Charles Rangel at the 2014 AIDS Walk in New York City. Photo via Flickr user Diana Robinson
In September 1971, New York City Congressman Charles Rangel received a personal phone call from the president, Richard Nixon. Having ousted totemic Harlem political icon Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the previous year’s Democratic primary, the freshman Rangel expressed his thrill upon Nixon’s extension of congratulations for “concentrating most of his attention on the drug problem,” as the New York Times reported at the time. The “drug problem” then—as now—was heroin, and Rangel proposed several drastic measures to combat the "moral corruption" it allegedly wrought on Manhattan and the Bronx. A former law enforcement official, Rangel went so far as to declare his willingness "to organize a national boycott of all French imports” should the Pompidou government fail to mount a sufficiently aggressive heroin-interdiction effort. You see, Rangel is an eccentric man with a long, weird record, and it is therefore perfectly fitting that he is desperately fending off—for the second time in as many years—an existential threat to his ego and power.
On Thursday, Rangel rode buoyantly on a “caravan” through Upper Manhattan, greeting cheerful locals in neighborhoods he has represented for more than four decades. If he is deposed in the Democratic primary on June 24, it probably won’t owe to some unforeseen popular uprising, as in the case of what evidently propelled little-known economics Professor David Brat to a stunning victory over US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia last week. It would rather more likely be because Rangel has forfeited credibility in the eyes of a great many in his own party, especially since the historic censure by the House of Representatives delivered in 2010—the first time that body had taken such action in 27 years.
Rangel defeated State Senator Adriano Espaillat by a mere 1,000 votes in the primary two years ago, and that outcome was marred by widespread allegations of disenfranchisement via myriad sketchy means. This go-round Espaillat is after him again, and there are fresh signs of establishment forces coalescing against Rangel. The New York Times endorsed his opponent, as did El Diario, the city’s biggest Spanish-language publication—not to mention a raft of city politicians, including former comptroller Bill Thompson, along with labor unions, such as United Federation of Teachers. Unsurprisingly, each day brings new allegations of dirty tricks; flyers purportedly aimed at disenfranchising Hispanic voters were attributed to Rangel this week. (Two leading PR operatives for either campaign, James Freedland and Lis Smith, have been relentless to the point of tedium with their constant Twitter sniping.)
All this discord likely could’ve been avoided with but a minor intervention from one New York City figure in particular: the current mayor, Bill de Blasio. Endowed with a reputation for adroit political gamesmanship, de Blasio—a Hillary Clinton campaign operative—surely has taken keen interest in the Rangel-Espaillat race. But he’s stayed conspicuously silent. This would be unremarkable if Rangel were some hopeless novice, but the man has represented Harlem, the mythological center of African American cultural life, continuously since the 1970s. De Blasio has perhaps calculated that Rangel’s career in public life is coming to an end, and it is in his interest to stay publicly noncommittal.
The initial shockwaves of Cantor’s blindsiding defeat were still reverberating last week as Rangel stood before an audience at Lehman College in Northwest Bronx. He could be argued as typifying the very sort of complacent incumbent who’d be wholly indictable under the populist-imbued criteria that toppled Cantor. Both close friends to multitudinous corporate titans, Rangel and Cantor rank highly in their respective parties’ congressional hierarchies and both could be accused with some merit of having neglected local concerns for national political strategizing. Neither have meaningfully embraced economic populism, as Cantor’s vanquisher did, as they are themselves intimately part of the very process by which crony capitalism is generated.
Rangel is also 84 years old. In fact, June 11, the night of the Bronx debate, was his birthday. Espaillat congratulated the Congressman for this in his opening remarks, but Rangel did not acknowledge the birthday wishes. Later that night I asked if constituents of New York’s 13th congressional district could be assured that Rangel maintains the cognitive and physical abilities required to execute the job of Congressman. Rangel quipped in his spectacularly gravelly voice, “If I could only remember my name, I would answer that.” When queried about whether Espaillat had extended the birthday greeting to Rangel right off the bat so as to draw attention to his advanced age, Espaillat spokesperson Chelsea O’Connor wrote, “Of course not. It was a sincere 'happy birthday.'” Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah asked Rangel how it felt standing at the debate podium for an hour; Rangel replied, “It was pretty cool.” Freedland, who serves as a Rangel spokesman, said his campaign had no plans to release documentation attesting to his physical or mental competence, and after repeated requests did not provide information on Rangel’s most recent professional evaluations.
Still, if Rangel is going down, it will probably have little to do with elderliness. Espaillat has been calling attention to Rangel catering to Wall Street’s wishes in revising the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and for being insufficiently attuned to the changing political tide in the district. Just as rumblings now swell that Cantor was deposed in part because his unlikely conqueror, David Brat, could resonantly “talk Jesus”—in a way Cantor, as the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, could not—there is similar identitarian chatter of how the now majority-Hispanic district ought to be represented by one of its own. To which the ornery-yet-affable Rangel asked during the June 11 debate, “What the hell does ethnicity have to do with being qualified?” Rangel may have a point here, but whether he’s right or wrong on the merits is of little consequence in a city where ethnic politics are still dominant.
I asked Rangel if he was concerned about an emergent anti-incumbent fervor rustling in the electorate. “No,” he said, “I am concerned, though, that this could mean the destruction of the Republican Party as we know it. It could be that come 2016 there’s only one party. That would be sad for the Nation.”
Rangel continued, “You have a small group of people that are cult-like in their hatred for anyone who sounds any degree of compassion, and when it reaches the point that Cantor is target, it is bad.” Rattling off a list of prominent Republicans whom he deems responsible for this trend—US Senator Ted Cruz, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and now David Brat—Rangel appeared to confuse “Ron Paul” for his son, Senator Rand Paul.
Like Cantor, Rangel is deeply emblematic of the Washington, DC, political establishment and has keenly mastered the art of navigating the machinations of its governing culture. The two men might be favored by different sets of moguls—Rangel’s major financial backers include Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, former Museum of Modern Art president Agnes Gund, casino magnate Steve Wynn, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, and BET founder Robert Johnson—but are embedded in fundamentally likeminded social and economic strata.
But at least Rangel’s overt appeal to seniority has a logic to it. 22 terms in Congress yields dividends by way of the ability of a House member to funnel federal dollars into their district. And for an area with such wide swaths of immiserated voters, this has practical import. Why hand over power to a novice—or “trainee,” as Rangel puts it—when you have a pillar of Congress at the helm, a man with longstanding ties to every big-name Democratic power-player under the sun?
Besides, memories of the censure are already appearing to fade. “Hey, I’m 80 years old,” Rangel said at the time in his own defense. “For God’s sake, just don’t believe that I don’t have feelings.”
Whatever else there is to say about him, Rangel certainly remains in top form on the witticism front. Central to his presentation are one-liners and quips, often very funny, to the point of provoking audible laughter from journalists. After a debate last week, Rangel, being guided around the post-debate “spin-room” by handlers to take media questions, at one point faked putting his hands against the wall as if submitting to a police pat-down. The assembled pack of reporters guffawed. After more than four decades, Rangel’s greatest weapons remain his charm and his familiarity, but perhaps this time around he’ll also need to hold out hope that whatever swept through Virginia on Tuesday won’t find its way up to New York.
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Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Public Advocate Letitia James had endorsed Espaillat. In fact, she endorsed Rangel on Friday.