Congressman Charlie Rangel didn’t want to discuss who will succeed him in the House of Representatives.
“Is this an obituary?” he asked during a sometimes combative phone interview on Monday afternoon, which the longtime lawmaker described as a “rough one.”
“I’m 81-years-old, you want me to discuss what happens in three years? At the end of this year plus two. Would that make sense at all?” he asked.
Rather than deciding whom to anoint as heir, the outspokenly liberal octogenarian is facing what could be the closest campaign of his more than forty year career, while simultaneously coping with fading health and the waning power of the political empire he built in Harlem.
As four challengers line up to run against him, Mr. Rangel, who normally relishes being the public face of his Harlem home, spent much of the time between February and April dealing with a back injury that was shrouded in secrecy. Mr. Rangel’s staff initially said he incurred the injury “lifting boxes.” His longtime ally, Councilwoman Inez Dickens later said he hurt himself moving a couch with his wife.
During his two month absence, the congressman made multiple trips to the hospital, where he stayed under an assumed name, and missed over 100 votes in the House of Representatives. He has yet to return to Washington.
Mr. Rangel eventually re-emerged for an April 10 press conference, at which he said he was suffering from a spinal infection.
“At a certain age, all of us have the cartridge that separates the spinal disc and they wear out,” Mr. Rangel told the assembled media.
“One of the viruses found out it was vulnerable and bang! It went in there.”
The shifting explanations for his health issues and his disappearance from the public eye caused rumors about Mr. Rangel’s health to run rampant in political circles. (Since then, Mr. Rangel sat down for a pair of television interviews where he seemed to be doing much better.)
In his talk with The Politicker, Mr. Rangel even broke into song when we asked about his well-being.
“Oh, look at me now,” he warbled, before dismissing questions about his health and comparing the situation to conspiracies surrounding the President’s birth certificate.
“You want something from the hospital? What do you want where I was born? I mean what is this, an Obama thing?” he asked. “I’m at the top of my game.”
Mr. Rangel, a proud man known for wearing immaculate, sharp suits over dress shirts with monogrammed French cuffs, said he preferred to deal with his health problems privately.
“I don’t want people checking my ass to see whether my spine is in order,” he said.
But his health isn’t the only question mark regarding Mr. Rangel’s future. The four challengers in next month’s Democratic primary—particularly State Senator Adriano Espaillat and Clyde Williams, a former political director of the Democratic National Committee—are widely thought to be the toughest opposition he has faced since the 1970’s.
In addition to Mr. Espaillat and Mr. Williams, Craig Schley, a former model and intern of Mr. Rangel’s, and a businesswoman named Joyce Johnson are in the race.
They all say Upper Manhattan needs new leadership.
“People in the district want to see a change. The congressman has been there since 1970, the year before that, man walked on the Moon, the Mets won their first championship and Joe Namath was throwing touchdown passes,” Mr. Espaillat said in a phone interview. “I think that I can bring a bold and fresh, new voice to Congress that can articulate the issues that are relevant right now that weren’t relevant in 1970.”
One of the reasons opponents say the district needs new representation is that the shape and composition of the seat has transformed since the congressman took office.
In his 2007 autobiography, Mr. Rangel said he received his district as a birthday present in 1970 from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, with whom he enjoyed a “special relationship” as a member of the State Assembly.
Mr. Rangel held on to his tailormade seat in Harlem, which he calls “the capital of black America,” for the next four decades.
Mr. Rangel is very well-liked in his home turf. Bill Thompson, who nearly defeated Michael Bloomberg in the 2009 mayoral election, remembers the experience of campaigning in Harlem alongside Mr. Rangel as “special.”
“People come from one side of the street or the other just to say, ‘Hello.’ And that’s Charlie,” Mr. Thompson said. “People just respond to Charlie.”
As Mr. Rangel put it in his memoir, “The bottom line is that I’m the only New York congressman whose district has always remained entirely on the island of Manhattan. God is good.”
Over the past twenty years, the Hispanic population in the district has increased by nine percent and the African American population dropped by ten. To deal with the demographic shift, and ensure his reelection, Mr. Rangel’s allies tried to get a favorable district drawn for him again this year. But the once mighty political machine built by the congressman lacked the muscle to carve a perfect perch for their leader amid growing calls for redistricting reform and the evolution of their base in Harlem.
