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.”
Meanwhile, Espaillat has the backing of two influential former Bronx borough presidents: Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic nominee for New York City mayor in 2005, and Adolfo Carrión, who served as a director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs under President Barack Obama.
In an interview, Carrión repeatedly underlined that he admired Rangel.
“But just like everything else, there is always a time for change,” he said. “I think that at this time in New York City’s history, with 42 years of a legacy, a very solid legislative foundation poured ... there’s a solid platform for the next generation. What we have in Espaillat is the personality that turns the page.”
Rangel’s Harlem-based district has changed since he was first elected in 1970. Then, 72 percent of district residents were black; for this election, just less than 36 percent are.
The district has also changed since Rangel was elected in 2010. A federal court took charge of redistricting and redrew the seat to be less favorable for him, adding in a portion of the Bronx.
Forty-six percent of Rangel’s current district is Hispanic. That number ticks up to more than 55 percent under the new lines of the 13th district.
That demographic shift could give Espaillat, a Dominican-American and former state Assemblyman, a boost.
But the voting universe in a low-turnout summer primary might not reflect those demographics. And much will depend on each campaign’s ability to get out the vote, especially among their base supporters in a five-way Democratic race. An important get for Espaillat would be the endorsement of the New York Times, which has the potential to swing a substantial swath of voters in the district.
In New York City, where broadcast television is prohibitively expensive, direct mail is a main method of voter persuasion, and paid field operations are also considered essential to a winning campaign.
“It remains to be seen what Adriano’s operation is going to look like on Election Day,” Smikle said, noting that endorsements only really move the needle in an election like this if they come with a ground organization.
At the end of April, Rangel had $226,000 in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Espaillat didn’t begin fundraising until late March, so his report reflects only a few days of donations.
Another factor in this race: The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a nonpartisan super PAC that targets incumbents, is devoting some of its significant resources to supporting Espaillat.
“It’s safe to say we will be spending in the six-figure range,” CPA spokesman Curtis Ellis said. “And we will be using radio, mail, online and targeted ethnic media and direct voter contact to reach the voters that need to be reached.”
Whatever happens on the ground in New York City, Rangel doesn’t seem likely to get the biggest endorsement of all.
Asked at a press conference this month whether Obama would support Rangel, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Obama did not endorse Rangel in 2010, in the midst of the Congressman’s ethics trial, but he said he hoped Rangel could “end his career with dignity.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.