NEW YORK — In the heart of East Harlem on Saturday, the stage is set for Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel.
Salsa and reggaeton beats from huge speakers pulse through the air at the 116th Street Festival. Vendors hawk every kind of Latin food imaginable — fried plantains, platters of just-grilled meats and “authentic” piña coladas, blended fresh on the spot.
At the back of a big stage where musical acts entertain a happy crowd of thousands, a half-dozen volunteers stand in T-shirts bearing huge photos of Rangel’s smiling face. A campaign worker staples a “RANGEL PARA EL CONGRESO” sign to a utility pole. The Congressman is slated to make a speech from the stage soon.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Rangel’s main primary opponent, has just given short campaign remarks in Spanish, asking the cheering people for their votes, and he is now working his way through the crowd, shaking hands.
Espaillat’s volunteers, who number about a dozen, hand out campaign literature to passers-by and march alongside him holding huge placards bearing his face. Espaillat, a 57-year-old Dominican-American, is full of energy and a palpable ambition.
Time passes. The Rangel volunteers tepidly hand out some literature of their own, with a photo of Rangel standing next to President Barack Obama and the sentence “I HAVE A PROVEN RECORD!” in bold letters.
Eventually word begins to spread that the Congressman won’t be coming after all. The volunteers in Rangel T-shirts walk off.
The show goes on.
“That was because of a personal issue, not health,” Rangel says the next day. “I’m not explaining.”
He doesn’t need to.
If Rangel loses his bid for a 22nd term in the June 26 Democratic primary — and he may well — it won’t be because he didn’t show up at this event, the day before the famed Puerto Rican Day Parade. It won’t be because he didn’t have any public campaign events on a Saturday two weeks before the election.
Despite his age — Rangel turned 82 on Monday — the veteran lawmaker remains as fiery, as passionate and as likable as ever. And he retains a strong base of support among those who know him best.
But Rangel, in what is almost certainly his last bid for public office, is facing an unusually potent alignment of forces that make this the most difficult race of his career since he unseated longtime Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D) in 1970.