Rep. Charles Rangel is hitching his wagon to President Obama — even though Obama isn’t hitching his to Rangel.
It’s been two years since Obama — amid the ethics ordeal that had engulfed the New York Democrat — suggested that Rangel “end his career with dignity.” Rangel declined, and despite ongoing health issues, is pursuing a 22nd term in the House, where primary challengers have emerged from every which way.
Rangel, who turned 82 on Monday, said in an interview that at no time in the five decades he has represented Harlem in Congress has he come as close to achieving what he had envisioned: the empowerment of minorities and the poor through education, healthcare and access to civil rights.
“I’ve never come that close — except through this president,” Rangel told The Hill.
Casting himself as a key figure in the fight to enact Obama’s agenda, Rangel pointed to the new tell-all book by Robert Draper, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, which revealed that in the wake of Obama’s 2008 win, Republicans hatched a plan to sink his presidency.
“They targeted the president, and they targeted [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner and they targeted me,” Rangel said.
Asked in early May whether Obama would back Rangel for reelection, White House press secretary Jay Carney sidestepped the question, telling reporters he would “have to get back to you on that.”
On Tuesday, neither the White House nor Obama’s reelection campaign responded to inquiries following up on the question.
The sky-high approval ratings Obama enjoys in Rangel’s majority-minority district paint only part of the picture. Much more crucial to Rangel’s survival is the perception of proximity to the levers of power in Washington.
In the absence of clear political differences and in the interest of not offending Rangel’s loyal supporters — many of whom have been voting for him their entire adult lives — Rangel’s opponents have been left with just one compelling argument: that after 21 terms, Rangel is no longer the most effective advocate for the district’s residents.
But if Rangel can persuade voters that only he has the deep network of alliances — both in Washington and among the district’s business owners, clergymen and nonprofit leaders — he could win the messaging battle over who can best bring home the goods for New York.
“It comes down to old alliances versus new alliances,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist living in Rangel’s district.
Democrats in New York say Rangel has the edge in organization and establishment support, but acknowledge the June 26 primary could go either way — especially because the state moved up the primary date, forcing voters to break their habit of heading to the polls in September.
Rangel has faced primary challenges before, but in previous cycles, the anti-Rangel vote has been diffused among several candidates, and no contender has emerged as the clear alternative to Rangel and his dynasty.
This time, that challenger has materialized in the form of Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American state lawmaker who represents much of the same territory as Rangel. The redrawn district is majority-Hispanic — an advantage for Espaillat — and includes areas of the Bronx that Rangel has never represented.
“One of Rangel’s arguments is he’s been there a long time, he’s got clout, he’s got seniority, he’s delivered for the district,” said Smikle, who is unaffiliated in the race. “What Adriano has to say is ‘I’ll deliver too, and guess what? He doesn’t have as much clout as he used to.’ ”
Debates between Rangel and his primary opponents, who have been unable to draw major policy distinctions with Rangel, have underlined the political homogeny of the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Rangel said in an interview that Espaillat was running for no other reason than because he wanted to be a member of Congress, noting that he has yet to criticize anything about Rangel’s years of service.
Espaillat spokesman Ibrahim Khan took issue with that characterization, but was unable to point to any specific issues or votes where Espaillat disagreed with the congressman.
“We have said consistently it’s not enough to vote the right way. You have to lead the right way — and that’s the problem with the incumbent,” said Khan.
That Rangel has suffered a fall from grace is difficult to deny. In an interview, the congressman recalled the major milestones he has witnessed during his tenure in the House: the formation by Rangel and his colleagues of the Congressional Black Caucus, his ascent to become the first African-American to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and the election of the first black president in 2008.
Forty-two years after Rangel was first elected, the CBC roster has been replaced by a younger generation of leaders — only Rangel and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) remain from the group’s founding members. And Rangel no longer holds the gavel at committee meetings; he stepped down as chairman amid ethics allegations that led to his censure by the House in 2010.
If he wins another term, it seems unlikely Rangel could reclaim the status and power he once had. Asked whether he would seek to chair Ways and Means again, Rangel pointed to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), whose aspirations to lead the House Financial Services Committee have also been hobbled by ethics issues.
“There are questions about her chairmanship,” Rangel said. “And so the political climate is going to be decided after November.”
Rangel and Waters have both accused the House Ethics Committee of treating them unfairly, hoping an inquiry into whether the panel violated Waters’s due-process rights could lead to vindication for both members.
But last week the committee cleared itself of any wrongdoing — a move that Rangel suggested represented a “violation of the Constitution, but [also] a deliberate attempt to distort the facts.”
“It shows, really, the complete disregard that the committee has for the rights of people, including members,” Rangel said.
Robert Weiner, a former Rangel aide, said Rangel remains an effective spokesman for the groups whose interests he has always championed: the poor, the racially oppressed and the politically disenfranchised.
“But the one thing about Charlie is he really doesn’t learn the lesson about being contrite,” said Weiner. “Then again, I don’t know that’s what his district wants from him.”