Congressman Charlie Rangel didn’t want to discuss who will succeed him in the House of Representatives.
“Is this an obituary?” he asked during a sometimes combative phone interview on Monday afternoon, which the longtime lawmaker described as a “rough one.”
“I’m 81-years-old, you want me to discuss what happens in three years? At the end of this year plus two. Would that make sense at all?” he asked.
Rather than deciding whom to anoint as heir, the outspokenly liberal octogenarian is facing what could be the closest campaign of his more than forty year career, while simultaneously coping with fading health and the waning power of the political empire he built in Harlem.
As four challengers line up to run against him, Mr. Rangel, who normally relishes being the public face of his Harlem home, spent much of the time between February and April dealing with a back injury that was shrouded in secrecy. Mr. Rangel’s staff initially said he incurred the injury “lifting boxes.” His longtime ally, Councilwoman Inez Dickens later said he hurt himself moving a couch with his wife.
During his two month absence, the congressman made multiple trips to the hospital, where he stayed under an assumed name, and missed over 100 votes in the House of Representatives. He has yet to return to Washington.
Mr. Rangel eventually re-emerged for an April 10 press conference, at which he said he was suffering from a spinal infection.
“At a certain age, all of us have the cartridge that separates the spinal disc and they wear out,” Mr. Rangel told the assembled media.
“One of the viruses found out it was vulnerable and bang! It went in there.”
The shifting explanations for his health issues and his disappearance from the public eye caused rumors about Mr. Rangel’s health to run rampant in political circles. (Since then, Mr. Rangel sat down for a pair of television interviews where he seemed to be doing much better.)
In his talk with The Politicker, Mr. Rangel even broke into song when we asked about his well-being.
“Oh, look at me now,” he warbled, before dismissing questions about his health and comparing the situation to conspiracies surrounding the President’s birth certificate.
“You want something from the hospital? What do you want where I was born? I mean what is this, an Obama thing?” he asked. “I’m at the top of my game.”
Mr. Rangel, a proud man known for wearing immaculate, sharp suits over dress shirts with monogrammed French cuffs, said he preferred to deal with his health problems privately.
“I don’t want people checking my ass to see whether my spine is in order,” he said.
But his health isn’t the only question mark regarding Mr. Rangel’s future. The four challengers in next month’s Democratic primary—particularly State Senator Adriano Espaillat and Clyde Williams, a former political director of the Democratic National Committee—are widely thought to be the toughest opposition he has faced since the 1970’s.
In addition to Mr. Espaillat and Mr. Williams, Craig Schley, a former model and intern of Mr. Rangel’s, and a businesswoman named Joyce Johnson are in the race.
They all say Upper Manhattan needs new leadership.
“People in the district want to see a change. The congressman has been there since 1970, the year before that, man walked on the Moon, the Mets won their first championship and Joe Namath was throwing touchdown passes,” Mr. Espaillat said in a phone interview. “I think that I can bring a bold and fresh, new voice to Congress that can articulate the issues that are relevant right now that weren’t relevant in 1970.”
One of the reasons opponents say the district needs new representation is that the shape and composition of the seat has transformed since the congressman took office.