has had equally mixed results for Rangel, who still has the most cash on hand, but was outraised by Clyde Williams in the first three months of the year and ran about even with Espaillat, according to their most recent disclosure reports.
Despite the numbers, Rangel is still the best-known candidate in the race and remains almost uniformly well liked among his House colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Some have begun to step in to help Rangel after hearing about the challenge he faces this year.
“I was one of the members of the ethics committee who voted for his censure, but he has paid his price,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told The Daily Beast. Welch recently gave Rangel $1,000 for his reelection and described the Korean War veteran as someone who has overcome tremendous obstacles in his life and has helped fellow Democrats in Congress time and again.
“Rangel was always extremely helpful without asking for anything in return,” Welch said. “There are few people who have provided more service to more people against greater odds than Charlie Rangel.”
If anyone knows about Rangel’s talent for beating the odds, it’s Adam Clayton Powell IV, who ran against Rangel in 2010 at the height of the ethics committee investigation but lost handily.
Powell endorsed his former adversary for a 22nd term in Congress last week and had a prediction for Rangel’s challengers. “They’re gonna learn,” Powell said. “I got my whipping two years ago. Now all of them are gonna get their whipping now.”