Commentary: The Consistently Underestimated Charlie Rangel

The Harlem congressman has repeatedly defied the predictions he would not prevail at the polls.

Posted: 06/28/2012 10:07 AM EDT

Charles Rangel has had a number of re-election battles in recent years in his northern Manhattan district. In 1994, he was challenged by Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem icon whom he defeated in 1970. Two years ago, Rangel  faced several primary challengers, including Powell and Vincent Morgan, who unleashed a formidable grass-roots campaign.

In his most recent race this past week, the 82-year-old congressman was challenged by a number of candidates, most prominently by Adriano Espaillat, a New York State senator.

In each of these campaigns, the media — both in New York and nationally — have portrayed Rangel as though he were in the political fight of his life. In fact, the media and not a small number of political pundits have consistently underestimated Rangel, who has won every one of his 22 primary races.

This year’s race was, in fact, the most challenging for the longtime congressman. For one thing, the district lines were redrawn as a result of reapportionment. The district in which Rangel ran has become a majority Latino one, with the well-respected Espaillat working hard to become the first Dominican-American member of Congress.

On top of that, Rangel has endured the unflattering headlines featuring a number of ethics violations, troubles that forced him to step down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Nonetheless, Rangel consistently wins re-election, as he did this week with a comfoirtable margin. So, why is the long-term congressman still so underestimated?

For one thing, most people in the media fail to realize how connected Rangel is with the local politics of Harlem, upper Manhattan and, for that matter, the political landscape throughout the state. Rangel’s predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., had essentially left the district toward the end of his career, spending much of his time in the Caribbean island of Bimini. Perhaps Rangel took the lesson of Powell to heart. He has remained a constant presence in his district and is not shy about campaigning.

In addition, after more than 40 years in office, Rangel is a well-known entity in New York and a prodigious fundraiser. And he has the support of much of labor and the firmament of elected officials.

Moreover, to the average constituent of Rangel’s district, the ethical issues are far from deal-breakers in voting for the congressman. Many voters, cynical about Washington, see Rangel’s ethical woes as being as much about Republican obstructionism as Rangel’s own lapses.

Lastly, in the most recent race, there was a widespread miscalculation about the electorate. While New York’s 13th Congressional District has a 55 percent Latino majority, those numbers do not translate into voting numbers.

When one calculates the number of Latino voters in the district who are over the voting age of 18, who are registered to vote and who actually go to the polls, that 55 percent figure dips considerably, an advantage for Rangel that added to his electability.


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