A Rumble in Harlem: 4 Lessons From Charles Rangel’s Primary Fight

The New York congressman has seemingly defied the odds once again.

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U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Clichéd World Cup metaphors for a knee-scraping Harlem-primary street scuffle might seem corny, but Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) may have defied the odds like an unfavored team entering the dreaded Group of Death.

Maybe he’ll watch a few match hours of soccer to decompress—better than eating his fingers into nubs while election officials slowly sort through absentee ballots. Rangel, however, revels in the fact that he scratched pundit predictions like a renegade DJ ruining perfectly good vinyl. He may not live for such moments (who would?), but he’s handled them with an envied ease, flashing his signature smile and brushing off bad fortune with a raspy Big Apple accent worthy of another overplayed Jay Z-Alicia Keys collaboration.

It takes a certain amount of skill and testicular fortitude to repeatedly stare down the fiery funnel clouds of political apocalypse. Yet Rangel seemed to ease through the arena. The 84-year-old congressman, refusing to age out, seemingly thrives in structured chaos as he periodically draws on war stories a half-century old. Nothing is as bad as being surrounded by North Korean troops wanting to kill you. Thus, Rangel dared his competitors to bring it on, somehow confident that two-cycle rival state Sen. Adriano Espaillat would fail to make the cut once again.

At the time of publication, we don’t know if Rangel’s gamble paid off. But last night’s roller-coaster primary ride clearly represented a disruptive shift felt well beyond the famous New York City enclave. Regardless of the outcome, no matter Rangel’s win or loss, the ripples will be felt nationally in a number of ways. Here are four takeaways the day after one of the hardest-fought Democratic primaries in recent political memory:

1. Rangel is still running—for his legacy. Rangel can’t help it: He’s hoping that he can pave enough distance between his last days in office and the scarlet letter of an ethics battle that left him scarred for political life. The calculation is that voter memories are short; at some point, Rangel wages, he’ll be able to strut down Malcolm X Boulevard or surf through a Google search without the word “censure” popping up. Espaillat’s challenge is personal, and the snotty glares of Democratic-machine bosses—from as high up as the Obama White House to as low down as the Rev. Al Sharpton—motivate Rangel’s quest to clear his name in the history books.

2. Old politicians hate passing the torch ... especially old black politicians. Rangel is emblematic of an ongoing leadership crisis in most communities, but one that is particularly pronounced in African-American communities, where the need for political maturity is much more critical. Serving as a member of Congress is one of the cushiest and most coveted gigs in the nation (despite approval ratings below the toilet). Not only do you earn six figures, but you also get staff at your beck and call, multiple district offices, a budget and—if you can navigate it—powerful committee chairmanships or ranking slots that give you extra clout.

It’s one reason it takes a long minute for members like Rangel and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to give up their seats, even when they represent struggling districts in desperate need of a rotation. But last night’s primary was one of many warning shots to an entrenched black political establishment. Republicans aren’t the only ones who should worry about restless competitors in their ranks.

3. Obama is now, officially, a lame duck. Nowhere was President Obama’s lack of influence more obvious than in Harlem last night. Obama—who is understandably frustrated by Rangel’s highly public ethics troubles and still burning from the congressman’s 2008 primary endorsement of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)—made every effort to isolate him.

Few in New York’s boss-driven Democratic elite dared endorse Rangel. But when all seemed lost, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a bizarre eleventh hour endorsement that made Rangel’s middle finger grow twice its size. That move spoke volumes to Obama’s diminished political clout and may have started reshaping a 2016 Democratic presidential primary where the first black president’s brand won’t matter as much. 

4. Rangel owes white voters. Gentrifying white Harlem voters who have dramatically altered the complexion of what was once a black cultural capital did Rangel an enormous solid yesterday evening. While still not feeling Rangel’s ethics lapse, white voters chose going with the guy they knew.

Rangel’s charm trounced Espaillat’s seriousness, and a great unprecedented flip of racial fortunes took place last night that didn’t go unnoticed. While embattled white Southern Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) successfully begged for black votes to save him from the Tea Party terminators, the elder black statesman of Harlem found himself leaning on white voters for a solid.    

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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