By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times –
NEW YORK — It was his 82nd birthday, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel faced a large cake flickering with candles and a roomful of people urging him to blow them out.
Rangel drew a deep breath, leaned in close and slowly extinguished every flame, displaying the determination that has seen him through age, injuries and ethics scandals and that supporters hope will carry him through his next battle: against state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, who is as bent on ending Rangel’s 42-year congressional career as Rangel is on extending it.
In style and appearance, the two men considered front-runners in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for New York’s 13th District could not be more different. Espaillat, who hopes to become the first Dominican American elected to Congress, is a youthful 57. He bounds where Rangel shuffles and has none of the baggage that weighs down his rival.
Espaillat’s backers speak of the future, saying change is needed. “We turned the page when Obama was elected. I think it’s time to turn another page,” Carlos Rodriguez said as he handed out Espaillat fliers at a street festival celebrating Latino heritage.
Rangel’s backers speak of the past, saying their man, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, has done too much for his constituents to be turned out now. “He’s been helping the community for the last 42 years,” said volunteer Shaniqua Winkfield as she handed out fliers at the same street festival.
Rangel’s power base is the black community in Harlem, long the heart of his district until it was redrawn this year. Espaillat’s bulk of support is considered the Spanish-speaking Latino population of neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, which became part of the new, Latino-majority district.
“I think he’s in for a real race,” Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said of Rangel. He seemed to defy extraordinary odds in 2010 by winning re-election to his 21st term as he was the subject of an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
Rangel eventually was found guilty of 11 ethics violations, including misusing a rent-controlled Harlem apartment as a campaign office. He became the first House member since 1983 to be censured — the most severe House discipline short of expulsion.
Espaillat’s campaign has portrayed the vote as a chance to wipe away the vestiges of the scandal, which Espaillat says gave the tea party ammunition in the November 2010 election. “It led to Democrats losing the majority in Congress,” Espaillat said earlier this month during a heated debate with Rangel, whom he described as a “poster boy for dysfunction in Washington.”
Rangel, though, says his decades in Washington will help prevent Republicans from making further inroads.
“It’s a fight for the survival of my country,” Rangel said when asked why he didn’t retire and leave the fight to someone else.
“I should just sit on the sidelines and curse the TV? No, No. I couldn’t live if I didn’t try,” he said as he left a conference on immigration, where the birthday cake was presented.
Rangel makes no secret of his age or of a back injury, which earlier this year had him using a walker and which still sometimes forces him to use a cane. And as the debates leading up to the vote show, he cannot avoid talk of the ethics scandal, which Rangel said was the result of carelessness rather cheating.
Despite those problems, loyalty to Rangel runs deep. When he was a no-show at the street fair, despite aides repeatedly insisting he was minutes away, Winkfield looked momentarily crestfallen but vowed to be on the streets the next day to drum up support for Rangel at the massive National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Winkfield, who voted for Rangel in 2010, said she’d vote for him again Tuesday.
In addition to loyalty, Rangel has the obvious advantage of incumbency, combined with the low turnout rates in summer primaries, when people are on vacation, caring for children out of school, and generally focused on things other than casting ballots.
“The onus is on Espaillat to get people out there to vote and convince them that they should vote for the new guard versus the old guard,” Taylor said.
In addition, Espaillat is but one of four challengers to Rangel, which could dissipate the opposition. The others are Harlem community activist Craig Schley; businesswoman Joyce Johnson; and former Clinton White House staffer Clyde Williams. Johnson also ran against Rangel in 2010 and received 12 percent of the vote, along with the endorsement of The New York Times. This year, the Times and The New York Daily News have endorsed Williams.
Because Espaillat is the only Latino in the heavily Latino district, he is seen as the biggest threat to Rangel, but Espaillat’s backers and political observers warn against placing too much emphasis on race when predicting the outcome.
Matt A. Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and a political science professor at the University of Washington, said neither Latinos nor blacks tend to vote in large numbers in primaries, so no candidate can expect to benefit from an ethnically lopsided turnout. Barreto also noted that Rangel’s name recognition extends far beyond Harlem, giving him an edge.
“I’d expect Rangel will probably win, by getting some Latino support,” he said.
Espaillat backers, though, say people need to look at whether Rangel can move beyond his Harlem comfort zone and embrace the new district.
“I think that Rangel speaks for Harlem first, and then everyone else,” said Judith Amaro, a women’s activist who attended an Espaillat rally in early June.
When his district was Harlem-based, that made sense, she said.
“The issue now is they changed the district,” Amaro said, “so they’re going to need a new voice, a new person who’s going to speak for the entire district.”