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6:38 pm
Mon June 23, 2014

Congressman Rangel Battles For Political Survival

Originally published on Mon June 23, 2014 7:13 pm

Charles Rangel, who for 44 years has represented an Upper Manhattan district that includes Harlem, faces off against three opponents in the New York Democratic primary Tuesday. The most serious challenge comes from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

Rangel was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1970, defeating the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr. — the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. He has held the seat ever since, rising to power in Washington and at one time serving as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

This weekend, at a campaign stop outside a hamburger joint called the Harlem Shake, Rangel supporters filled the sidewalk along Lenox Avenue — a busy street that runs through the heart of central Harlem.

Rangel was once called the "Lion of Lenox Avenue," but now, some think he is too old for another term. Still, in his stump speech at the rally, he focused on his track record of 22 straight election wins.

"If you had a good old horse that kept winning the races, why in the world would you want to bring in a colt that doesn't even know where the track is?" Rangel said.

What he failed to mention is that his record also reflects recent ethics violations, which have contributed to his diminished influence.

His odds at the ballot box have not been helped by changes in district borders and demographics. Once a black stronghold, the 13th Congressional District is now majority Latino.

Those shifts seem to favor Rangel's challenger Adriano Espaillat, a longtime state senator. The 59-year-old is a Dominican-American who lost to Rangel two years ago by just 1,100 votes.

At a rally on Harlem's west side Saturday, Espaillat told his supporters that Rangel has sold them out.

"He's sided with the fat cats in Wall Street and not with the people of this community," he said into a megaphone. "We're going to vote him out of office."

If he is successful in doing that, Espaillat would make history as the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, a distinction Rangel says he doesn't deserve.

"He wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress, which is ambitious," Rangel said in a televised debate earlier in the campaign. "The fact is that Jackie Robinson was a star before he reached the major leagues, and he's not a Jackie Robinson."

Espaillat reacted by saying that Rangel should apologize for making a race an issue.

But for much of Rangel's congressional career — as a leader from the civil rights generation — race was the primary political talking point.

The leaders of that generation are more accustomed to confrontation, says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor from the University of Michigan. For Rangel, that meant naming and helping found the Congressional Black Caucus.

Rangel's not giving up his turf without a fight. He is armed with backers such as former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Espaillat, on the other hand, enjoys strong support from unions and some top local officials. He is working hard to convince voters that he's the future.

"This is the motorcade to victory," he told supporters at a weekend rally.

In another part of the district, Rangel climbed into a silver Corvette convertible after the Saturday rally, riding high on the back seat — looking less like a relic and more like a homecoming king.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the longest serving members of Congress is fighting to hang onto his career. Tomorrow is New York's Democratic primary, and all eyes are on incumbent Charles Rangel. For 44 years, Rangel has represented a district in upper Manhattan that includes Harlem. He faces three other opponents. The most serious challenge comes from a Dominican-American state senator. Brigid Bergin of member station WNYC sent us this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SUPPORTERS: Charlie. Charlie. Charlie...

BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: At a campaign stop outside a hamburger joint called The Harlem Shake, supporters for Congressman Charlie Rangel fill the sidewalk along Lenox Avenue. It's a busy thoroughfare that runs through the heart of central Harlem. Once nicknamed the Lion of Lenox Avenue, Charlie Rangel knows some people think he's too old for another term. In a retort this past weekend, the 84-year-old politician turned to a horse metaphor instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES RANGEL: If you had a good old horse that kept winning the races, why in the world would you want to bring in a colt that doesn't even know where the track is?

BERGIN: Rangel has been a winner 22 times. He was first elected in 1970, defeating the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. Rangel's held the seat ever since, rising to power in Washington as head of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. But Rangel's influence has waned. He's been dogged by ethics violations, and the demographics and borders of his district have changed by redistricting. Once a black stronghold, the 13th congressional district is now majority Latino.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BERGIN: Those shifts would seem to favor Rangel's challenger, 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat. He's a longtime state senator who lost to Rangel two years ago by just 1,100 votes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: This is a motorcade to victory. (Speaking Spanish) Es de la caravana de la victoria.

BERGIN: At a rally in Harlem's West Side, Espaillat tells supporters that Rangel has sold them out.

ESPAILLAT: He sided with the fat cats in Wall Street and not with the people of this community. We're going to vote him out of office. (Spanish spoken).

BERGIN: If he wins, Espaillat would make history as the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, a distinction Charlie Rangel says he doesn't deserve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RANGEL: He wants to be the Jackie Robinson of the Dominicans in the Congress, which is ambitious. But the fact is that Jackie Robinson was a star before he reached the major leagues. And he's not a Jackie Robinson.

BERGIN: Espaillat responded by saying Rangel should apologize for making race an issue. But for much of Rangel's career, race has been the issue. Rangel was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, or CBC. And as a leader from the civil rights generation, he's more accustomed to confrontation, says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

VINCENT HUTCHINGS: The time is rapidly approaching when there won't be any founding members of the CBC in Congress anymore.

BERGIN: And Espaillat is working hard to convince voters that he is the future. He has strong support from unions and some top local officials. But Rangel's heavy hitters include Bill Clinton and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. So he's not giving up his turf without a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SUPPORTERS: Rangel. Rangel. Rangel.

BERGIN: As he leaves his Harlem campaign stop, Charlie Rangel climbs into a silver Corvette convertible, riding high on the backseat, less like a relic and more like a homecoming king. For NPR News, I'm Brigid Bergin in New York.

CORNISH: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.