It was a joyful evening this past June on the sidewalk in front of the famous Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s. Congressman Charles B. Rangel, the veteran lawmaker who has represented Upper Manhattan for over 40 years, was projected to win the Democratic primary for New York’s new 13th Congressional District. Given the district’s overwhelming Democratic majority, the Congressman’s election to a 22nd term was all but guaranteed.
“The firm of Heastie, Paterson & Wright have projected Charles Rangel the winner in the 13th Congressional District primary,” declared former governor David Paterson, facetiously referring to himself and two local assemblymen. Most of Upper Manhattan’s political elite, intermixed with the campaign’s younger foot soldiers, celebrated raucously. The crowd broke out into a chant of “Charlie! Charlie!”
Despite the fact that the Congressman already had 21 consecutive nominations under his belt, this victory had greater implications than almost all of them: Rangel won what was generally considered his most competitive primary since he was first elected, and he defeated his most viable challenger at a moment when his political opponents claimed he was at his weakest.
The Congressman was up against a multi-front assault: rival political machines—both local and foreign—a mainstream media hell-bent on taking him down, the legacy of supposed scandals and a House censure, multiple Super PACs, shifting demographics and nagging injuries.
Rangel also faced a challenge in the form of State Senator Adriano Espaillat—a far more viable primary opponent. Espaillat is handsome and charismatic, and he is a longtime community activist and elected official with his own political machine. Born in the Dominican Republic, he sought to represent a district becoming increasingly Latino. And, at age 57, he was considered the “young” candidate from the outset.
Although Rangel’s public image reached a nadir when he was censured in 2010, virtually the entire political establishment in New York continued to support him. At the time, a few elected officials mulled the idea of a primary challenge, including Espaillat, but ultimately the only one to do so was Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV. Powell’s father was Rangel’s predecessor in the House, but he had few accomplishments of his own after ten years as an assemblyman. While the race received some national attention, Rangel won the primary and general election handily.
Redistricting and demographic shifts looked to favor Espaillat. In the past few decades Upper Manhattan has undergone a surge in the Latino population—a population that is becoming increasingly Dominican. The decennial redistricting compounded Espaillat’s demographic advantage: Rangel’s 15th congressional district, mostly in Upper Manhattan, was replaced with a new 13th congressional district that included a sizeable chunk of the South Bronx. The existing district was over 40 percent Latino, and in the new one Latinos outnumber African-Americans 2 to 1.
Espaillat’s campaign took heavy advantage of the population trends, ramming into the ground the notion that Dominicans should vote for one of their own. The campaign held rallies in Dominican communities where supporters chanted, “¿Si Adriano es de nosotros, por qué votan por otros?” (“If Adriano is one of us, why vote for anyone else?”)
Espaillat received quasi-legal grassroots support from the Partido de la Liberación Dominicana (PLD), a Dominican political party that has a major ground operation in New York because Dominicans abroad can vote in the presidential elections. Two years earlier, the PLD paid for (seemingly illegal) television commercials to support Espaillat’s state Senate campaign. Other Dominican parties also rallied with Espaillat, and even the sitting Dominican president endorsed Espaillat and helped him fundraise.
This identity politics strategy stood in stark contrast to Rangel’s preference not to stress that his father was Puerto Rican. (“Rangel” is a Latino surname.) Despite his heritage, which could arguably justify him identifying as Latino. As a result, the congressman noted in a 2012 interview that he “never really enjoyed any of the cultural riches of a Puerto Rican background,” and instead became a heavyweight of the African-American community.
In addition to seemingly not having the Latino vote, the congressman could not count on identity politics to deliver the voting bloc with which he identifies. The primary included three other African-American candidates, the most viable being Clyde Williams, who snagged the endorsements of the New York Times and Daily News, and had a shadowy Super PAC to support him. There was hardly solidarity in the black community for Congressman Rangel, and the three other black candidates all had the potential to chip away at his vote total.