There is a growing sense among New York political insiders that next month’s primary could mark the end of 81-year-old Rep. Charlie Rangel’s storied Congressional career.
Rangel, the third-most-senior House Member, has been weakened by health, the weight of an ethics rebuke and redistricting. Moreover, he is battling a message, being delivered on multiple fronts, that it’s time for a change and new leadership.
One key metric for the veteran Harlem Democrat and his opponent, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, in the lead-up to the June 26 primary is the push for public support — from party officials and local borough bosses.
“If Adriano is able to roll out [more] significant endorsements between now and the first week of June,” said Basil Smikle, an unaffiliated New York Democratic political consultant, “more political insiders and established figures are going to start openly talking about a Harlem without Charlie Rangel and the likelihood that Adriano is the next Member of Congress.”
The endorsement war heated up in recent days with Espaillat announcing the backing of New York City Councilman Oliver Koppell, who represents parts of the Bronx, and Rangel rolling out support from Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Adam Clayton Powell IV, his 2010 primary opponent and the namesake of his predecessor.
On Capitol Hill, sources in the Empire State delegation privately acknowledge this fight seems different for the former Ways and Means chairman, who was forced to lie low this spring because of a back injury. He is back on Capitol Hill now, at times aided by a walker.
“He’s not firing on all cylinders in terms of the campaign that is around him,” one New York Democratic aide said. “It doesn’t look good for him.”
Other New York Members beyond Serrano are expected to lend their support to Rangel — but in varying degrees.
“I think his colleagues will largely be backing him,” said an aide to another Democratic Member of the delegation. “How that translates into what happens in his district, I don’t know.”
Longtime New York City political operatives caution, however, that even with the mounting factors against him, minimizing Rangel’s strengths would be folly.
One plugged-in New York City Democratic insider admitted that Rangel was older, in worse health, facing more negative press coverage and battling a more serious opponent than the octogenarian did in 2010.
But he warned not to underestimate Rangel in Harlem.
“Rangel is an institution, and institutions don’t easily lose,” the insider said.
Influential state Assemblyman Keith Wright, a strong Rangel supporter and top surrogate, said the Congressman’s record still makes him the best choice for the district.
“We’re in this 21st century because Congressman Rangel was able to amass such a great record for his constituents,” said Wright, the incoming co-chairman of the state Democratic Party. “And there’s no reason to change horses in midstream right now.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.