Not because his golden years have been besieged by trouble, some of it his own making, some of it the usual thrust of a hyper-partisan political culture. Not because he is now—and has been for the past several years—hounded by plausible challengers at an age when most politicians are busy buffing the stones on the sides of buildings that bear their names; not because he continues to contend with suspicions that he is on the cusp of retirement.
No, instead, Mr. Rangel deserves some sympathy because after four decades in the House of Representatives, building a political machine that has seen scores of friends and protégés win high office, serving a district that has been represented by only two people since World War II, he is now presiding over that district’s dissolution.
That congressional district, of course, is synonymous with Harlem, the heart of Black America. Mr. Rangel and his predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., presided over the neighborhood through 13 presidents, segregation, civil rights sit-ins, riots, crack, abandonment and now years of slow but steady growth.
That growth, though, has been too good.
“The problem we have,” said Denny Farrell, a longtime Harlem assemblyman and friend of Mr. Rangel’s, “is that Charlie Rangel’s district is no longer black.”
Indeed it is not. The district covering all of Upper Manhattan north of 96th Street (with a few blocks on the Upper West Side thrown in and a few on the Upper East Side thrown out) is now close to half Hispanic, and has been for at least 10 years. The 2010 Census found 30,000 fewer black residents in the district than a decade prior; blacks now make up only 26.5 percent of the area’s population. And, while the Hispanic population of the district is holding steady at around 47 percent, the white population has surged from 16 to 21 percent in the past 10 years.
With those figures firmly in mind, nearly 100 marchers walked the upper reaches of northern Manhattan last Sunday, across the University Heights Bridge and into the Bronx. They waved signs bearing slogans like “The Time Is Now! We Demand Redistricting!” and “The Future Looks Latino” and chanted “El pueblo dijo ya, un Congresisto mas!” (“The community said it already, another congressman!”)
Their cause was a long-simmering effort to peel off a portion of Mr. Rangel’s district, joining it with parts of the Bronx or Queens to create the nation’s first Dominican-centric congressional district, and only the third Latino district in the entire state.
“The Latino community isn’t begging. The Latino community isn’t asking,” Ydanis Rodriguez, a city councilman from Washington Heights told the crowd in Spanish over chants of “Si, se puede.” “The Latino community isn’t saying to anyone, ‘Do us a favor.’ What the Latino community is saying is, ‘We have the numbers to elect the third member of Congress. We are mature. Our Latino community has a big voting bloc that is attentively watching to see how we handle ourselves in this moment.’”
He warned ambitious pols from around the city to embrace their cause, and then, switching back into English for the handful of press present added, “This is a matter of ‘To be or not to be.’ You cannot be playing both sides. We have the numbers and we decide and we need that third Latino congressional seat!”
If they are successful, the new district will likely snake below Mr. Rangel’s, catching Puerto Rican neighborhoods to the east. The old Harlem district will shoot northward, through the Bronx and picking up African-American portions of Westchester County.
“The one thing we don’t need is minorities banging at each other,” Mr. Farrell said he told Mr. Rangel. “We don’t need that, and I said, if we do that district you’ll have a black/Latino war and we don’t want it.”
For Mr. Rangel, the concern isn’t so much the present as it is the future. After 40 years, the general consensus is that the 15th Congressional District could have twice the number of white voters, and twice the number of Hispanic voters, and Mr. Rangel would still skate through fairly easily. But, as he told The Observer recently, “We’ve got 27 members [of the New York congressional delegation] and they would rather have the best possible district they can. It just makes sense for people that I have represented for 40 years, regardless of what their backgrounds are, that I would continue to represent them.”
Mr. Rangel is as synonymous with Harlem as Sylvia’s, lines of tourists outside Baptist churches on Sunday or the Apollo. He spends his weekends criss-crossing the district, noting to senior groups and block associations that theirs is the most compact congressional district in the nation.
And he doesn’t sound like he likes to leave it much. In 2010, in the wake of Mayor Bloomberg’s bungled handling of a blizzard, Mr. Rangel defended the mayor, saying that most of the complainers were from the far-flung outer boroughs. “They say they are from New York,” he said then. “I was born to believe it: Manhattan is really New York City.”
