Charles Rangel is out to show his doubters he has one last comeback in him at 82.
Weighted down by ethics troubles, incapacitated for months by his health and forced to run in a vastly redrawn district, the iconic New York Democrat first elected to the House in 1970 was thought just a few months ago to be pushing his luck with another run for reelection.
But Rangel has responded with unexpected grit as the Tuesday primary — the most perilous and possibly final race of his political career — approaches. Though there’s no public polling, there are signs that Rangel has the late momentum and may, yet again, defy the naysayers.
Stumping at one event after another across his district over the weekend, Rangel ripped reporters who had prepared his political obituary. He went after third-party groups that have spent heavily to defeat him. Then, for good measure, he slashed his opponents, whom he believes have shown him too little deference.
After a news conference outside City Hall last week, the longtime liberal didn’t miss a beat when asked if he was worried about his prospects.
“Not now,” he said.
Indeed, Rangel is acting like a winner, showing no trace of concern about the obstacles to victory.
To start, his Harlem-area district was reshaped this year to include more Latino than African-American voters. That provided an opening for Rangel’s lead challenger, Adriano Espaillat, an ambitious 57-year-old Dominican-American state senator who is aggressively courting Latino votes. Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, also must contend with three lesser-known black rivals who threaten to siphon African-American votes from him.
Making matters worse, Rangel’s opponents are hitting him over a 2010 House Ethics Committee investigation into his personal finances that culminated in him being censured on the House floor. And the congressman has been slowed by back problems and a viral infection he suffered earlier this year that has left him using a cane.
Despite all that, the contest seems to be breaking Rangel’s way. On Friday, he won an endorsement from Andrew Cuomo, the ever-cautious and calculating New York governor known for rarely casting his lot with losers.
“I think Rangel wins,” Basil Smikle, a New York City-based political consultant, said, reasoning that voters’ familiarity with the congressman will ultimately be hard for his challengers to overcome. “There is a lot of enthusiasm and support for Adriano, and that will make the race close, but I think Rangel pulls it out.”
Evelyn Jenkins, a Harlem retiree who attended a forum on health care Rangel held Friday, said she will vote for the congressman out of respect for his long tenure.
“He’s a serious person. He knows the ropes,” she said. “He’s familiar with everything.”
Espaillat, for his part, has assumed the role of underdog. Addressing supporters at a get-out-the-vote rally outside an Inwood bodega Saturday, the candidate said he is “facing all kinds of odds” against the veteran incumbent but that his campaign is poised for a stunning upset.
“On Tuesday, we will make history and transform Washington,” he said.
Hitting the trail last week, Rangel — who survived a tough reelection fight in 2010 despite the ethics case and a suggestion from President Barack Obama at the time to “end his career with dignity” — displayed an almost missionary zeal to prove his detractors wrong. Betrayal and disrespect — Rangel believes he deserves better after such a long record of service — appear to be fueling his bid at least as much as securing another two years in the House.
With each of New York City’s three major daily newspapers endorsing one of his opponents, the incumbent launched an assault on the press, suggesting that coverage of the race has been unfairly dismissive of him. At one point, he laced into The New York Times for its endorsement of former Democratic National Committee staffer Clyde Williams, one of his challengers, calling it “ridiculous.”
“I looked her in the eye, and I said, ‘Just tell me how the editorial board of The New York Times could say that Clyde Williams would be a better representative for my district, my state and my country,’” Rangel recalled telling a top figure at the paper.
He also unleashed on super PACs backing his opponents. Addressing reporters after a debate on Friday, Rangel stood next to Williams and hammered him for the support he has received from a third-party group called Campaign for Our Future. The super PAC, formed by Williams’s associates, has spent more than $80,000 attacking Rangel.
“It used to be that if you studied hard [and] did the right thing, you could become president, you could become congressman. Now, you can do all these things if you can get 100 million bucks together. So if you have the friends he’s got, you’re in pretty good shape,” Rangel said as Williams stood by silently.
But Rangel directed most of his ire at Espaillat, for whom he can barely disguise his dislike. And it’s personal: Rangel said Espaillat had called him while he was in the hospital earlier this year and promised the congressman that he wouldn’t run against him — only to see the state senator announce later that he would.
At one point during Friday’s debate, Rangel grew so angry with Espaillat that the challenger tried to cut him off. “You’re getting upset,” Espaillat said.
After the debate, while Espaillat was speaking to reporters in an adjacent room, Rangel walked in and, standing a few feet away, glared at his opponent.
“He was angry. He was upset. I don’t know why,” Espaillat remarked later. “When you have a debate, you’re exchanging ideas and positions on different issues. Why should anyone get upset because he thinks differently than I do?”
But even as he pounded his foes, there were reminders that Rangel, win or lose on Tuesday, is in the twilight of his career.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, the congressman revealed for the first time that he had been receiving a daily IV treatment of antibiotics to address the back problems that kept him away from the House for three months this year. And he described in detail the virus that had worked its way into his spine — crippling him, he said, “with pain that I cannot describe.”
While Rangel has not said publicly whether he will run for reelection in 2014 should he win the primary, there is a widespread assumption among his fellow members in the New York delegation that this is the frail congressman’s final campaign.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has been campaigning for Rangel, said it’s important to the congressman to retire on his own terms rather than to lose reelection and be forced out of office.
“I believe this is his final hurrah,” Koch said. “Of course he’s frail and diminished. But his intellect is strong. I want him to go out with his head held high.”