Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has been in Congress for over four decades, and has remained virtually untouchable in his Harlem-based district. But in the last cycle he saw off one of the biggest challenges of his career — and a now a new one might be on the horizon.
As the New York Daily News reported last week, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat began collecting petition signatures, and has formed an exploratory committee to run for Congress — though he says he’s not completely in it yet. “I’m circulating and validating petitions,” Espaillat said in Albany. “I’m not saying I’m running. I haven’t formally announced anything.”
It is also important to note that with the combination of recent redistricting and demographic changes over the decades, Latinos now make up the majority this district, a big change from the originally African-American population center that first elected Rangel. And Espaillat, who was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York with his family at age 9, would if elected be the first Dominican-American in Congress.
In the 2010 Democratic primary, Rangel was held to 51% of the vote — but still more than double the 23% of his nearest opponent. This suggests that Rangel could potentially be vulnerable to a consolidated opposition, especially if redistricting has created new vulnerabilities.
Though on the other hand, the heat will also be off of him in 2012, compared to what things were like for him in 2010 — which turned out to be roughest time of a very long political career.
Rangel fought in the Korean War in the early 1950s, where he was injured by shrapnel from a Chinese shell. His war experience, and the fervent prayer for survival that he made in that moment, later inspired a frequent phrase of his, and the title of his autobiography: “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.”
Rangel was first elected to the state Assembly in 1966, and four years later he was elected to Congress, very narrowly defeating 25-year Congressman Adam Clayton Powell in the Democratic primary. Despite Powell’s status as a Civil Rights champion, and the first African-American Congressman from New York, he had become embroiled in ethics controversies — which would later provide some irony to a later contest in Rangel’s career.
In later years one of Powell’s sons, Adam Clayton Powell IV, ran against Rangel in the Democratic primaries in 1994 and 2010. It was in 2010, of course, when Rangel’s own ethical issues were coming to a head.
The charges against Rangel stemmed from four different allegations: that Rangel used Congressional resources to raise money for an educational center bearing his name; did not report taxable income on a Dominican Republic rental villa; filed financial disclosure forms with inaccuracies; and set up a campaign office in a rent-controlled apartment in Harlem.
Rangel stepped down from his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee — a position that was the pinnacle of his career, and which he is unlikely to ever get back.
In July 2010, when the ethics investigation was proceeding, Rangel declared: “Sixty years ago, I survived a Chinese attack in North Korea. And as a result I wrote a book that, having survived that, that I haven’t had a bad day since. Today I have to reassess that.”
Also in July 2010, President Obama himself suggested in an interview with CBS News that maybe Rangel should leave the House entirely: “I think Charlie Rangel served a very long time and served his constituents very well, but these allegations are very troubling, and, you know, he’s somebody who is at the end of his career, 80 years old. I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity, and my hope is that happens.”
Rangel then faced a new challenge from Adam Clayton Powell IV, who was then a state representative. In August, Powell was warning of doom for Rangel. “He’s gonna be expelled if he continues to drag these ethical charges, ethical violations, on through,” Powell told ABC News. “The fact is that I am in a campaign against him. The fact is I announced on April 12. And the fact is that I believe I would be doing him a favor if I win on Sept. 14, because if that happens, obviously, then all of his ethical issues go away.”
But in the end, Rangel easily beat back Powell. In the final results for the primary, Rangel had 51% of the vote, Powell 23%, former city government and Obama campaign official Joyce Johnson 13%, and no other candidate in double digits. And since then, Rangel has not been expelled.
Rangel was, however, censured by the lame-duck Congress in December 2010. He delivered a polite yet still defiant speech maintaining his innocence, while simultaneously apologizing to the other members of Congress for having put them in an awkward position through his errors of judgement.
“But at the end of the day, as I started off saying — compared to where I’ve been, I haven’t had a bad day since. Thank you.”