“Charlie and I have been arguing for the last year-and-a-half, because he originally said to me, ‘Denny, there is no way,” Mr. Farrell said. “I want to be in Manhattan, we’ve got to be in Manhattan.’ I said, ‘Charlie, you can’t do it.’”
Mr. Rangel didn’t want to hear it.
“He and I have been working together for 40 years. He has never hollered at me in 40 years,” Mr. Farrell said. “He blew up at me.”
Still, earlier this year the two of them drove up to Westchester to scope out the surroundings of what his new district could look like. Once people there started to recognize Mr. Rangel, he softened a bit, but still maintains his district should stay in Harlem.
“This doesn’t mean that Dominicans and Hispanics and other people don’t have different ideas,” Mr. Rangel said. “So, I want what every one of the 27 members want, and that is a district that is favorable to them and their constituents.”
Mr. Rangel’s district could remain a majority African-American district simply by going up into the Bronx and leaving Westchester out of it, but here is where raw political dealing takes precedence over racial solidarity.
If Mr. Rangel were to retire midterm or be rendered unable to continue serving, a special election would be required to replace him, and the task of nominating the Democratic standard-bearer would fall to the county parties in a weighted vote. If the new district tilted toward the Bronx, the Bronx will decide who that is. Even if Mr. Rangel serves out the remainder of his term, Bronxites would be more likely to want one of their own to serve in Congress rather than someone from Manhattan. For years, Mr. Rangel has been said to be eyeing Assemblyman Keith Wright, who conveniently doubles as head of the Manhattan Democratic Party, to replace him, but a district centered in the Bronx could dash those hopes.
Hence, the need to start looking north, with the notion of balancing out the Bronx’s power with some voters in Westchester, a need that is naturally running counter to that of the Bronx’s own politicians, and especially the head of their own county’s Democratic Party, Carl Heastie, who has designs on Congress himself.
And so this is Charlie Rangel’s dilemma: Stay at home in Harlem, and witness the end of the Harlem political machine he built, one that nurtured not only him but former Mayor David Dinkins and former Gov. David Paterson (an end brought forth by the very same open immigration policies and urban renewal policies he once championed). Or watch the dissolution of the geographic heart of the district, for a fighting chance of keeping the old guard intact.
“That is what this is really all about,” said one consultant closely engaged in the redistricting fight. “Harlem ain’t Harlem anymore. You used to have Rangel, Dinkins, Paterson, all these guys, and who is left other than Keith Wright and [City Councilmember] Inez Dickens?”
“The thing that is troubling to me is the way in which this threatens African-American political power,” said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historian and one-time candidate for local office. “African-Americans have historically been restricted about where they could live, and after people have lived for generations here public policy, including zoning and tax incentives, will then be used in such a way as to engage in social engineering in changing the neighborhood.”
In the end, Mr. Rangel and his allies may not get to decide. It is the State Legislature that draws the congressional lines, and in Albany legislators weren’t able to come to an agreement, partially due to the dispute between Mr. Heastie and Mr. Wright. On Monday, a federal court judge took over the process. A lawyer representing the Legislature asked if the court will factor in incumbency in drawing the lines, noting that the city and the state are better served by having more senior members of the House as their representatives.
The court demurred. Outside, Juan Cartegna, a lawyer representing the efforts of Latinos to create a new seat, cheered the fact that at last the issue was out of the hands of lawmakers.
“It is the only way these guys in Albany will finally take this seriously. At risk is a plan that would be fair,” he said. “Right now we have been just arguing before three guys in Albany who didn’t want to talk to each other. This is an opportunity.”
But only for some. For most in Harlem, moving their district to the Bronx and beyond is the culmination of a change that has been decades in the making.
“When you associate with the racial and ethnic composition of the community—and tie that to the struggle for civil rights going back to Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell and then Charlie—there is a certain continuity Harlem residents want to see and which they are seeing fade away,” said Basil Smilke, a political consultant in the neighborhood. “People realize change is coming. Some people meet it with anxiety and some with open arms. Obviously, most politicians are part of that first group.”
Additional reporting by Colin Campbell.