When New York Democrat Charles Rangel first ran for U.S. Congress in 1970, he was so friendly with Nelson Rockefeller that the Republican governor wished him happy birthday, handed him a map and a pencil, and told him to draw his own district.
Rangel, 82, who wrote about the incident in his 2007 autobiography, “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since,” reminisced last week about how in his first campaigns he ran with Rockefeller’s blessing, piling up votes on both the Democratic and Republican lines.
“Those days are over,” he said.
This year, it was a federal judge that drew a new district for Rangel, one that may end his 42-year House career. The remapping takes away much of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus has garnered votes for decades, and stretches the district’s northern border through Latino areas of the Bronx.
Adriano Espaillat, 57, a Democratic state senator, seized the opportunity and has challenged him in a June 26 primary, telling voters they could make history by electing the first Dominican-American to Congress.
“Demographics are destiny for Charlie Rangel,” said William Cunningham, who has served as senior adviser to former New York Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, chief of staff to former U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan and as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s communications director.
Rangel, who in the Korean War received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Presidential Unit Citation for leading 40 comrades to safety from behind enemy lines, got to Congress by defeating Adam Clayton Powell Jr., New York’s first black congressman. Powell had served 26 years and become enmeshed in scandal.
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Rangel made a name for himself grilling witnesses during the Watergate hearings and subsequent impeachment proceedings that forced President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation. Working his way up the seniority system -- he has served longer than all but three current House members -- Rangel in 2007 became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which helps write U.S. tax and trade policy.
Then, in 2010, a House committee found him guilty of 11 ethical violations, including failure to pay some taxes and disclose rental income on a Dominican Republic house he owned. He lost the chairmanship, which he would have had to give up anyway when Republicans seized control of the House that year. Rangel has appealed the censure resolution, saying he has evidence that it was tainted by partisan motives.
“He didn’t run away, he didn’t hide and he’s back asking people to vote for him based on his record creating housing, health care, education, economic-empowerment zones in depressed areas, and his argument that all that experience and seniority is beneficial to New York,” Cunningham said.
Rangel’s political future has become all the more unpredictable because New York hasn’t had a June primary election since 1973. It almost guarantees a low turnout, making it difficult to measure how many residents will vote, said Jerry Skurnik, a Manhattan-based political consultant and demographic analyst.
To identify those most likely to vote in the new district, Skurnik isolated 70,126 who cast ballots in each of the last three primaries. Of those, 38 percent had Latino surnames; 37 percent were probably African-American, based on name and street address, and the rest were white or Asian, he said.
“Will it be Dominicans who think they’re going to make history or will it be African-Americans who don’t want to lose what they have?” Skurnik said. “Will Puerto Ricans vote like Dominicans or will they recall Rangel’s record of service to them?”
If the campaign were a war of endorsements, Rangel would be winning. His supporters include Bloomberg, an independent, and former Mayors Edward Koch and David Dinkins, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and U.S. Representatives Jose Serrano and Jerrold Nadler, all Democrats. The current mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“You can never be confident in an election when you expect as small a turnout as this,” Rangel told reporters last week after getting City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s support. “The victor will be the one who gets the most voters out.”
‘Still Doing Good’
Sonia Gonzalez, 63, stood on the street in early June waiting for Rangel to arrive for a campaign stop in front of her apartment at 181st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. A district leader for 1199SEIU, a health-care workers’ union that has endorsed Rangel, Gonzalez said she’s undecided.
“Rangel’s name is not spoken much around this Dominican-dominated neighborhood,” said Gonzalez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “I love Charlie, he’s done a lot of good, but I also believe in new blood coming in. It’s confusing because Charlie is still doing good for the community.”
Espaillat’s backers include former Bronx Borough Presidents Adolfo Carrion and Fernando Ferrer; the Transit Workers Union; El Diario, a daily citywide Spanish-language newspaper; and the Riverdale Review, a weekly publication in the most affluent neighborhood in the Bronx, New York City’s poorest borough.
He’s also benefitted from at least $5,500 worth of e-mails and other anti-Rangel campaign materials circulated by a Texas-based independent organization, the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Espaillat has raised a total of $333,637, according to opensecrets.org, a Washington D.C.-based campaign finance watchdog group.
“We act as the equalizer to help challengers overcome the tremendous advantage that incumbents like Charlie Rangel have,” said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the group.
Rangel has raised $1.1 million, with his largest corporate support, $29,000, coming from employees of Aflac Inc. of Columbus, Georgia, the world’s biggest seller of supplemental health insurance.
His four next largest sources of organizational backing are Rosen Partners LLC, a New York-based real estate development company, which gave $12,500; and the American Association for Justice, a Washington-based trial lawyers’ group, $10,000; Cablevision Systems Corp; Hospital Hermanos Melendez, a Puerto Rican medical center; and UnitedHealth Group Inc., each of which contributed $10,000, according to opensecrets.org.
Espaillat, an assemblyman for 14 years before winning election to the state Senate in 2010, has been almost as effective as Rangel in gathering votes, winning 80 percent or more in general elections.
“We need a new voice in Congress that will articulate the issues,” Espaillat said in an interview last week. “The congressman is no longer as effective as he may have been once.”
He usually avoids mention of Rangel’s ethical censure during his campaign speeches.
“What do I need to say that people don’t know already?” he said. “This is about the future, not about the past and the favors that you did to cronies and friends.”
Rangel survived a primary challenge two years ago from Adam Clayton Powell IV, son of the congressman he defeated 42 years ago, with 51 percent to Powell’s 23 percent in a six-candidate field in which 51,000 votes were cast.
This year, Rangel faces three challengers in addition to Espaillat, including Harlem-based Clyde Williams, 50, who has worked as an aide to former President Bill Clinton and raised $362,464 for the race, according to opensecrets.org.
“What is obvious is that Rangel’s in trouble,” Skurnik said. “If Espaillat manages to become a real cause, he’ll get Hispanics who never voted in a primary before, and then he wins.”
Rangel’s years of service were celebrated along with his birthday last week at a Manhattan fundraiser attended by about 500 who paid from $200 to $5,000. He danced on stage and entertained the crowd with jokes, without the walking cane he’s used since being hospitalized for a back injury this year.
Clinton, who established an office in Harlem, part of Rangel’s district, after he left the White House, sent a video with regrets that he couldn’t attend.
“You’ve made a difference in many lives,” Clinton said. “Have another great year of health, happiness and success.”
Koch, 87, who served in Congress from 1969 to 1977 before becoming mayor in 1978, said in an interview that Rangel played a key role in helping Koch defuse tensions between blacks and Jews in the 1980s.
“People ask why I’m supporting Charlie Rangel,” Koch told the birthday party crowd. “He’s my brother. And when your brother needs help, you’ve got to be there.”