Rangel Overcomes Demographic Shifts to Win Primary

Charles Rangel, the third-longest-serving current member of the U.S. Congress, won the Democratic primary in his New York district, overcoming shifting demographic trends and clearing the way for a 23rd term.

The 84-year-old icon of black political influence defeated state Senator Adriano Espaillat in a rematch. Rangel took 47 percent of the vote with all precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press, which called the race today.

“This was your victory,” Rangel, who was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, said to a crowd at his party last night. “This is your congressman, and you can rest assured all I will be doing is thinking of you.”

Espaillat early today refused to concede. “Every single vote needs to be counted,” he said in a statement, issued before 1 a.m. local time.

Rangel was confronted by changing demographics that have transformed his Upper Manhattan district, which included Harlem, from a seat of black power to one dominated by Hispanic voters. His campaign out-organized an energized opposition eager to install Espaillat, 59, who would have made history by becoming the first Dominican-American to serve in Congress.

The New York City Board of Elections said today it won’t begin counting absentee votes until July 2. The board is also still in the process of collecting and verifying affidavit ballots, which are votes cast by residents whose eligibility must still be verified.

Hispanic Population

Rangel, who co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, made the case to voters that his experience in Congress is needed to help President Barack Obama fend off Tea Party-inspired attacks, playing on the president’s popularity in the district and ignoring that Obama stayed away from the race.

Espaillat pushed for in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and said Rangel was too close to Wall Street.

The district, which stretches from Upper Manhattan to sections of the Bronx, is 55 percent Hispanic and 26 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. It has the eighth-lowest population of non-Hispanic whites in the country, the data show.

Most of the Hispanic population there is Dominican, said Jerry Skurnik, a New York-based political consultant who specializes in demographics. Skurnik estimates that 25 percent of the Hispanics claim Dominican origins while 15 percent say their roots are in Puerto Rico.

‘Come-From-Behind Win’

“It is really a come-from-behind win,” said Skurnik.

The district is also overwhelmingly Democratic, with Obama winning 95 percent of the vote there in his 2012 re-election.

For stretches of the campaign, Rangel appeared to be in trouble. Opponents pointed to his waning influence in the U.S. House of Representatives stemming from an ethics scandal over underpaid income taxes that cost him his post as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Local leaders who had stood by Rangel through that flap, including New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, backed Espaillat this time instead.

Espaillat also whittled away at Rangel’s money advantage, raising $510,000 compared with Rangel’s $1 million, through June 4. Two years ago, when Rangel defeated Espaillat by just over 1,000 votes, the congressman raised three and half times more than Espaillat.

Rangel Surge

Even so, in the last six weeks Rangel surged as he attacked Espaillat’s legislative record in the statehouse and showed off his experience in Washington.

“He’s been in so many political battles he just knows all the tricks,” said William Cunningham, the managing director at DKC public relations.

At a May 14 debate, Rangel played the showman -- and dominated the news coverage -- when he used his opening remarks to take a mock cell phone call from a “friend” and attacked his opponents while they sat uncomfortably in their seats.

Members of the audience laughed as Rangel used his three minutes to chatter away on the phone: “No, he’s been there 18 years, but he didn’t say he passed any bills at all,” Rangel said, referring to Espaillat’s time in the New York state legislature.

Though he lost some of the local political establishment, Rangel rolled out an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton, who also recorded a robo-call. Rangel was among many Democrats who had defended Clinton when a Republican-led U.S. House voted to impeach the president, and he supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Cuomo Support

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also added his name to Rangel’s roster of backers. And the New York Daily News urged readers to vote for him, saying: “Head to head, he’s more qualified than Espaillat and holds the greater potential for serving the district and New York.”

Rangel first won the seat in 1970 by knocking off 26-year veteran U.S. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in a Democratic primary by 150 votes. Powell was New York’s first black congressman and had become enmeshed in scandals.

Rangel rose to power as part of the “Gang of Four,” with former Mayor David Dinkins, onetime New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson and Harlem-based broadcasting executive Percy Sutton, who organized Harlem’s voters into a constituency with statewide influence.

Two other candidates in the primary -- Yolanda Garcia, a community activist, and Michael Walrond, a pastor -- were far behind in the vote count.

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