Is today's Democratic primary the last hurrah for Rep. Charles Rangel?

Charles Rangel has a storied past in Harlem and the US House of Representatives, where he has served 21 terms. But ethics violations, censure, and redistricting could take a toll in Tuesday's primary.

By , Staff writer and contributor

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    Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York shakes hands with a poll worker as he arrives to vote in the Democratic primary on Tuesday in New York. He faces state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who would be the first Dominican-American in Congress, if he wins the primary and the November general election.
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Will being censured by the House of Representatives last December cost Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York his seat?

The 21-term congressman will find out Tuesday after voters go to the polls in northern Manhattan, Harlem, and a small part of the Bronx to select who will be on the Democratic ticket in November – practically a guarantee of election in New York's 13th Congressional District.

In the past, this wouldn’t even be an issue. Mr. Rangel, a decorated Korean War veteran who helped funnel vast federal dollars toward the revitalization of his district, usually had no trouble fending off challengers. He was always well versed on the issues, and he had a gravelly voice that resonated with voters. Many 50-year-olds still remember when he handed out candy to them.

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But times have changed.

The boundaries of Rangel’s district have been changed – giving it a much larger proportion of Hispanic voters. Rangel himself, once a vigorous campaigner, has slowed down. And Rangel no longer has the clout he used to have when he ran the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, which sets tax policy and writes bills affecting Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs.

Nevertheless, he remains a force.

Last Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York gave Rangel his endorsement, on the basis of the many years he has represented the district.

“The endorsement suggests he still has some clout,” says Lee Miringoff, director of polling at the Marist Institute of Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “Cuomo provides some important credentialization.”

Rangel also showed he still has the political skill to minimize setbacks when he commented to the television cameras last Friday about The New York Times endorsement of Clyde Williams, a former aid to President Bill Clinton: “Just tell me how the editorial board of The New York Times could say that Clyde Williams would make a better representative of my district, my city, my country,” he intoned, emphasizing the word “my” each time.

Nevertheless, Rangel will need all the help he can get. In December 2010, he was censured for 11 congressional ethics violations, including failing to pay taxes on a property he owned and improperly soliciting millions of dollars of corporate donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.

The New York legislature has also redistricted Rangel’s turf, resulting in many more Hispanic voters than African-Americans. As a result, Rangel’s main opponent is Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American.

“The question is can he turn out the voters?” says Douglas Muzzio, a political commentator and professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. “Presumably, a Latino votes for a Latino.”

Mr. Muzzio says that if Rangel is going to lose, “this is the perfect storm.” But, he adds, “he is still well-respected, he is still admired by his constituents.”

Rangel insists that he’s not worried, perhaps because his campaign seems to have the strongest presence around much of Harlem – putting up “re-elect Rangel,” and the Spanish version, “re-eliga Rangel,” posters and directing passers-by to polling stations.

Storefronts and streets, especially on the ground outside subway stations, are covered with campaign signs, mostly for Rangel in an effort to remind residents to get out and vote – though many voters said Tuesday they were unaware of the primary, which is ordinarily held in September.

Still, many residents said they were comfortable with Rangel and his long tenure in Congress. They aren’t worried about any past ethical issues.

“He’s done some things, but everyone has done some things. He’s human,” says Crystal Spivey-Briggs, who called out “that’s my man!” to a volunteer passing out Rangel fliers. “He’s a good talker, he gives to the community, and he’s done more good than bad,” she says.

Less enthusiastic, but still leaning toward Rangel, was Ron Islar, a community activist who works with young men in programs at Salem United Methodist Church.

“With Charlie, you know what you’re going to get,” says Mr. Islar. “He’s been there a long time, and he’s a politician like the rest of them. But he’s got a good heart and he knows the ins and outs.”

Still, at least a few of Rangel’s opponents had their supporters out on the streets.

After he had put up a poster, Rashed Musla explained why he supported Mr. Williams, saying: “He’s a good guy, he’s a fighter.”

The poster shows Williams throwing a playful punch at another man with the words, “Punch the ballot.”

Proponents and posters for Adriano Espaillat were sparse in parts of Harlem, but were much more visible closer to mostly Dominican Washington Heights.

“Rangel has been there so long,” says Elsa Hernandez. “It’s time to give someone else a chance, someone who will help the poor. I like Adriano Espaillat – even if he hasn’t done anything for me yet.” 

Espaillat has support from afar, too. Leonel Fernandez, the Dominican Republic’s president, voiced his support for Espaillat and called upon Dominican New Yorkers to support him.

“Adriano Espaillat has demonstrated leadership, commitment, and dedication throughout his career – all in the interest of the diaspora in New York,” he said in a statement.

But Espaillat will have to overcome Rangel’s long-term supporters first.

“Rangel, that’s my man,” says William Allende. “He’s the only one for me, he knows what he’s doing, and he looks after the community. I remember when he used to come around here and give us candy when I was a kid.” 

That is possibly the kind of support that will get Rangel the nod once more, says Muzzio. “He has been there close to forever, and he’s brought stuff home for the district."

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