Last Friday, reporters asked Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) if President Obama was supporting his reelection campaign.
“That’s a good question,” said the 81-year-old congressman, who was distributing fliers featuring a photo of himself with the president. “I would welcome asking whether or not the president opposes my reelection. Especially for the primary. I wish you would.”
Earlier this week, a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney the same question. The spokesman responded, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Obama suggested before the 2010 election that Rangel, facing an ethics investigation, should end his career “with dignity.” Rangel ran and won easily.
This time around, it might not be so easy. The lawmaker faces a new district, a serious primary challenge and an incumbent-hunting super PAC.
Redistricting means that Rangel’s 13th district, which reaches from Harlem up into the Bronx, will go from 46 percent to 55 percent Hispanic. Only 27 percent of the new district is African American. The eligible voter pool is more closely divided — 45 percent Hispanic and 34 percent African American. But Hispanics still have a plurality.
The new map invited a primary challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D), a Dominican American with a base of support in the district.
Fernando Ferrer, the prominent former Bronx borough president, endorsed Espaillat over Rangel. So did the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan, and state Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D), whose Bronx seat is in the new district. Two other Rangel primary challengers have dropped out and backed Espaillat.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability, an anti-incumbent super PAC, has also declared for Espaillat.
“All the research shows that Mr. Rangel has problems, that people are ready for a change and finally there is a serious challenger that could offer the change and do the job,” said CFPA spokesman Curtis Ellis.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who backed Rangel in 2010, told the New York Times it was too early to endorse.
Rangel and his supporters argue that no one can match what he’s done for his constituents.
“They only show up at election time and we don’t hear from them in between,” said Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens of Rangel’s primary challengers. “They really haven’t done anything for the community.”
Rangel has many allies in the Latino community. The current Bronx president, Ruben Diaz, is endorsing him Friday.
“Just about all the major Latino congressional leaders are endorsing Congressman Rangel,” said the congressman’s campaign spokesman, Moises Perez. “It’s as close to a full consensus as you can get that it is vitally important to retain him in Congress.”
But Rangel can no longer argue, as he could in past years, that he is the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He lost that gavel when Democrats lost the House in 2010. And he recently underwent back surgery that took him off the campaign trail, in a year when he needs to campaign more than ever. He also missed more than 100 votes on the Hill.
“He’s older and frailer than he has been in the past and therefore has not been the campaigner of old,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch. “I think that’s a problem for him.”
Espaillat, 56, has been subtly hinting that Rangel’s age is an issue. He told NY1 recently that it was time for “a fresh, new, bold voice.” When Rangel appeared with a walker in mid-April, Espaillat sent out a statement saying he was “glad to learn that Rangel is up and about” because they needed to “vigorously debate” the issues.
“When Charlie Rangel got elected back in 1970, a year before, man walked on the moon, the Mets won a championship, Joe Namath was throwing touchdown passes for the Jets and Nixon was president,” he told an Albany radio station this week. “That was a long time ago.”
Rangel could still win a 22nd term in the House. The primary is June 26, a new date for New York, when turnout will likely be middling at best.
“A low turnout primary is the worst thing that could happen to Espaillat,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
But redistricting and health problems may end up doing what an ethics scandal could not.