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.
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.
Keys to Success
Fittingly for the “Lion of Harlem,” Rangel earned the lion’s share of endorsements from New York’s political establishment. A supermajority of elected officials, including those of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage, recognized the good work Rangel had done in New York and backed him. Some of Harlem’s elected officials may have felt inclined to support the congressman because so many of them have aspirations to succeed him when he retires, and his support would go a long way toward achieving it.
Thus, despite demographic shifts, all of East Harlem’s elected officials endorsed the Congressman. Other endorsements included those of Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, plus more than a dozen Democratic clubs. He also received the endorsement of Assemblyman Guillermo Linares, the nation’s second ever Dominican elected official.
The congressman’s coalition also benefited from organized labor. Espaillat did get the endorsements of two unions: the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association and, more importantly, the Transport Workers Union. However, a laundry list of labor unions remembered that the congressman had been advocating for them for decades and lent their help to them. Rangel’s labor union endorsements included the AFL-CIO, the teachers union, SEIU 1199, the Teamsters, and the firefighters union. While endorsements from well-respected politicians do look nice on campaign literature, the unions were able to lend material support in the form of turning out their members to hit the streets to campaign.
Additionally, Espaillat’s base was more divided than it appeared on the surface. Although Latinos are a majority in the new district, it is split among Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and others. These communities, although very powerful, hardly constitute a unified voting bloc, a lesson the Puerto Rican former mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer learned the hard way in 2005.
As was the case in the presidential election and many other races that year, Super PACs proved ineffective. Out-of-state Super PACs had little knowledge of the district, and it showed: one Super PAC mailer urged Bronx voters to support Espaillat because he is from the Bronx, though in reality he was born in the Dominican Republic and now resides in Upper Manhattan.
Implications for the Future
As was the case with the presidential race, the congressman’s reelection emphasized the importance of inclusiveness: no cross-sections could be ignored or written off. This applied not only to racial and ethnic groups, but also to age ranges. The Rangel campaign learned the latter the hard way when Clyde Williams managed to gain the support of young professionals.
To that extent, the campaign also highlighted the need to nurture young talent. The congressman’s race proved that sophisticated technology and social media are no substitute for old-fashioned retail politicking, at least for now.
Other than voter files and a modest social media presence, the campaign was focused on face-to-face interactions. These were essential, given the sizeable bloc of technologically illiterate seniors in the district that includes the congressman himself. As a result, Rangel often made multiple appearances a day, yet only filmed one YouTube video over the course of the entire campaign.
The Congressman’s reelection reminded everyone that it’s voters who decide on Election Day, not the media or Texas-based Super PACs. All the mailers and salacious coverage become irrelevant when someone can speak face-to-face with a candidate and learn the real story.
With this campaign, we also demonstrated that, although there is something to be said for bringing new blood into the political dialogue, experience and seniority still matter. Moreover, the next generation can still contribute even if they may not be the face of the campaign.
Finally, the congressman’s continued support shows that for decades he has been and continues to be an effective, accomplished legislator who has benefitted Upper Manhattan and deserved reelection, just as his new district deserved a powerful legislator who will fight for it. My friend Charlie Rangel is indeed the “Lion of Harlem,” and no trumped up scandal can take that away from him.
Bill Lynch is founder and chairman of Bill Lynch and Associates, LLC and a longtime advisor to Rep. Charles Rangel.