Rep. Charlie Rangel, the iconic Harlem Democrat who has represented the district where he was born for more than 43 years, is facing one of the toughest primary challenges of his 22-term career on Tuesday.
But as polls show a fairly tight race going into the New York primary, the veteran congressman has been prancing, dancing, and rapping his way through what he says is his final campaign for the US House of Representatives.
"Charlie Rangel, Stand-up guy / If you're voting for Charlie, put your hand up high / Yeah suit and tie / He's superfly / If you're a Democrat/ Yeah, that's the guy...," raps Fireboy LD, a local artist and ardent supporter of the congressman, now locked in a fierce battle with state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who came within 1,000 votes of unseating Representative Rangel in 2012.
But since that near-miss in 2012, Rangel's district has undergone a demographic makeover. After the 2010 census, New York’s 13th Congressional District was redrawn to include a Latino swath of the Bronx, making it 55 percent Latino now, while only 27 percent black.
Senator Espaillat, a powerful state politician popular in the district, would become America’s first Dominican-American congressman if he defeats Rangel on Tuesday and goes on to win the general election in November, which would be likely in this safe Democratic district.
But Rangel has been surging, according the most recent poll. The 22-term congressman has a 70-point lead among blacks and a 5-point lead among whites, giving him an overall lead of 13 percentage points, according to an NY1/Siena College poll released the week. Espaillat has a 24-point lead among Latinos.
Moreover, before barely being reelected two years ago, Rangel was striving to save a political career that seemed in tatters. The House Ethics Committee in 2010 found him guilty of 11 counts of violating House ethics rules, including failure to pay taxes for rental income earned from his villa in the Dominican Republic, efforts to get companies and corporate executives with business before his committee to donate to his favorite charities, and other financial shenanigans.
The Ethics Committee’s findings forced Rangel to resign from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. In 2007, Rangel had become the first black chairman in history, leading the panel that determines how individuals and corporate America will be taxed.
“People forget that there was a trial in the House of Representatives and the Ethics Committee, where they took testimony, and witnesses were there,” said Kevin Fullington, a Republican political consultant, during a roundtable discussion Monday on NY1, a 24/7 local news station. “And Charlie had to stand in the well of the House of Representatives and be censured. And he still won – but by 1,000 votes.”
The official House censure in 2010 was a humiliation for Rangel, and it didn’t help that a paparazzo had earlier snapped an infamous beach shot of the Harlem icon as his ethics troubles mounted – an image of the slumped congressman dozing in a reclining beach chair at his Dominican villa in Punta Cana, his arm splayed over and mouth agape.
But if Rangel seemed a tired and down-trodden candidate when he barely beat back Espaillat’s challenge in 2012, for the past few weeks he has been firing up crowds with his garrulous, gravelly voiced charisma, trademark dapper suits, and beaming political presence that has energized Harlem residents since the late 1970s. His campaign got a boost over the weekend when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) gave the congressman a last-minute endorsement.
"You know Charlie / He was born in Harlem / Got a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star / Earned them in the Army… If you gon’ vote, you gon’ vote for the Rangel. Charlie, Charlie, Charlie Rangel."
The rap was blaring during a campaign caravan on Sunday as the dapper candidate shimmied through Harlem’s famous gospel services. On Saturday the campaign hosted “Uncle Charlie’s First Day of Summer Community Flash Mob Dance Party at Harlem Shake,” a “flash mob” in front of a popular local haunt.
“I’m a little contrarian on this – I think this is purely a referendum on Charlie Rangel,” said Mr. Fullington, commenting on Rangel’s censure on NY1, and saying the longtime congressman should win going away this time.
“Reelection and time has an amazing way of cleansing our sins,” he said. “And I think people, for the most part, have forgotten about that or have put that in the back of their memories."