Twenty-one-term Rep. Charlie Rangel, the Democratic icon who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, survived the fiercest primary challenge of his career Tuesday night.
Despite a seemingly perfect storm of circumstances that swirled against the New York lawmaker this cycle, the force of incumbency and his long history in the district propelled him to victory against his top challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.
“No one was able to make a compelling case for why voters should take a chance and vote for someone different, which would mean the loss of seniority and perceived loss of power,” New York Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said.
With 56 percent of precincts reporting, Rangel had 51 percent to Espaillat’s 32 percent. The Associated Press called the race for Rangel just before 11 p.m.
Three other candidates were on the primary ballot in the newly configured 13th district: retired business executive Joyce Johnson, activist Craig Schley and Clyde Williams, a former national political director at the Democratic National Committee.
There were a number of factors working against Rangel this cycle.
The longtime Congressman’s reputation was marred when he was censured by the House in December 2010 for ethics violations. The redrawn district has less favorable lines to Rangel — it includes a portion of the Bronx, a borough the Congressman has never represented. The new configuration makes the 13th a majority Hispanic district.
The 82-year-old lawmaker has also been hampered my health troubles that left him unable to fulfill his Congressional duties earlier this year. Later, after he was better, Rangel was not fully mobile.
But the sentiment of the electorate, with so many choices on the ballot, veered toward familiarity rather than change. And despite running what insiders saw as a lackluster campaign, just being Charlie Rangel was enough to win.
This is almost certainly Rangel’s last term in office, but the victory allows him to leave on high note.
“I think this is sort of like his last hurrah,” former New York City Mayor Ed Koch told Roll Call earlier this month. “I want him to go out with grace and feeling good. I think he served the country as a war hero in Korea. And served the country as a first-rate Congressman in the Congress. And I want to see him leave gracefully, feeling good about himself."
Now Rangel can. He should be easily re-elected in November, given the heavy Democratic tilt of the district.