(The Root) — A ham-handed attempt by a super PAC to shake things up in the Democratic primary in New York's 13th congressional district has raised charges of "conspiracy" and outside meddling from supporters of longtime incumbent Charles Rangel.
The funding group, Campaign for Primary Accountability, says that it intends to throw its weight — and money — behind Rangel's main challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat. Principal donors to the PAC — which says its focus is on ousting entrenched congressional incumbents, regardless of political party or ideological bent, who seldom get challenged in primary elections — are conservative Republicans, including a bevy of Texas businessmen and financiers.
A spokesman for Espaillat, a liberal Democrat who has served in the New York State Senate for 14 years, said that his candidate had no prior knowledge of the group's involvement in the campaign. "Senator Espaillat's campaign has no information about this or any other PAC's decision to target Congressman Rangel for defeat," said Ibrahim Khan. The primary is scheduled for June 26.
Rangel's campaign manager, Moises Perez, says that the super PAC is a front for "Texas right-wingers" who have a vendetta against the congressman. Rangel, who has represented Harlem and much of upper Manhattan in Congress for 41 years, has been outspoken in support of liberal causes, such as increased aid to veterans, economic programs to assist beleaguered cities and the Obama health care program.
Super PAC spokesman Curtis Ellis describes it as "the equalizer," seeking to balance the scales in primary elections where longtime incumbents like Rangel often receive little or no opposition from members of their own parties. "We're working to increase participation by voters, to inform them of how important it is to vote in a primary," Ellis says. "The incumbents have all the advantages in the primary, with access to lobbyists, corporate donations and money from PACs."
He adds that Rangel, having been in office for so long, has the additional advantage of widespread "name recognition."
"Everybody over the age of 12 has heard the name of Charles Rangel," Ellis says.
Rangel, 81, faces a more difficult challenge than usual in this year's primary, after being censured for ethics violations last year and consequently losing the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He is running in a remapped district with a larger Hispanic population than was previously the case. Espaillat, whose family is from the Dominican Republic, is seeking to capitalize on the demographic shift.
Also running are Harlem activists Craig Schley and Joyce Johnson, as well as former Democratic National Committee official Clyde Williams.
It is widely assumed that the 21-term congressman will retire after one final term, serving as a kind of victory lap for Rangel (though much the same was said in 2010). He has had recent health problems, including a back condition for which he was hospitalized in March. He missed some 100 House votes because of his three-month absence this year.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability lists three successes this year in primaries in other states, as well as a few notable failures. Funds from the super PAC have contributed so far to the defeat of Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden, Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt and Illinois Republican Don Manzullo. The group was unsuccessful in an effort to defeat Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
The criteria for the super PAC's involvement, Ellis says, are that the contests must be in districts dominated by one party, the incumbents must be long-term officeholders and there must be a credible challenger.
While the choice of candidates whom the super PAC has targeted appears to support its claim of being "nonpartisan," its Republican targets are often opposed by more conservative or Tea Party-backed adversaries. Ohio's Schmidt, for example, faced attacks based on her votes to raise the national debt ceiling.
"This is standard operating procedure now," says Rangel-campaign chairman Perez. "Pick out a moderate Republican to run against and then claim to be nonpartisan."
The super PAC has raised about $2.5 million so far. Twenty-eight of its 51 donors listed at OpenSecrets.org, including avowed political conservatives, are from Texas. For example, Houston construction mogul Leo Linbeck III has been a vocal opponent of national health care reform, and Midland oil-and-gas investor Tim Dunn is the chairman of a high-profile anti-tax group. Linbeck contributed $1.1 million, and Dunn chipped in $350,000.
Two wealthy Wisconsin conservatives have also contributed. J. Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, gave $500,000, while Eric O'Keefe, another opponent of national health care reform, contributed $100,000.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, was recently identified in the New York Times as the prime backer of a proposed ad campaign to link the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the fiery Chicago preacher who advocates “black liberation theology,” with President Obama. Ricketts proposed to finance $10 million worth of attack ads but backed down when the plan became public.
The super PAC's Ellis says that it will probably spend a six-figure amount in support of Espaillat, with expenditures going for direct mail or online ads. "New York media is very expensive," he said.
The Rangel campaign apparently intends to use the super PAC as a campaign issue. Perez says that voters have already taken offense that the super PAC's initiative is in their district. "People are highly offended by an outside group coming in with outside money to try to change the outcome in their district," he says.
Rangel himself challenged Espaillat to reject the assistance of the super PAC, saying that he and Espaillat could agree to reject any super PAC aid, as Sen. Scott Brown from Massachusetts and his current Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, have done this year.
"I know my opponent cannot afford to accept these 30 pieces of silver," Rangel said at a campaign event last week. The Espaillat campaign could not be reached for a response to Rangel's challenge.
Edmund Newton, a former staff writer with the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the New York Post, is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a frequent contributor to The Root.