Rangel Pins Future on his Past Base

Photograph by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Representative Charlie Rangel celebrates his 82nd birthday with friends and colleagues at a party held for him in Washington on June 20, 2012.

It’s not just a story of a younger politician edging out a senior one who’s served his time.

When New Yorkers in Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx choose today between incumbent Representative Charlie Rangel and insurgent Adriano Espaillat, they’ll be battling for the new face of New York City. Gentrification and rising real estate values helped diminish the district’s African-American majority, and a court-ordered redistricting plan gave the seat in a reconfigured 13th District a Hispanic majority for the first time.

The 82-year old Rangel, a 21-term Harlem congressman, became the most powerful African-American in Congress when he served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 2007 to 2010.

The 57-year old Espaillat hopes to become the first Dominican-American elected to Congress.

The district is nearly 80 percent Democratic, so today’s winner will likely go to Washington.

With Rangel reeling from health setbacks and a 2010 House censure over ethical and financial lapses, Espaillat says it’s time for a change. In a debate, he called Rangel a “poster-child” for dysfunction in Washington.

Rangel responded that none of his four challengers – there are three other African-Americans in the race – seemed to disagree with him on any substantive issue. “It looks as though they’re applying for my job,” he quipped.

With Democrats in the minority in the U.S. House, none of the candidates is likely to be bringing home much bacon any time soon, and given the lack of substantive differences the contest is likely to come down to whose supporters come out in greater force. Espaillat is trying to energize his ethnic base, tirelessly campaigning in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, while the aging and ailing Rangel has been collecting endorsements from local players including Governor Andrew Cuomo.

With about 260,000 registered Democrats in the new district, and only 51,000 ballots cast in the 2010 primary, the job could remain Rangel’s.

“There’s always been Black-Hispanic tension in New York,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a long-time New York political consultant who is not working for anyone in the race.

Voter turnout holds the key, says Sheinkopf, noting that Hispanics have a historically low propensity to vote in New York. Add to that a June election date, as New York’s primaries are traditionally held in September, which tilts the scales heavily in Rangel’s favor.

“The voter most likely to turn out in New York is a 55-year old plus Black woman,” Sheinkopf said. “And there are a lot of them still in Harlem.”


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