Charlie in Charge: Rangel Allies Rally on Saturday Before Primary

Congressman Charlie Rangel at a Harlem rally today. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

Congressman Charlie Rangel at a Harlem rally today. (Photo: Ross Barkan)

A slew of Congressman Charlie Rangel allies packed Lenox Avenue to rally for the 84-year-old lawmaker today, three days before Mr. Rangel faces perhaps the greatest threat of his political career.

Mr. Rangel, clad in white shoes and a cream yellow shirt, addressed a crowd of supporters outside a Harlem restaurant, where he took a few thinly-veiled swipes at his top rival, State Senator Adriano Espaillat.

“If you had a good old horse that kept winning the races, why in the world would you want to bring in a colt who doesn’t even know where the track is?” Mr. Rangel asked.

Though billed as a “flash mob”–electronic music began to thrum once the speakers stopped talking and several sped away–the afternoon event was in every way a traditional campaign rally.

Mr. Rangel’s A-list local supporters were on hand for the rally, where a campaign truck and float idled just off the curb. 1199 SEIU President George Gresham, Public Advocate Tish James, Assemblyman Keith Wright, Councilwoman Inez Dickens and ex-Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV took turns extolling Mr. Rangel, who grinned along as the praise poured in.

“I did not know that the reason why we were able to march today and the reason why people criticize politicians is because Charlie Rangel fought in a war so that all of us can be free,” Ms. James, referring to Mr. Rangel’s service in the Korean War, said. “And oftentimes that goes unrecognized in this campaign. The reality is is that too many people are really talking about issues that really don’t matter to most voters.”

“His age,” she added. “The changing demographics. This man fought in a war and captured individuals and brought them to safety and stood up each and every day for our freedom and our democracy.”

Changing demographics and redistricting have helped endanger Mr. Rangel, however. The 13th Congressional District, spanning upper Manhattan and the Bronx, is now majority Latino after decades of being an African-American stronghold. Mr. Espaillat is challenging Mr. Rangel again and hoping to tap into a new base of voters to unseat the longtime congressman.

Mr. Rangel and his backers have argued that his seniority and record in Congress far outweigh whatever Mr. Espaillat accomplished in Albany. Ms. Dickens, a Harlem councilwoman, said the district would immediately suffer if Mr. Rangel is felled this Tuesday.

“You do not throw out your seniority just for the sake of change,” Ms. Dickens nearly screamed. “Change comes, we have to accept change but we don’t open the door and say we don’t want seniority. Seniority brings power, seniority brings money, seniority brings finances and God knows our district needs all of it!”

Mr. Rangel, at least according to a recent poll, is well positioned heading into Election Day. Despite much of the local Democratic establishment and several influential labor unions backing Mr. Espaillat, Mr. Rangel held a 13 point lead in the Siena College poll released this week. Observers, though, expect the race to be much closer: also running are Pastor Mike Walrond, an energetic but long-shot candidate, and Yolanda Garcia, a Bronx activist with no apparent campaign structure.

The primary is the only race on the district’s ballot that day and forecasters predict turnout will be extremely low once again. Mr. Rangel is counting on people like Mr. Gresham, who leads one of the most politically-sophisticated unions in the city, to tug voters to the polls.

“We are going to keep sticking with someone who has delivered for the members of 1199 and this whole community. Make it clear that there are 12,000 1199 members that live within the congressional district and we plan to speak to all of them,” Mr. Gresham said.