As a result, for the first time in his career, Mr. Rangel is representing areas of the Bronx and new territories in Upper Manhattan, along with his Harlem haven.
Mr. Rangel points out the Latino majority in the district is nothing new and he believes he has earned the trust of the diverse denizens.
“I work hard at my job, and so, this isn’t just longevity,” he said.
The race for Mr. Rangel’s seat is generally seen as a battle between Dominicans, who back Mr. Espaillat’s run, and Mr. Rangel’s power base in the black community. Mr. Espaillat is a product of that wave of Latino immigration that transformed Upper Manhattan, and if his campaign is successful, he would be the first member of Congress of Dominican descent. However, he believes the desire for change in the district isn’t confined to Latinos.
“The Dominican community has grown, that’s for sure, but I think that they share some of the same problems that other communities share,” he said. “This desire for change is not exclusive to the Dominican community.”
Mr. Williams, for his part, came to Harlem amid a second wave of change that redefined the district. He arrived in 2001, to work as an aide to former President Bill Clinton, whose choice to open an office uptown was widely seen as the beginning of a new era of gentrification
in the neighborhood. Rather than simply a contest between Dominicans and African Americans, he said, the race for Mr. Rangel’s seat is about many groups who have changed the look of Upper Manhattan.
“Over the last few years, this community’s become much more diverse and, not just from a racial standpoint, it’s become much more diverse from an economic standpoint,” Mr. Williams said. “This has been a Latino district for a while, … but you’ve had a huge influx of whites that have moved into the congressional district, Asians that have moved into the congressional district.”
According to Mr. Williams, these new residents created a need for new leadership.
“Those things make it a more complicated endeavor and I believe that you need someone who can represent all those interest groups, not just one,” he said.
Changing demographics aren’t the only obstacle to Mr. Rangel’s re-election bid. The congressman is also dealing with the fallout from his 2010 censure by the House Ethics Committee for violations including soliciting donations from lobbyists for a Center for Public Service at City College that bears his name, failing to properly disclose income and assets, using a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office and failing to pay taxes on his vacation home.
Mr. Rangel argued he was guilty of nothing more than “being overzealous in recruiting money for CCNY and sloppy bookkeeping,” and the censure was part of a strategy on the part of Republicans to regain power after the 2008 elections.
“How does The Times now put it, I’m ‘ethically challenged,’” he said. “I was one of the major targets that the Republicans were going to shoot after.”
Mr. Rangel denied his re-election bid is motivated by a desire to refurbish his legacy following the ethics flap, saying he’s in the race to help President Obama fulfill his promise of change, and to stop Republicans in Washington from enacting policies he sees as an assault on the “stuff that really made America and the middle class.
“To see all of this just going by in fast forward. And to see so few voices screaming out against it,” Mr. Rangel went on. “I will fight like hell to be able to make a contribution. To be able at least to tell my grandkids, ‘We thought we had change and I was there until the very end.’”
With his health woes and many challengers, Mr. Rangel may not get to decide whether he stays until “the end,” which brings us once again to the question of his heirs.
With Mr. Rangel at the helm, the Harlem political machine birthed a mayor (David N. Dinkins), a governor (David Paterson), and the neighborhood’s current representatives in the City Council and both Houses of the State Legislature.
But Mr. Espaillat—who had more people sign his petitions to get on the ballot than Mr. Rangel and who just about matched his fundraising totals for the last filing period—believes Mr. Rangel’s performance in this race so far shows their days of dominance are on the wane.
“We got more signatures than they did, so if there is a machine there, it’s a machine that’s stumbling a little bit,” Mr. Espaillat said. “We were neck-and-neck with the fundraising piece in the last filing.”
Mr. Rangel, sounding every bit the political lion, dismissed the idea his challengers pose a significant threat to him.
“I swear by Jesus, I forgot the fourth candidate’s name, and I’m not even kidding you,” he insisted. “I want you to talk about who is running against me, what they’ve done—and did they ever do anything without my help?”