Rangel Faces Another Tough Reelection Bid in Divided District

A rematch of a close contest in 2012 comes down to race and age.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 18: Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel leads a march of soldiers, veterans and various other military aligned groups in the 369th Infantry Regiment Parade in Harlem on May 18, 2014 in New York City. The parade, which takes place on the historic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, looks to celebrate the contribution African Americans and Puerto Ricans have made to military. The 369th was home to the 'Harlem Hellfighters', a unit made up of both African Americans and Puerto Ricans, which fought in both World War I and World War II. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
June 17, 2014, 5:25 p.m.

For dec­ades, Rep. Charles Ran­gel has been “the Li­on of Har­lem,” a re­li­ably lib­er­al Demo­crat in a re­li­ably lib­er­al dis­trict cov­er­ing Har­lem and oth­er parts of Up­per Man­hat­tan. From 1972 to 1994, he won all 12 of his gen­er­al elec­tions with at least 95 per­cent of the vote.

So how does it come about that the third-most-seni­or mem­ber of the House is sweat­ing bul­lets for the second con­sec­ut­ive cycle?

It comes down to race, age, and re­dis­trict­ing. Ran­gel’s seat is safely in Demo­crat­ic hands, but he faces a primary race against state Sen. Ad­ri­ano Es­pail­lat, whom he beat by only about 1,000 votes in 2012. On Tues­day, Ran­gel will find him­self in his second con­sec­ut­ive toss-up elec­tion.

Ran­gel began feel­ing pres­sure in 2010, after a spate of eth­ics is­sues forced him to step down as chair­man of the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee and led to his cen­sure. That year, he beat a six-can­did­ate field by 28 points but only re­ceived 51 per­cent of the vote.

His primar­ies got even more heated when his dis­trict lines were re­drawn in 2011, ex­pand­ing it in­to the Bronx and pulling in more His­pan­ic voters at the ex­pense of his Afric­an-Amer­ic­an base. In Ran­gel’s first elec­tion in the new 13th Dis­trict, he nearly lost his seat to Es­pail­lat. This cycle, he has ac­cused Es­pail­lat of run­ning a purely ra­cial cam­paign, aim­ing to take ad­vant­age of the large num­ber of Domin­ic­ans in the dis­trict.

“Just what the heck has he ac­tu­ally done be­sides say­ing he’s a Domin­ic­an?” Ran­gel said in a de­bate.

Es­pail­lat has largely stayed out of the race de­bate, cri­ti­ciz­ing Ran­gel for draw­ing it along those lines.

“Across every com­munity in the dis­trict — white, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, Latino — voters are hungry for the change that Ad­ri­ano Es­pail­lat of­fers,” said spokes­wo­man Chelsea Con­nor in a state­ment.

Ran­gel is right that the race will largely come down to ra­cial demo­graph­ics. A Si­ena Col­lege/NY1/New York Times poll in late May showed most Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters sup­port­ing Ran­gel and most His­pan­ic voters sup­port­ing Es­pail­lat. Over­all, Ran­gel held a nar­row lead over Es­pail­lat in that poll, 41-32 per­cent. Har­lem pas­tor Mike Wal­rond re­ceived 6 per­cent in the poll, and Bronx com­munity act­iv­ist Yolan­da Gar­cia re­ceived 5 per­cent.

But there are still un­pre­dict­able factors in­flu­en­cing the race. For one, the ra­cial di­vide is tilted in Ran­gel’s fa­vor. Among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, Ran­gel led Es­pail­lat by a 63-point mar­gin, 68-5 per­cent. Among His­pan­ics, Es­pail­lat led by 27 points, 52-25 per­cent.

And while Es­pail­lat is likely to draw Domin­ic­ans to the polls, he has no guar­an­tees among oth­er His­pan­ic voters, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that Ran­gel is part Pu­erto Ric­an.

Wal­rond and Gar­cia also throw a wrench in­to the ra­cial dy­nam­ics. Gar­cia is likely to take a high­er share of His­pan­ic votes, pos­sibly si­phon­ing sup­port from Es­pail­lat. But Wal­rond’s ef­fect is less pre­dict­able: His sup­port comes primar­ily from Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in Har­lem, which is the same base as Ran­gel’s, but he will also likely draw sup­port from anti-Ran­gel voters who want a fresh face.

And Ran­gel has an­oth­er ad­vant­age in that his voters have been re­li­ably turn­ing out for dec­ades.

“You have to give the edge to Charlie Ran­gel,” said Demo­crat­ic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “Why? He’s been there for long time. His voters have a his­tory sup­port­ing him.”

Domin­ic­ans’ turnout rates have been less pre­dict­able, Sheinkopf said, so it’s pos­sible Es­pail­lat could un­der­achieve com­pared with his polling num­bers.

Still, “any­thing can hap­pen,” Sheinkopf said. One seem­ingly minor is­sue could have an out­sized im­pact on the race, he said: New York only star­ted hold­ing June primar­ies in 2012, pre­vi­ously hold­ing them in Septem­ber, so it’s no guar­an­tee that Ran­gel’s long­time sup­port­ers turn out as much as they usu­ally do.

Ran­gel’s long ten­ure has been a talk­ing point on both sides of the race. Ran­gel has em­phas­ized his seni­or­ity in de­bates, of­ten pok­ing fun at Es­pail­lat’s lack of le­gis­lat­ive achieve­ments in the state Sen­ate. When Es­pail­lat said he would do more to co­oper­ate with Pres­id­ent Obama on af­ford­able-hous­ing is­sues, Ran­gel re­portedly replied, “I’ll in­tro­duce you to the pres­id­ent so you can be­gin this co­oper­a­tion.”

“We can’t af­ford to lose the ex­per­i­ence and seni­or­ity Con­gress­man Ran­gel brings to the table,” said Ran­gel ad­viser Charlie King in a state­ment, not­ing in­flu­en­tial en­dorse­ments from Bill Clin­ton, House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schu­mer, and Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand.

But Ran­gel has also said he would only serve one more term, fin­ish­ing his ca­reer as Pres­id­ent Obama leaves of­fice, which Es­pail­lat and Wal­rond have both seized on, em­phas­iz­ing their re­l­at­ive youth. Es­pail­lat “will bring a fresh voice to Con­gress,” Con­nor said, ac­cus­ing Ran­gel of be­com­ing “com­pletely out of touch with the people he is sup­posed to rep­res­ent” dur­ing his ten­ure.

Al­though Ran­gel led the Si­ena poll, 46 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they would like to be rep­res­en­ted by someone new, com­pared with 42 per­cent who wanted to reelect Ran­gel.

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