Spend more than 40 years running for office, and you get pretty good at it.
Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York likely won himself a 23rd term in Congress Tuesday night, despite an ethics scandal that’s caused some Democratic politicians to keep their distance, and a recent shake up of the boundaries of his district that has shifted his constituency to be majority Hispanic, instead of African American.
The 84 year-old Harlem powerhouse beat his main primary challenger, state senator Adriano Espaillat by 3 percentage points, the AP reported Wednesday afternoon. The city will continue to count outstanding absentee ballots next week, but it appears Espaillat cannot win even if they go his way. (The state senator says he won't concede until every vote has been counted.) The pair was at times neck and neck in polls in the 13th district, and Rangel appeared to sweat it on the campaign trail. He told reporters Monday that he would cry himself to sleep if Espaillat pulled off a victory.
But no tears were to be found at Rangel’s victory party, which was held in an orange high school gym in East Harlem. Around 11:15 pm, the Congressman took the stage and shouted from the podium to various political advisers in the crowd, asking them if they thought it would be premature to declare victory with less than 90 percent of precincts reporting.
He stayed on stage 45 minutes after the advisers told him to hold off on the victory dance. At times his rambling chatting—a good chunk of it about the recent addition of green taxi cabs for New York City neighborhoods outside of Manhattan—was inaudible over the din of the crowd. The stage almost collapsed under the weight of Rangel’s entourage, prompting the politician to ask his heavier supporters to step aside.
He also took a few subtle jabs at Espaillat, even before it appeared likely he had won the race. "None of us are gloating about this election,” Rangel said. “I should congratulate Adriano [Espaillat] for doing the best with what he had to work with.”
Earlier this month, Rangel came under fire for suggesting Espaillat campaigned primarily on his Dominican Republican heritage. “What the heck has he done, besides saying he’s a Dominican?” Rangel asked at a debate. The Rev. Al Sharpton, among others, chastised Rangel for injecting race into the campaign. Rangel’s district became majority Hispanic for the first time two years ago, a significant transformation of the storied Harlem political power base that launched the careers of many black leaders and elected officials over the past century. Rangel founded the Congressional Black Caucus 40 years ago, and has been a major figure in the civil rights movement ever since. But he now serves a district that is no longer majority black.
Rangel’s eccentricity and pugnaciousness is part of what makes him so lovable to his supporters. Those who showed up to his party said they don’t care about his ethics scandal in 2010—when his colleagues censured him for dodging taxes on a villa, running a campaign office out of a rent-controlled apartment, and other violations. They care about the money he’s brought back to the historically poor and neglected Harlem since he began serving in Congress in 1971.
“He’s my friend,” said 83-year-old Willie Mae Goodman, who’s lived in the area for more than 50 years. Rangel supported the creation of a home for people with disabilities where Goodman’s 58-year-old daughter lives. “Whenever I needed something I’d call his office and he’d help me,” she said. The congressman’s ethical violations do not trouble her. “Nobody’s perfect. I never believed any of it anyway.”
Vincent Grant, 53, says he voted for Rangel because he believes the congressman financially supports afterschool programs that his three children—aged 5, 8 and 9—attend. “The most important thing is the kids,” Grant said.
Rangel’s general flamboyant personality adds to his 20-plus winning streak, as well. He’s instantly recognizable with his bowtie and big smile, and his face has become synonymous with Harlem over the decades.
“Everybody loves him, so I love him too,” said Nina Maldonado, a 64-year-old retired teacher’s assistant.
Even though Rangel was battling for his political life this election, the campaign often felt trivial. At a debate with his Democratic challengers in May, the congressman launched into a lengthy gag where he pretended to answer a phone call (“I’m in the middle of a debate,” he told the imaginary caller) and then accused one of his opponents, Rev. Michael Walrond, of living in New Jersey instead of New York and the other, Espaillat, of passing no bills during his years in the state senate. The audience laughed as both opponents looked woodenly unamused. Opposition research, meanwhile, has included a dramatic video of Rangel littering a gum wrapper on a subway station platform in his district, which prompted a Twitter fight between Rangel and Espaillat surrogates.
Rangel told the New York Times that he ran again at the age of 84 because he wants to serve until the end of Obama’s term. But Obama declined to endorse him in the race, marking the third time the president has said “no” to Rangel since the president suggested in 2010 that the congressman should retire.
But Rangel shows no signs of slowing. As supporters trickled out of the gym late Tuesday night, the congressman still stood surrounded by a pack of reporters, prepared to talk as long as there was an audience.