- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Less than a decade ago, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel tore through any opponents in his re-election campaigns, stalking through the primaries and pouncing on double-digit victories that returned him to the House of Representatives time and time again for more than 40 years.

But in recent years, it’s “The Lion” of Harlem who’s been hunted.

An ethics scandal over taxes that led to his 2011 censure also sapped much of his power when he stepped aside in 2010 as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee under pressure from fellow Democrats. And in the years since, the boundaries of the district he represents have changed, as has its demographics, becoming majority Hispanic and bringing in parts of the city where he’s not as well-known as in his Harlem stomping grounds.

Rangel narrowly defeated state Sen. Adriano Espaillat by about 1,000 votes two years ago in a 13th Congressional District race that involved disputed election results and a lawsuit. Now, some onlookers are predicting that a rematch with Espaillat in the June 24 Democratic primary could be Rangel’s last roar.

“Demographics are destiny, especially in New York,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “If the demographics have shifted so dramatically, Charlie Rangel can lose.”

Espaillat was the first Dominican-American in the state Legislature and could become the first in Congress if he wins the primary and general election in the heavily Democratic district. Other candidates include Harlem minister Rev. Michael Walrond Jr. and Bronx resident Yolanda Garcia.

The 83-year-old Rangel has been adamant about what he can offer. In an April debate with Espaillat and Walrond, he was definitive about being the best man for the job.

“If I thought for one minute that either one of you two can go to Washington, I’d be home with my wife and my grandkids,” he said.

Espaillat was equally upfront about Rangel needing to be replaced. “I think this district has taken a wrong turn. It has wandered into the wilderness,” he said.

A New York Times/NY1/Siena College poll released May 21 showed Rangel with the support of 41 percent of likely voters, with Espaillat at 32 percent, and Walrond and Garcia far behind. Fifteen percent were undecided. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Of those polled, more than two-thirds of black voters supported Rangel - who is black - and 5 percent supported Espaillat, while more than half the Hispanics polled supported Espaillat and 25 percent backed Rangel. That’s in a district where Hispanics are the majority, including a growing number of Dominicans both in northern Manhattan and in parts of the Bronx that were added to the 13th District in the last re-drawing of Congressional lines.

“There’s no question about the fact that Dominicans are largely going to vote for Adriano Espaillat,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

Rangel campaign senior adviser Charlie King said the incumbent had “grassroot support” and “the people know they can count on Charlie Rangel to be a champion in Washington to continue fighting for good jobs, better wages, and health care access for people of New York.”

Rangel, who was first elected to Congress in 1970 when he beat Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., is still facing fallout from the ethics scandal. He was convicted of 11 ethics violations, including failure to pay some taxes and using congressional resources to raise money for an academic center bearing his name.

“There’s been a major decline in his status. He doesn’t have the same things to sell that he used to a few years ago and that’s what weakened him,” said Angelo Falcon of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

Harlem resident Betty Davis, 73, who supports Walrond, agreed with that assessment.

“He’s not going to be chair of Ways and Means even if the House goes back” to Democratic control, she said. “He had power at one point, but he doesn’t have it now.”

She said she supports Walrond because she believes he can address the problems in her community, and she chastised Rangel for staying in office so long.

“I would have hoped that he had encouraged, mentored someone to take over,” she said. “Did he really think he’d live forever, keep that position forever?”

Espaillat’s backers include political figures like City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, along with unions including the United Federation of Teachers and Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once managed a Rangel campaign, has not made an endorsement.

Rangel has been touting his notable supporters, including both U.S. senators from New York and former President Bill Clinton. He’s got significant union support, such as the powerful SEIU 1199, the hospital workers union.

Rangel “has always been a fighter for the community,” said Bronx resident Carolyn Smith, a retired member of 1199. “We need all the experienced people in office to help us.”

And really, onlookers say, in a June primary in a nonpresidential election year, the focus will be on getting voters to the polls.

“The turnout is going to be extraordinarily low,” Greenberg said. “In a low turnout race, every vote matters.”

___

Follow Deepti Hajela at www.twitter.com/dhajela

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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