Rep. Rangel Campaigns In Changing N.Y. District

Two years ago, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel survived a series of ethics scandals to win re-election in his New York district. Rangel has represented Harlem and upper Manhattan in Congress since 1971. But the 82 year old faces a vigorous primary challenge on Tuesday in a district where Latinos are the majority.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

New Yorkers vote tomorrow in a primary election that will test one of the most vivid personalities in Congress.

Democrat Charlie Rangel was a historic figure when he won election from Harlem in 1970, and has been an influential voice since the Watergate hearings a few years later. Two years ago, he survived a difficult reelection campaign after an ethics scandal. Now Rangel faces a vigorous challenge in a congressional district that has changed dramatically since he first took office.

Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If Charlie Rangel is worried about facing four younger challengers in tomorrow's primary election, he doesn't show it.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES RANGEL: Everybody knows me. Everyone knows my record. And I don't think it's the time to be testing.

ROSE: Rangel walks gingerly, with the help of a cane. But that hasn't stopped him from campaigning outside of his political stronghold. Rangel has represented Harlem and Upper Manhattan in Congress for more than 40 years. This year, Rangel's district has changed to include parts of the Bronx, as well.

RANGEL: It's exciting. It's new. It's get to know me. Let me get to know you. Let's cut some ribbons. Let's get some jobs, and let's move forward.

ROSE: That's how Rangel found himself a few days after his 82nd birthday, at the True Gospel Tabernacle church, rallying his supporters for the primary.

GLEN WEISSMAN: He was the right guy in Manhattan, and he's the right guy in the Bronx.

ROSE: Glenn Weissman says Rangel's experience matters in Washington.

GLENN WEISSMAN: Congress is, to me, like an old - good old boys club still. The older you are, the longer you lasted, the more power you got.

ROSE: Rangel may not wield quite as much power as he used to. He stepped down as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2010 in the midst of an ethics scandal. The House later voted to censure him for violations, including failure to pay some income taxes and to report some income from his vacation home in the Caribbean. And Rangel's political opponents won't let him forget it. Here's Rangel's main challenger, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, at a televised debate earlier this month.

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STATE SENATOR ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: He became the poster child for dysfunction in Washington. All over the country, Democrats were running away from him, and they lost elections, many of them to Tea Party radicals. And, you know, now, to say that he wants to go back to Washington to help President Obama - when, in fact, President Obama suggested that he should perhaps consider retiring - I think is a travesty.

ROSE: Rangel rejects the idea that his ethics problems led to the ascendency of the Tea Party in 2010.

RANGEL: Certain allegations are just so dumb that I just don't want to pump it up. But I tell you this: When someone said I'm responsible for the Democratic defeat, they've just run out of things to say.

ROSE: Rangel has already won one hotly contested primary since news of his ethics problems broke. He then cruised to a general election victory in this reliably Democratic district. But now Rangel faces another challenge: changing demographics. Rangel unseated another African-American - Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. - in a primary election upset in 1970. Back then, Harlem and the rest of the district were overwhelmingly African-American - not anymore, says Kimberly Johnson, who teaches political science at Barnard College.

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: This is probably the first election where we really see the kind of fruition of this almost-two-decade-long transformation of upper Manhattan. It's just a very, very different district.

ROSE: Today, much of Harlem is gentrifying, and African-Americans are now outnumbered in the district by Latinos. Those new demographics seem to favor State Senator Espaillat, who's popular with the Dominican community in his home base of Washington Heights.

JUBEL PEREZ: I really want him to win it. He'd be the first Dominican to ever be in the Congress.

ROSE: Jubel Perez runs a pharmacy on Broadway at 135th Street in Upper Manhattan. Perez put up a campaign sign for Espaillat in the store's window and even attended a fundraising dinner for him.

PEREZ: I see him all the time walking over here, you know, helping people out. And I like that, man. I like that a lot. You see him. You don't see Charles Rangel.

ROSE: But political observers say it might be too soon to write off Rangel. On Friday, he picked up the endorsement of New York's popular governor, Andrew Cuomo, and turnout for Tuesday's primary is expected to be low, which would favor whichever candidate can do the best job of mobilizing his or her supporters. And on that front, Charlie Rangel has a lot more experience than his rivals. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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