The race for Mr. Rangel’s seat is generally seen as a battle between Dominicans, who back Mr. Espaillat’s run, and Mr. Rangel’s power base in the black community. Mr. Espaillat is a product of that wave of Latino immigration that transformed Upper Manhattan, and if his campaign is successful, he would be the first member of Congress of Dominican descent. However, he believes the desire for change in the district isn’t confined to Latinos.
“The Dominican community has grown, that’s for sure, but I think that they share some of the same problems that other communities share,” he said. “This desire for change is not exclusive to the Dominican community.”
Mr. Williams, for his part, came to Harlem amid a second wave of change that redefined the district. He arrived in 2001, to work as an aide to former President Bill Clinton, whose choice to open an office uptown was widely seen as the beginning of a new era of gentrification
in the neighborhood. Rather than simply a contest between Dominicans and African Americans, he said, the race for Mr. Rangel’s seat is about many groups who have changed the look of Upper Manhattan.
“Over the last few years, this community’s become much more diverse and, not just from a racial standpoint, it’s become much more diverse from an economic standpoint,” Mr. Williams said. “This has been a Latino district for a while, … but you’ve had a huge influx of whites that have moved into the congressional district, Asians that have moved into the congressional district.”
According to Mr. Williams, these new residents created a need for new leadership.
“Those things make it a more complicated endeavor and I believe that you need someone who can represent all those interest groups, not just one,” he said.
Changing demographics aren’t the only obstacle to Mr. Rangel’s re-election bid. The congressman is also dealing with the fallout from his 2010 censure by the House Ethics Committee for violations including soliciting donations from lobbyists for a Center for Public Service at City College that bears his name, failing to properly disclose income and assets, using a rent-controlled apartment as a campaign office and failing to pay taxes on his vacation home.
Mr. Rangel argued he was guilty of nothing more than “being overzealous in recruiting money for CCNY and sloppy bookkeeping,” and the censure was part of a strategy on the part of Republicans to regain power after the 2008 elections.
“How does The Times now put it, I’m ‘ethically challenged,’” he said. “I was one of the major targets that the Republicans were going to shoot after.”
Mr. Rangel denied his re-election bid is motivated by a desire to refurbish his legacy following the ethics flap, saying he’s in the race to help President Obama fulfill his promise of change, and to stop Republicans in Washington from enacting policies he sees as an assault on the “stuff that really made America and the middle class.
“To see all of this just going by in fast forward. And to see so few voices screaming out against it,” Mr. Rangel went on. “I will fight like hell to be able to make a contribution. To be able at least to tell my grandkids, ‘We thought we had change and I was there until the very end.’”
With his health woes and many challengers, Mr. Rangel may not get to decide whether he stays until “the end,” which brings us once again to the question of his heirs.
With Mr. Rangel at the helm, the Harlem political machine birthed a mayor (David N. Dinkins), a governor (David Paterson), and the neighborhood’s current representatives in the City Council and both Houses of the State Legislature.
But Mr. Espaillat—who had more people sign his petitions to get on the ballot than Mr. Rangel and who just about matched his fundraising totals for the last filing period—believes Mr. Rangel’s performance in this race so far shows their days of dominance are on the wane.
“We got more signatures than they did, so if there is a machine there, it’s a machine that’s stumbling a little bit,” Mr. Espaillat said. “We were neck-and-neck with the fundraising piece in the last filing.”
Mr. Rangel, sounding every bit the political lion, dismissed the idea his challengers pose a significant threat to him.
“I swear by Jesus, I forgot the fourth candidate’s name, and I’m not even kidding you,” he insisted. “I want you to talk about who is running against me, what they’ve done—and did they ever do anything without my help?”