By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:48 AM
NEW YORK - Facing ethics charges in Washington and upstart challengers at home, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) won a resounding victory Tuesday to keep the Harlem-based House seat that he has easily controlled for 40 years.
Rangel, the ousted Ways and Means Committee chairman who has been charged with 13 counts of violating House rules, ran an aggressive campaign for the Democratic nomination, betting that the people who have known him longest - voters in the 15th Congressional District - would send him back to Capitol Hill with a political victory before the House ethics committee tries him later this year or early next year.
"I go back to Washington stronger than I've ever been," Rangel declared as supporters presented him a victory cake from singer Aretha Franklin.
Despite a crowded field, Rangel won a majority of votes - 51 percent, with 95 percent of precincts reporting. His most aggressive challenger, state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, had 24 percent. Community activist Joyce Johnson, who received the surprise backing of the New York Times editorial board, had 12 percent.
Now in his 20th term, Rangel is a near-certain victor in the general election. The heavily liberal district has been represented by just two congressmen since 1945, both historic African American political figures: Rangel, since 1970; and the man he defeated, Powell's father, Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
As Rangel entered his victory party Tuesday night, a boisterous affair at the Uptown Grand, he confessed to his closest supporters that "this is new to me" because he is used to coasting to reelection. "My heart is beating so fast because of these terrible accusations," he said.
New York's new voting system, which involves computerized and paper ballots, slowed the counting. As he waited hours to learn the result, Rangel addressed the crowd four separate times, growing antsy at the pace. Told that a large number of votes would not be counted until 11:30 p.m., the congressman bellowed, "You must be kidding me."
In his victory, Rangel relied on his entrenched popularity and his enormous advantages in campaign financing and political organization, including endorsements and phone calls to voters from former president Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I).
But the ethics cloud hung over his campaign. The House ethics committee put off consideration of his trial until after the Nov. 2 general election, rejecting the longtime Democrat's plea last month to handle the case quickly and not "leave me swinging in the wind."
According to sources familiar with the ethics committee's process, the panel plans to first conduct a trial of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on allegations regarding assistance her office gave to a bank in which her husband was a large investor. After that, they will tackle the Rangel trial, possibly not until January.
The order was determined by the work required to present the charges against each member. The allegations against Waters center on a few actions involving one bank in which her husband had a considerable investment; that trial is also not likely to start until after the November midterms.
Rangel's case is far more complicated, with 13 separate charges, including his fundraising for a private New York university center named after him and his failure to fully disclose his assets on financial disclosure forms over two decades.
In his final days on the stump, Rangel, 80, soldiered on undaunted. On Monday, he continued to proclaim that he did nothing wrong, slammed the ethics committee for its delay and ridiculed those - including President Obama - who have suggested that he consider retiring or reaching a plea agreement to avoid a trial.
Tuesday night, he mentioned Obama only in his final remarks, but he adopted the call-and-answer catchphrase of the president's 2008 campaign. "Fired up?" Rangel shouted, and a crowd of about 100 supporters inside the Uptown Grand replied: "Ready to go."
New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D), a close ally who gave up his election bid amid his own ethics investigation, appeared onstage with Rangel and other Harlem luminaries. He lamented the allegations against Rangel and attacked the media.
"We all have been victims to it," Rangel said, lending his support to Paterson and repeating his refrain that he should not be judged until his trial is completed. "Make the judgment after the facts are revealed."
The Rangel-Powell rivalry was omnipresent throughout the race - and even at Rangel's party. It was hosted on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, across the street from the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Building, where Rangel has a congressional office.
The 15th District was once the cultural capital of black America, home to the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, to take one example. Now it's a multicultural hub with a plurality of Hispanic voters (46 percent). Just over a third of its residents are African American.
Smaller portions of the district stretch down into the white, affluent neighborhoods of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, and Rangel's campaign had bet that the "robocalls" from Bloomberg and Clinton would help sway those highly educated voters.
East Harlem is home to a large Puerto Rican community, as well as Dominicans. Powell, 48, who was born in Puerto Rico and is part Latino, tried to say that Rangel's time had passed, that his ethics case left him powerless and that it was time for the next generation of black leaders to take over.
"Rangel is no longer that powerful," Powell told the New York Daily News on Monday. "He lost his power as chair of Ways and Means. He's 80 years old and everyone, from Barack Obama on down, has asked him to step down with some kind of dignity."
Powell, however, had collected just $129,000 as of Aug. 25 for his entire campaign and had a meager $39,000 left in his account for the final three weeks before Tuesday's primary. By contrast, over the 19-month election cycle so far, Rangel has raised more than $2.7 million and spent $3.6 million - a large chunk of that, more than $2 million, going to his lawyers. He had $422,000 for the final days of the campaign.
In another closely watched congressional race, this one in Manhattan's Upper East Side, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney easily beat back a challenge from Reshma Saujani by collecting more than 80 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig in Washington contributed to this report.