Longtime Congressman Rangel Finds Himself in Political Peril in New York Primary

Wesley Lowery, Washington Post, June 21, 2014

The birthday boy, turning 84, stood near the back of the room beneath white and gold balloons as friends, allies and supporters lined up for photos. Between photos, he stole swigs of the Corona Light gripped tightly in his left hand as the upbeat sounds of a local Latin band echoed off the dark walls.

The crowded fundraiser this month was a departure from Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s legendary birthday bashes of the past, which often were headlined by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and attended by New York’s black political royalty–former New York City mayor David Dinkins, the Rev. Al Sharpton and singer Harry Belafonte.

This year, many of the speakers were lesser-known Dominican activists and political strategists. The headliner was Dominican entertainer Frederick Martinez, also known as “El Pacha,” a popular Spanish-language radio and television host.

Those changes to the guest list tell almost the entire story of the political peril that threatens to end one of the iconic careers in American politics.

Over his 44 years in office, Rangel, “the congressman from Harlem,” became one of best-known political figures in American politics and a defining voice in the nation’s black politics.

The longest-serving member of the influential New York delegation, he was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and over time came to represent one of the standards of Democratic liberalism.

But the campaign for the Democratic nomination for his seat, to be decided in a primary Tuesday, has turned into a debate about whether Rangel has stayed too long in office and whether he still best represents constituents’ interests.

Through immigration and redistricting, what is now New York’s 13th Congressional District–a seat Rangel has held since 1971 and viewed as the center of New York’s modern black political power structure–has experienced a seismic demographic shift from majority black to majority Hispanic.

Hoping to seize on those demographics as well as the perception of Rangel’s waning political power in the years since Congress formally censured him in 2010 for ethics violations, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat is mounting a spirited challenge to the 22-term incumbent–a rematch of the 2012 race in which Rangel topped Espaillat by just 1,000 votes.

{snip} Rangel’s campaign has worked to underscore his links to local Hispanic communities, rolling out endorsements from Latino leaders.

“The Dominican people have in Congressman Rangel a big supporter and a big ally,” said Victor Gómez Casanova, a member of the Congress of the Dominican Republic who spoke at the birthday gala.

In recent years, Rangel’s district has been recarved, turning what has for years been a majority-black district into one that is 52 percent Hispanic and adding new parts of the Bronx where Rangel is not as well-known or as well-regarded.

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Rangel must contend with the lingering effects of a House Ethics Committee investigation, which found him guilty of 11 ethics violations, including not paying taxes and improperly using congressional resources. That scandal forced him to resign as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and prompted the censure.

There is a notion among some voters that Rangel is past its prime, and that is where Espaillat, 59, sees his opening. But the congressman is not going quietly. He has unleashed pointed attacks at Espaillat and is stressing his ties to the Hispanic community, noting in stump speeches that he is part Puerto Rican. {snip}

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On Wednesday, the New York Times editorial board endorsed Espaillat:

“After a humiliating censure by Congress four years ago for failing to pay taxes and other ethical lapses, Representative Charles Rangel has steadily lost power in Washington. After nearly 44 years in office, it is now time for him to yield to the next generation.”

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He was 13 percentage points ahead in the latest poll, an NY1/Siena College survey that measured him at 47 percent support compared with Espaillat’s 34 percent. The poll found Rangel with a commanding 76 percent among black voters vs. Espaillat’s 6 percent, while Espaillat was ahead 53 percent to 29 percent among Latino voters.

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