â??Now, finally, he was giving Harlemites a genuine campaign, taking it down to the wire, the kind of campaign he had denied them for so many years. He was campaigning not only for his seat, but for his pride.â?
In his epic biography of Adam Clayton Powell entitled King of the Cats, thatâ??s how author Wil Haygood characterized the legendary Harlem congressmanâ??s final campaign for re-election in 1970. In poor health, denied his seniority and former perch of power as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, the aging Powell lost by a close margin in a Democratic primary with three opponents. The winner, by 150 votes, was a 40-year-old state assemblyman named Charles Rangel.
On Tuesday, history came uncannily close to repeating itself in Harlem — but didnâ??t. Now 82 and in poor health, Rangel won a three-candidate primary with about 45 percent of the vote. His closest opponent was State Sen. Adrianno Espaillat, with 40 percent.
Only two years after winning his senate seat, the 57-year-old Espaillat wanted to become the first Dominican-American U.S. Representative. In part, his success was due to redistricting, which made New Yorkâ??s Harlem-based 13th District 55 percent Hispanic — primarily voters of Puerto Rican or Dominican heritage.
Similar unfavorable redistricting worked to the undoing of Powell and the success of Rangel in 1970. As another Powell biographer Charles Hamilton, wrote, â??[Powellâ??s] district was redrawn to add a sixteen block area outside Harlem on Manhattanâ??s West Side. Here the population was substantially middle-class whites, decidedly not Powellâ??s people.â?
â??Hauntingâ? is the best adjective to describe the other similarities between Powell in 1970 and Rangel in 2012. Where Powell battled cancer in his last campaign(he would die two years later), Rangel fought a virus infection in his spine and often campaigned from a wheelchair or with a cane. Much as Powell had been denied his committee chairmanship when the House denied him his seat in 1967 — the Supreme Court later said he had to be seated in Congress, but left restoring seniority to his colleagues — Rangel was forced to relinquish his gavel as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 2010 over ethics violations and was reprimanded by the full House.
Ironically, Adam Clayton Powell, IV, son of Rangelâ??s predecessor and Rangelâ??s 2010 primary opponent, actually endorsed the incumbent over Espaillat. More than a few seasoned observers of the Harlem scene feel that Powell is positioning himself for 2014, when Rangel is almost certain to retire.
â??Rangel benefited from overwhelming name-identification, decades of doing favors for his constituents — the portion of his district that remained in Harlem — and a certain charming jauntiness,â? concluded historian David Pietrusza, who knows all things New York. â??I witnessed him last year at one of New York’s many ethnic parades. He may have been a rogue, but he was a rogue with style. One would never know he had been censured by the smile upon his face, the way he carried himself — or the reaction of the day’s crowd.â?