“As you know, there are people out there who are dedicated not only to destroy [sic] our program, but also to destroy our president,” warned Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.) as he closed a Friday morning campaign rally in Harlem billed as, “The Affordable Care Act and You.”
Rangel, standing at a podium in front of a set of American flags, spoke to a school gymnasium full of more than 100 people — a blend of constituents, teachers, and reporters — four days before Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
Rangel, despite his 81 years and visibly ailing health, still knows how to work a room. This was immediately clear when the 21-term congressman entered the noisy gym. Walking slowly down the aisle, pausing for a cell-phone picture here or a “Hi Charlie!” there, Rangel was on a first-name basis with many in the crowd. Making his way onto the stage, the room erupted in response to a simple “Good morning!”
Rangel has long been a seemingly Teflon congressman, especially in his community. Just two years ago, in spite of eleven ethics convictions, he was able to trounce five Democratic primary challengers, leveraging his institutional domination in New York politics to capture 51 percent of the vote and coast through the general election en route to his fourth decade representing his New York district in the House of Representatives.
But many see the coming June 26 primary as presenting Rangel with a new kind of challenge, perhaps his toughest yet.
#more#The wildcard for Rangel comes not from his Harlem stronghold, but from a re-districting plan that expanded Rangel’s district beyond Manhattan to the South Bronx so that it now comprises a majority Hispanic electorate (55 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, 12 percent white, 6 percent other).
The new district — where three in ten people are first-time Rangel constituents — is uniquely advantageous to Rangel’s principal opponent, Democratic state senator and Dominican immigrant Adriano Espaillat. Espaillat, 57, has branded himself as a fresh, new face, set to replace the old establishment fixture Rangel.
Some observers, such as Queens College’s professor Michael Krasner, see the race as a true toss-up: “I’m not sure it even qualifies as an upset at this point,” Krasner tells National Review Online. “Re-districting puts a lot more Hispanic voters in the district. Rangel is unknown, and probably unwelcome. If I had to bet money, I would put it on Espaillat.” Indeed, there are many points in Espaillat’s favor. He has been able to capture a set of important endorsements (including two former Bronx borough presidents), and Rangel’s base is vulnerable to two other candidates, Clyde Williams and Joyce Johnson, both African Americans who are campaigning heavily in Harlem.
But, despite the allure of the upset, most still see Rangel as the favorite. “I don’t think it’ll be particularly close,” says Krasner’s colleague at Queens, Professor Andrew Beveridge. “Probably Rangel’s toughest battle yet, but he never really has had a battle.” Beveridge notes Espaillat’s apparent advantages are deceptive for two reasons. First, the gap between the number of Hispanics and African Americans in the district narrows when it comes to those who can actually vote (49 percent Hispanic to 34 percent black voters, compared to 55 percent and 27 percent residents). Second, the Hispanic vote is itself fractured, particularly between Dominican and Puerto Rican populations, with Rangel, whose father is from Puerto Rico, performing strongly in the latter group.
Moreover, as the Rothenberg Political Report’s Jessica Taylor notes, low turnout is highly likely for a June primary, which likely benefits the venerable Rangel machine, which will churn out his base in Harlem. With a solid, tested organizational operation, coupled with big-name supporters like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Rangel’s institutional might seems to position him as the favorite to enter a 22nd, and likely final, term in Congress.