After a nearly three-month absence, longtime Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel returned to Capitol Hill on Monday night and vowed to win another term in November.
But the 81-year-old from New York, sidelined since February after injuring his back and then contracting a serious viral infection, faces a wave of new Democratic challengers in his Harlem-based district. What was once a bastion of African American power in upper Manhattan now includes a sizable Hispanic population and parts of the Bronx, raising questions about who will control the seat in the future, whether that begins this year or in a future election cycle.
“I’m anxious to get back to work,” Rangel told reporters during a “Welcome Back, Charlie!” reception attended by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a number of New York lawmakers, as well as members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The garrulous Rangel, who stepped down from his post as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2010 amid an ethics scandal and was later censured by the House, deflected questions about retirement and how long he plans to continue to serve in Congress. Rangel is using a walker to get around following his hospital stay and rehabilitation, but added that he hopes to give it up soon.
“We’re talking about a country in trouble, we’re talking about people without jobs, without hope,” Rangel said of his reasons for wanting to stay in the House as long as he can. “When I take a look at the opponents, when I take a look at the crisis, and try to say - all modesty aside - we got a big job to do in this country. We’ve got a big job to do for the president. And I think, this time, more than ever, we need every experienced legislator.”
Rangel talked up his strong ties with other members of the New York delegation in attendance at the reception, who included Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Steve Israel, Jose Serrano, and Gregory Meeks, as another reason for voters to return him for a 22nd-term.
“This is no time to be making new friends,” Rangel asserted. “This is the time to get in there and get the job done.”
Yet in his own remarks, Rangel acknowledged that the face of Harlem and his district is changing.
On Monday, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer - one of New York City’s most important Latino leaders - endorsed a Rangel challenger, State Sen. Adriano Espalliat, in the race for New York’s 13th District. Espalliat is striving to become to the first Dominican-American in Congress.
Rangel admitted that he was not pleased by Ferrer’s support for Espaillat, especially since he had backed Ferrer during his unsuccessful 2005 mayoral bid. Rangel, though, countered that he would be rolling out his endorsement by the current Bronx borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., later this week.
“That is disappointing. I’ve known Fred for decades. We’ve worked together on so many meaningful projects,” Rangel acknowledged. “But rather than be concerned wih the endorsement of the former president of the Bronx, I’m more concerned with the endorsement of the present president of the Bronx.”
For Rangel, the recent injury and illness were his most painful physical experiences since being shot during the Korean War. Rangel was later awarded the Bronze Star for his wartime heroics.
“In going through these MRIs … having pain so bad that I was taking doctors’ names so I could track ‘em down, it was pain that people shouldn’t have to” deal with, Rangel said. “I can’t think of a Republican that I would wish this on.”