Having failed to do so two years prior, powerful forces outside the district were now intent on ensuring Rangel didn’t win reelection. The New York Post touted primary challenger Clyde Williams as an outsider despite his having worked in the White House and at the DNC. Seemingly no mainstream coverage of the congressman was complete without some variation on the phrase “plagued by ethics scandals.” Based on coverage, one might think Rangel’s real first name was “Embattled Congressman.”
Super PACs pumped thousands of dollars into the race in the hope of defeating the congressman. The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a GOP-funded Super PAC based in Texas, decided that they knew better than the voters who should represent them, and flooded the district with campaign literature attacking Rangel and supporting Espaillat. More Super PACs popped up, including the Latino Empowerment PAC to support Espaillat, and Campaign for Our Future in support of Clyde Williams. A 501(c)(4) organization called Alliance for Self-Governance also jumped into the fray.
Yet another hurdle for the congressman was a change in the primary election date. Usually in September, the primary date was abruptly moved up to June by court order to comply with the Help America Vote Act and give sufficient time for members of the military to cast absentee ballots. The ruling came in January, creating a condensed primary timeline and scant months to educate voters of the new primary date. Even then, the state appealed the court decision, meaning no one was sure if the date was truly set in stone.
Questions about Rangel’s health and age also dogged him during the campaign. His advanced age made for easy fodder. Espaillat rattled off factoids about events that happened around the time Rangel was first elected: Nixon was president, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and the Mets were World Series champions.
As if his age were not enough to claim he was unfit to serve, Rangel suffered a back injury and was hospitalized. With only three months to go before the primary, other elected officials had to serve as proxy campaigners. He later used a walker when he could finally campaign himself, undermining his image as “The Lion of Harlem.” Rangel’s health afflictions also gave ammunition to a persistent, media-hyped yet wholly unsubstantiated rumor that he plans to retire in office and handpick a successor. The dearth of evidence, however, did not stop politicians and institutions from taking a wait and see approach to lending support, in the event that a chosen successor would not be to their liking.
None of these challenges deterred Rangel from seeking reelection. To begin, we responded to Espaillat’s identity politicking by demonstrating his own strong support in the Dominican community. We hired Moises Perez, a veteran activist in the community and former director of Alianza Dominicana, as his campaign manager. We also enlisted the help of other prominent local Dominicans such as television host Ramón Aníbal Ramos.
With the team in place, the Congressman, Perez and I mapped out a campaign strategy that would circumvent the media and moneyed interests, and instead target the people who actually matter: the voters.
The campaign took to the streets, literally. Press conferences often took place right on sidewalk corners. The congressman introduced himself to his new Bronx voters by holding numerous meet and greets at the borough’s major housing projects. Voters in individual enclaves were privy to custom-tailored fliers for whatever event would be within a few blocks of them.
No neighborhood or religious group was written off. The congressman held numerous events in Latino communities. An East Harlem campaign rally included endorsements from the neighborhood’s elected officials, several of whom delivered speeches in English and Spanish. Campaign commercials in Spanish aired regularly on local Dominican-themed television programming. The weekend before the election, Perez and Ramos hosted a paid block of television time entirely in Spanish to promote the congressman.
At the same time, the campaign targeted African-Americans because the other primary candidates meant we could not presuppose any voting bloc was “in the bag.” His record on gay rights earned him strong support in the LGBT community, including the endorsement of openly gay City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. [
Another strategic imperative for the campaign was to increase participation by younger voters, which may seem ironic for an octogenarian congressman’s campaign. The younger talent invigorated the campaign and injected much-needed energy. Rather than the typical grunt work afforded to the younger generations on campaigns, people in their twenties and thirties were given important roles. The 2012 campaign spokesperson, Ronnie Sykes, was substantially younger than the 2010 spokesperson Robert Liff, who had been writing news coverage on the congressman over two decades ago.