Full Slate of Candidates Ready if Rangel Falters

Posted September 8, 2008 at 6:37pm

Only two people have represented the heart of Harlem in Congress since World War II — Rep. Charlie Rangel (D) and the man he ousted 38 years ago, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D).

So it is entirely likely that Rangel’s political troubles are privately stirring the hearts of ambitious Manhattan politicians who one day see themselves serving in Congress — and now believe their time may come sooner rather than later.

But no one is prepared to say so yet. In fact, publicly, New York Democratic leaders are rallying around Rangel and suggesting that much of the information about his financial dealings is being leaked by political enemies, probably Republicans.

“I think most folks in New York still feel that Charlie’s still the dean of the Congressional delegation and will be so long as he wants to stay in office,” said Basil Smikle, a Manhattan-based Democratic consultant.

Because Rangel is 78 and has been in office since 1971, there is plenty of pent-up ambition in the 15th district, and it isn’t difficult to pull together a list of potential successors. The tantalizing question is whether Rangel’s troubles could snowball to a point where he might have to leave office sooner than he wants.

Rangel is in no jeopardy of losing his bid for a 20th term. He is unopposed in today’s Democratic primary, and in November he faces a rematch with paralegal Edward Daniels (R), who mustered just 6 percent of the vote in 2006.

“Institutions are not necessarily a good thing and having a district that has been represented by only two people for the last half century isn’t either,” Daniels says in a posting on his Web site.

Rangel has had to endure a couple of tough primary challenges in his career — most recently from Adam Clayton Powell IV (D), the former Congressman’s son and a current state Assemblyman who took 33 percent of the vote against Rangel in 1994 and would no doubt be in the mix in any race to replace him.

Since vanquishing the elder Powell by just 150 votes in the 1970 Democratic primary, Rangel and his allies have dominated Harlem politics, and there is little evidence that their grip is loosening, even as a new generation of leaders steps forward. Rangel’s powerful coterie includes David Dinkins, New York’s first (and only) black mayor; Percy Sutton, a former Manhattan borough president who went on to become a wealthy broadcasting mogul; and Basil Paterson, a former Democratic National Committee vice chairman who is the father of New York Gov. David Paterson (D).

But Rangel’s district today is different from the one he first represented when he arrived on Capitol Hill, and the 15th district is no longer strictly a “black” seat. More than 70 percent black when Rangel was first elected, the district now takes in heavily Latino neighborhoods like Washington Heights at the upper tip of Manhattan and extends south to liberal white enclaves on the Upper West Side. In fact, the district now has more Hispanics than African-Americans, and whites represent a significant voting bloc.

Nevertheless, most of the people seen as likely to try to replace Rangel are black. In addition to Powell (who is half black and half Puerto Rican), the list of potential successors includes New York Councilwoman Inez Dickens, Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, Councilman Robert Jackson, state Sen. Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Keith Wright.

Whenever Rangel decides to retire, there will undoubtedly be a crowded and confusing Democratic primary to replace him. If he were forced to leave office in the middle of his term, there would, under most circumstances, be a special election to replace him, and the local Democratic organization would be able to designate a nominee.

But while Rangel’s political future is still largely a hypothetical question at this point, Republicans are hoping to make immediate political gains by linking Democratic House candidates to the Congressman’s financial woes. Late last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a round of news releases challenging Democratic Congressional candidates in New York to return “tainted” campaign contributions from Rangel. So far, no one has taken the bait.