Rep. Rangel Avoids Fate of Predecessor Adam Clayton Powell

Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014 07:18 AM

By John Gizzi

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Despite some haunting similarities to the venerable congressman he himself unseated to win his first term in Congress 44 years ago, Rep. Charles Rangel, of New York won renomination Tuesday following a Democratic primary in which many past supporters stayed neutral (President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio) or opposed him outright (The New York Times).

By a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent in a four-candidate primary, Rangel, 84, beat back a challenge from state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. In many ways, Rangel's win was a repeat performance of the 2012 race when he eked out a win over Espaillat, 59, by about 1,000 votes.

Driven from the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee following charges of tax fraud and recovering from serious spinal surgery, Rangel in 2012 also had to deal with unfavorable redistricting and demographic changes in the Harlem-based 13th District.

Where the district had been majority-black since its creation in 1944, it was now for the first time a district in which a plurality of constituents were of Hispanic heritage. Among them was Espaillat, who sought to become the first Dominican-American congressman.

In barely surviving primary challenges in 2012 and Tuesday, Rangel avoided the fate of his legendary predecessor, Democratic Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Once the best-known black officeholder in the United States, Powell was beset by ethics charges that led to his removal as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and denial of his seat in Congress (which the Supreme Court overturned in 1969, but permitted the House to strip him of seniority and garnish his wages to pay for trips colleagues deemed not official business).

When he sought re-election in 1970, Powell was also battling cancer and did not campaign vigorously.

Most significantly, hostile redistricting had redrawn his Harlem district to add a sixteen-block area outside Harlem on Manhattan's West Side. As Powell biographer Charles Hamilton wrote, "here the population was substantially middle-class whites, decidedly not Powell's people.....Bad news for Powell, but not necessarily for a black candidate."

In a five candidate primary, with The New York Times' endorsement and many former Powell allies jumping to his camp, then-State Assemblyman Charles Rangel edged the incumbent by a razor-thin 150 votes.

Forty-four years later, the Times supported Espaillat over Rangel. The challenger also had the backing of former Rangel backers such as City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo did come out in the closing days of the campaign for Rangel. While Obama stayed neutral in the race, former President Bill Clinton recorded robocalls on behalf of Rangel (one of the first to urge Hillary Clinton to run for the Senate from New York in 2000 and a backer of presidential bid over Obama in 2008).

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