Charlie Rangel holds slim lead in a changed House district

With about 2,800 absentee ballots yet to be counted, US Rep. Charlie Rangel appears to have eked out yet another close victory in a district that is now majority Hispanic. His chief opponent has yet to concede.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Supporters for Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York celebrate Rangel declaring his victory over opponent state Sen. Adriano Espaillat during a primary election night gathering on Tuesday in New York. The final vote count awaits.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, one of the longest-sitting members in Congress and a historymaking black power broker, appears to have eked out another slim victory Tuesday, leading his primary challenger by just under 4 percentage points with only absentee and affidavit ballots to be counted.

The Harlem Democrat, who has held his House seat since 1971, all but declared victory just after midnight Wednesday, holding a 47.4 percent to 43.6 percent lead, or about 1,800 votes, with 100 percent of precincts counted. 

This would be Representative Rangel's second straight narrow win over state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a popular Manhattan Democrat who sought to become America’s first Dominican-born member of Congress.

“This was our victory,” Rangel told a crowd of jubilant supporters after a local TV station called race for the 22-term incumbent. “This is your congressman. And you can rest assured all I will be doing is thinking about you and bringing these resources home.”

But as of Wednesday morning, the AP still dubbed the race “too close to call,” and Senator Espaillat has refused to concede. About 2,800 absentee ballots remained to be certified and counted, according to the New York City Board of Elections.

“As we learned in 2012, every single vote needs to be counted in this race,” Espaillat said in a statement at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. “Given the thousands of votes outstanding, the people of Upper Manhattan and The Bronx deserve a full accounting of every vote to achieve a complete and accurate tally in this race,” Espaillat said.

Two years ago, the influential Dominican state senator waited two weeks before conceding the House primary, which he lost by fewer than 1,100 votes.

After nearly winning in 2012, Espaillat had high hopes coming into Tuesday’s primary. Several influential New York City Democrats and unions had abandoned Rangel in his run for a 23rd term, endorsing Espaillat in a district that has become majority Latino since redistricting in 2010.

Rangel, too, has been plagued by ethics scandals the past few years, drawing an official censure from his House peers in 2010 and forced to resign his powerful chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. The octogenarian congressman, the third-longest sitting House member, was also suffering from ailments during the primary two years ago.

But an energized Rangel, often called the “Lion of Harlem,” showed renewed vigor and pluck during his campaign this year, sometimes using the race card to disparage his opponent. “Just what the heck has he actually done besides saying he’s a Dominican?” Rangel said during a debate in early June.

And though Espaillat had garnered the political support of many powerful New York City establishment figures, Rangel was bolstered by late endorsements from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and US Sen. Charles Schumer (D), as well as former President Bill Clinton.

Rangel, one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, campaigned as an ally of President Obama, saying he wanted to serve to the end of the president’s term and suggesting that the intense Republican opposition to the president's agenda is driven in part by race.

Still, the president did not endorse the iconic Harlem congressman. Rangel had endorsed former New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in the presidential primaries, and during Rangel's ethics trial in the House, the president suggested that Rangel should retire with dignity.

Given the rapidly changing demographics in New York’s 13th Congressional District, some believe Rangel will be the last black representative in Harlem, long the cultural and political center for black Americans. The Dominican population is growing in other areas of northern Manhattan, and Latinos now make up 55 percent of the district, while 27 percent are black.

But it appears Rangel will indeed return to Congress for what he says will be his final term, should preliminary numbers hold, which most observers say is likely, given his four-point lead.  

“In terms of those people who didn’t support me because of their own political aspirations, I don’t see how I can afford to be angry. I really don’t,” Rangel told reporters after he left the stage after midnight.

“Those of you who know me know I really mean it. They’re ambitious. They make decisions based on whether I win or lose. But fortunately, as my wife will tell you, we can’t think of a political enemy that I have. There may be a whole lot of names that I’ve forgotten. But I can’t waste a lot of time with people who don’t support me.”

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