Rep. Charles Rangel has spent more than half of his life in Congress. It shows in his deep, expressive wrinkles, his greying moustache, and the rubbed-out House of Representatives Seal on his silver tie clip.
First elected to represent Harlem in 1970, much has changed during the 83-year-old politician’s 43 years in office, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union to gentrification in Harlem and New York City.
“You just have to Google how bad it was in 1970 with the slums, the burned out buildings, the empty windows, the painting of metals,” he said, referring to Harlem at the time. “It was a terrible hole.”
And while his district—which includes most of Northern Manhattan and parts of the Bronx—may have gotten safer, Rangel said that Congress hasn’t gotten less treacherous.
“On the Republican side, there have been people that I’ve admired,” he said. “You could have just total disagreement on policy, but you really had friends.”
“Well that’s all over,” Rangel said, thanks to an increasingly partisan Congress—and a Republican party that he described as “in worse shape than they were four years ago.”
Now, as he prepares to run for a 23rd term in office, Rangel is gearing up for what might be his most challenging campaign yet. In the June 24 Democratic primary, he will face off against State Sen. Adriano Espaillat—whom Rangel defeated by just two percent and 1,000 votes in 2012—and the Rev. Michael Walrond, a young, charismatic pastor at the First Corinthian Baptist Church.
Rangel said that his 43 years of experience in Congress and his personal relationships with the nation’s leaders is what makes him most qualified for the position—which he declared would be his last.
He is eager to remind the media that he was ranked the most productive member of congress by TrackBill in 2012, with 10.7 percent of the 290 laws he presented becoming law. He also mentions the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which Rangel introduced to the House earlier this month, on his website, which says has added 5,000 new apartments to Northern Manhattan.
“There’s no question in my mind that if asked, ‘Do you think Charlie Rangel is better qualified than a minister that no one knows, that lives in Jersey, that just moved here,’ do you think Charlie Rangel’s better?” he asked rhetorically, referring to Walrond who despite being a pastor in Harlem for 10 years only moved into the district from New Jersey earlier this year.
Still, he said that Walrond was a “nice man.”
“The Espaillat record doesn’t lend itself to the issues that we’re going to be dealing with in the next two years, of having any experience of moving the democratic vote in order to get things passed,” Rangel added. Espaillat has served in the New York State Senate since 2011 and was a State Assembly member prior to that.
Rangel said that he would like to focus on finishing out his two years in the House.
“I do hope, that as this district is built around me since I’ve been here for so so very long, that during the next two years, in addition to providing the leadership I have in Congress, that we will be able to find a candidate who is known and respected in all parts of the district the same way I am,” Rangel said.
“And the election would not go with where you’re living, or what language or what color, because my district is so diversified that I think I can be of great help in bring all of the people together who supported me and taking a look at all of the people who deserve consideration to succeed,” he added.
Yet already, some support for Rangel from New York politicians has been waning. While Bill Clinton endorsed Rangel last week, Comptroller Scott Stringer—who endorsed Rangel in 2012—instead endorsed Espaillat days earlier. At his announcement, Stringer said that he was under the assumption that Rangel’s 2012 run would be the congressman’s last.
Rangel, however, said that he thinks the switch was purely political.
“Scott Stringer and anybody that endorsed me that says I told them that that was my last race, either their minds are playing tricks on them or they have told me it’s not personal, it’s political,” he said.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, GS ’97, however, said she will still support Rangel this time around.
“He was my congressman for years, he is now a bit above me. He has been very supportive of Mitchell-Lama housing, he helped those tenants for decades,” Brewer said. “He’s very smart. He knows the issues and he really cares about people.”
Rangel said that now that he is 84, his priorities have shifted. He began to paint an early picture of what his retirement could look like, mentioning time with his wife, children, and grandchildren, which he says he probably missed out on because of his “workaholic” tendencies.
“I’m now saying, ‘What can I do to make my wife happier, to do some of the things that she wants, to go to some of the places that she wants? What can I do with all of the time that I didn’t spend with my son and my daughter? How can I spend that time with my grandchildren?’” he said.
Deborah Secular contributed reporting.