NEW YORK – Approaching two small steps, Rep. Charles B. Rangel’s right hand firmly gripped the left arm of Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat upon whose support Rangel so desperately relied — literally and figuratively.
A prominent Puerto Rican in Congress, Gutierrez came to New York’s City Hall Friday to put his influence behind the legendary 82-year-old Harlem Democrat. Rangel faces his most difficult election ever Tuesday in a Democratic primary and needs a strong showing from a growing Puerto Rican community to win.
Rangel also needed Gutierrez for physical support to get up the steps – the result of a mysterious virus that spread into the lawmaker’s spine over the winter, leaving him in an intensive-care unit, unable to walk and out of public view for months. Rumors spread that he was on his deathbed, and challengers sprang up in a newly drawn district that added 100,000 constituents that Rangel had never represented.
With the right mix of antibiotics and a still daily IV, Rangel is back in the fight, making what most believe is a final stand. Even if he can’t traverse steps on his own, he’s moved from a wheelchair to a walker and now to a sleek black cane that serves as both a balance beam and a weapon to wave at his detractors.
“Adrenaline is something that comes when you need it, and I got it,” Rangel told reporters Friday after a health-care event in East Harlem.
One of the main reasons he’s got it, friends and allies say, is because he very much wants to protect his legacy.
According to friends, Rangel doesn’t want to retire so soon after being censured by his fellow House members in 2010 for a series of ethical breaches that also caused him to relinquish his gavel as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. A vindication by voters and a longer run in Congress would help ensure that his 42 years in Congress isn’t defined by his scandal — as it was for his friend, the late Dan Rostenkowski, whose last congressional act was a guilty plea that came to overshadow his 36-year career.
“He wants to make sure his good name is clear. He wants his good name restored,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who counts Rangel as his political mentor.
Other admirers privately suggest that he has become so attached to the trappings of power that he cannot fathom leaving them behind. During House votes recently, Rangel told one retiring congressman that, “you are about to become a nobody,” according to the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) knows that Rangel is somebody.
Espaillat, 57, sought out Rangel’s support for the New York state Senate in 2010, winning a competitive Democratic primary and claiming that seat. But a new opportunity presented itself for the Dominican-born lawmaker, who immigrated to New York with his family when he was 9. The final lines of the 13th Congressional District ended with a population that was 55 percent Hispanic in what was once considered the black capital of America.
No Dominican-American has ever been elected to Congress, and Espaillat decided it was time, whether Rangel ran or not, and he’s emerged from the crowded field as the incumbent’s chief challenger.
“Too often in politics folks are asked to wait, that it’s not their turn,” he said in an interview Friday after debating Rangel and the three other challengers. “This is a new district, this is a new set of conditions. And I felt very strongly that this was a district that needed new leadership.”
Espaillat has not hesitated to bring up Rangel’s ethical misdeeds. Instead of focusing on the 11 violations related to Rangel’s fundraising for a college wing named for him and his failure to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic, Espaillat criticizes Rangel for becoming the “face” of Democratic corruption in advance of the 2010 midterms.
“We lost over 60 seats across the country, and we lost the majority,” Espaillat said during Friday’s debate.
Rangel has nothing short of disdain for Espaillat. Rangel regularly accuses the state senator of betraying his word to not run against him.
Espaillat’s biggest challenge may not be the jostling with Rangel, but winning support from the vast Puerto Rican community across Harlem. It’s an open secret that the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities view each other warily, and some Puerto Ricans would rather vote for Rangel and then try to claim the seat with one of their own in 2014.
Adam Clayton Powell IV, the Puerto Rican-born son of the late congressman and Harlem legend whom Rangel defeated in his 1970 primary, has endorsed the incumbent this time despite losing to Rangel in 1994 and 2010.
Rangel also has Puerto Rican roots. His father was Puerto Rican, but Rangel had a terrible relationship with him and has historically self-identified as African-American. He's a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he’s never joined the Hispanic Caucus.
Neil Barthen, 43, a commercial truck driver, epitomizes the short-term problems for Espaillat and the long-term problem for Rangel.
After Rangel’s East Harlem event Friday, Espaillat workers filled the streets outside a walk by the Taino Towers, an affordable housing complex Rangel helped build in 1979 with federal funds. Barthen took a piece of literature calling for a “bold new voice in Congress,” but he won’t be voting for the Dominican.
He said he is willing to support Rangel only because he’s “familiar with him.” Instead, Barthen is considering voting for Craig Schley, 48, a community activist. “He looks like an up-and-coming young man, a strong candidate,” Barthen says of Schley.
At this stage, Rangel’s supporters are desperately trying to turn out voters based on Rangel’s history. “New York City, you owe this man a lot,” Gutierrez pleaded outside City Hall.
Rangel plays on those emotional strings as well, but he won’t formally declare this as his last race. “At 82, there’s really nothing to support or to have a goal other than love of country,” he told reporters Friday. “You have to deal with a higher authority and give me a reading, and then get back to me.”