Thursday, 4:45 p.m.: As the final vote tallies roll in, see our Spectrum post on Rangel's narrowing victory.
All but guaranteeing his re-election to a 22nd term, Congressman Charles Rangel won the Democratic primary by a narrow margin on Tuesday, overcoming four challengers, health issues, ethics violations, and the new demographics of his redrawn district.
The 82-year-old House veteran was winning with 45.2 percent of the vote by midnight Tuesday night, with 84 percent of precincts reporting. At his victory party at Sylvia's, the legendary Harlem restaurant, Rangel thanked his supporters—especially, he said, supporters from neighborhoods that were just added to his district this year.
“I've answered a lot of questions in the last few minutes. Most of them are, ‘How do you feel?’ and I cannot find the words to describe that,” he said.
Over his nearly 42 years in office—more than half his life—Rangel has worked to crack down on drug trafficking and reinstate the military draft. In 1994, as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, he introduced legislation that established so-called “empowerment zones,” a set of tax incentives for organizations that created jobs in urban centers. He helped create the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation in 1995, which invested $500 million in Harlem over the decade and is credited with the neighborhood's revitalization.
Despite being a Harlem icon and one of the most prominent faces in politics, Rangel faced formidable competition, including from State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who was pulling in 39.8 percent of the vote by midnight.
In his concession speech at Inwood's 809 Restaurant, Espaillat congratulated Rangel on his years of service and pledged to work with the congressman going forward. He noted that his campaign only had 12 weeks to mobilize supporters but that he believed it had accomplished a lot in those weeks.
“This summer will always be remembered as the summer when northern Manhattan came together,” he said, later adding, ”This was a candidacy that was deeply rooted in our dream—all of us—the American dream.”
Clyde Williams, a policy adviser to Bill Clinton and former Democratic National Committee officer, had 10.3 percent of the vote. Williams made a strong push to establish himself as a fresh voice who carried Washington experience. Rounding out the ballot were former local Democratic leader Joyce Johnson and Harlem activist Craig Schley, who were receiving 3.2 and 1.5 percent, respectively.
With no Republicans running, only a write-in or third-party candidate could prevent Rangel from winning the November election.
The race was closely watched by politicos because of the potential for an upset that would unseat Rangel, a prospect that did not seem unreasonable over the course of the campaign. The district’s lines were reconfigured to be majority Hispanic for the first time, with 52.7 percent of the voting-age population falling in that demographic. At its peak, the district’s voting-age population was more than 80 percent black; today, only 35.7 percent is black.
Espaillat had played up the fact that he would become the first Dominican-American in Congress and received the endorsements of many Latino leaders.
The redrawn district extended out of Manhattan and into the Bronx for the first time, and there Rangel found his fair share of Hispanic backers. At his side on Tuesday night were Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., State Senator Jose Serrano, and members of the powerful political Rivera family: Assembly members Jose Rivera and his daughter Naomi Rivera, and Jose's son Joel Rivera, the majority leader in the city council.
“When I walk through the streets of the Bronx, I feel my district in the blood and the minds and the ambitions and the things that people want for their children,” Rangel said in his victory speech. “Every hope or dream that we've had on Lenox Avenue is the same dream they have on Fordham Road.”
Rangel’s speech was brief, lasting about seven minutes, but he took time to thank his family and got political only by the end, praising unions and immigration reform and calling for more to be done in expanding access to education and health care.
He also took shots at the press, particularly editorial boards who chose to endorse his opponents. The New York Times and the New York Daily News both endorsed Williams. He issued the boards—which he said are made up of “very strange people”—a promise: “If they didn't think after 42 years that I was the best qualified, I promise them that after the next two years, they'll have no question about the fact that you elected the best.”
In recent years, Rangel has also been tested by ethics troubles. He was censured by the House in 2010 and stepped down as chair of the Ways and Means Committee after he was found guilty of 11 counts of ethics violations in a well-publicized hearing. This March, he paid a $23,000 fine for using a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office.
And many voters expressed concern for Rangel’s age. He turned 82 this month, and a back injury kept him bed-ridden for eight weeks. When he returned to the public eye in April, he used a cane.
But all of that did not stop him as he edged out a victory on Tuesday.
“He's Charlie Rangel. He's an institution,” Assembly member Keith Wright, a close ally of Rangel, told Spectator after the speech. “He’s someone who’s a brand name that speaks for itself. And quite frankly, the folks in the district know it and they keep sending him back.”
The campaign season was cut short by a holdup in the state legislature in determining the new district lines, and the primary was moved up by two and a half months from its usual September date—factors which political advisers say usually favor the incumbent. The election turnout was very low, with only 12.6 percent of registered Democrats going to the polls, according to an unofficial count from the city's Board of Elections.
Stephen Snowder contributed reporting.