Rangel Avoids Retirement, But What Happens To Harlem Now?

Last night, Charlie Rangel survived his toughest re-election challenge in his 42-year long Congressional career, beating State Senator Adriano Espaillat by five points in a newly reconfigured district that is a majority Latino and includes a portion of the Bronx.

For generations, politicos uptown have jockeying to be next in line to replace Mr. Rangel. Mr. Espaillat, who was elected to the State Senate in 2010 due in large measure to Mr. Rangel’s support, jumped that line. With the votes all tallied, the key question is what happens to that several decade long scramble to be Mr. Rangel’s chosen successor, to those state and local lawmakers who have been good soldiers to the Rangel juggernaut all these years.

What is abundantly clear is that it will not be Mr. Espaillat. As one consultant who has worked in those trenches told me, quoting The Wire, “You come at the king, you better not miss.” Expect Mr. Rangel’s allies to launch a full frontal assault on Mr. Espaillat should he, as expected, renege on his pledge not to seek his State Senate seat. Making sure Mr. Espaillat doesn’t win will become the number one priority of those who hope to replace Mr. Rangel. “It will be time to the nail in his coffin,” said another ally of Mr. Rangel’s.

These pro-Rangel forces already have a candidate: Guillermo Linares, a State Assemblyman who bucked convention to back Mr. Rangel over a fellow Dominican–although the choice was surely made easier by the long-running feud Mr. Linares has with Mr. Espaillat, and the chance to knock off a rival from the Rangel succession sweepstakes.

“We owe Linares,” one person close to Mr. Rangel said. “He put his ass on the line.”

But it remains a question about how much sway Mr. Rangel has in Washington Heights, where Mr. Espaillat’s base is located. Even with a full-frontal assault by the Rangel political team, Mr. Espaillat could still hold on, and if he does so, he would remain the clear front-runner in 2014, assuming that the seemingly indefatigable Mr. Rangel at last decides to retire.

If Mr. Espaillat does win, a lingering question in the minds of Harlem politicos is what Mr. Rangel will decide to do. He has vowed to finish out his term rather than drop out midway and hand the seat to a chosen successor. But that calculus could change if Mr. Espaillat holds on and looks likely to win an open primary in 2014. At this point, could Mr. Rangel indeed discover that his health no longer permits him to continue in the Congress, and look locally to find a more worthy heir?

If Mr. Rangel lasts the full term, the 2014 race could include then either Mr. Linares or Mr. Espaillat (whoever wins the State Senate seat) in addition to those central Harlem pols who have been vying to be Mr. Rangel’s replacement for years, names like Assemblyman Keith Wright–whose position as Manhattan Democratic chairman and co-chairman of the New York State Democratic Party likely gives him an advantage–State Senator Bill Perkins and City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, in addition to the East Harlem pols who have emerged in the last few years to be thought of as serious contenders like City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito and Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, plus former Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell, who backed Mr. Rangel this time after challenging him in 2010.

And adding to the confusion is the fact that the district now covers a small section of the Bronx, but a section that includes the home base of well-regarded State Senator Gustavo Rivera. If the Manhattan portion of the district turns into a traffic jam, there is little to stop the seat of Charlie Rangel and Adam Clayton Powell from going to someone across the river, particularly if Bronxites feel slighted by the Mr. Rangel’s focus on the Harlem portion of the district. To wit, it is unclear if Mr. Rangel will even open a satellite office there. In a brief phone interview this afternoon, he said he had not yet begun thinking about next year.

In other words, expect the jockeying that has been going on for years to continue as it had before Mr. Espaillat made his challenge. Those looking to move up with try to raise money and their profiles, and broaden their base of support outside of their district. And it seems awfully unlikely that any of them not named Adriano Espaillat will try to cross Charlie Rangel.

Rangel Avoids Retirement, But What Happens To Harlem Now?